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Readings: Baptism of Christ

04 January 2013

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Baptism of Christ

Isaiah 43.1-7; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

ON THE day when we remember the baptism of Christ, it is slightly surprising that the Gospel does not dwell on it - indeed, it mentions it almost in passing. Although John had spoken to the crowds with vivid words about how it would be when the Messiah came, he did not identify Jesus publicly, and it seems that Jesus simply took his place in the queue, and John baptised him without fuss.

Perhaps Luke felt no need to describe John's response to Jesus because the birth narratives that preface his Gospel describe the unborn John leaping in his mother's womb when Mary arrived, pregnant with Jesus. What is more important for Luke is that, after he was baptised, Jesus was praying.

Prayer is one of Luke's favourite themes, and his only story from Jesus's childhood has him dallying in the Temple, the ultimate place of prayer. So it is no surprise that his account of Jesus's adult life begins with his praying. It was then, only then, that heaven opened, and the divine voice affirmed that Jesus was God's beloved Son, as his baptism led him into ever closer relationship with his Father.

Baptism leads us, too, into ever closer relationship with God. We never know what will happen once we are baptised, except that we have been made part of God's family; that God loves us with abandon. "Do not fear. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you. Do not fear; for I am with you."

The first baby I baptised died ten minutes later. As part of my training, I was the overnight chaplain at a large hospital in the United States, and was called to the neo-natal intensive-care unit where a month-old, premature twin was dying. Reaching into his incubator, I baptised him. Then, ever so gently, the nurses unplugged the numerous wires and tubes, wiped his face, and dressed him in a white gown and a white blanket. He was given to his parents, who held him for the first time, and took him to a side room, where they cuddled him until he died.

I was struck at the time by the unconscious engagement with the symbolism of baptism: washed, dressed in white clothes, embraced and held by his family. I was also aware that the Church was added to that night; he was our baptised brother in Christ, going before us into our Father's presence.

That was a Saturday night. On my way home, the next morning, I went to church. Three healthy babies were baptised, and, as their parents and godparents promised to bring them up in the faith, I found myself thinking that they were being baptised for life, whereas my tiny baby had been baptised for death.

It was all one and the same in God's sight, because there is one baptism in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who was himself baptised, identifying fully with our humanity, and then being faithful to his calling as the beloved Son of God. All that matters is: "You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you;" "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Perhaps Luke passes over the details of Jesus's baptism because, for him, what was important was what came next in Jesus's life, and how Jesus prepared himself for it. Prayer is the natural expression of the relationship forged in baptism: we are adopted as God's beloved sons and daughters.

In a family where people are loved, they communicate; they renew and strengthen their relationships constantly; they delight in each other's company, and support and challenge each other. Relationships without communication wither, and prayer is essentially an expression of God's relationship with us, and ours with God.

Sometimes, I pray for the baby's twin sister, and the three babies baptised that Sunday, wondering how it has played out in their lives. Every baptism sets an adventure in motion and, this Sunday, I will baptise three more babies, and the Church will pray that all of us, young or old, will be faithful to our calling as God's adopted children.

If we follow Jesus's example, that should include nurturing the newly baptised in prayer, which George Herbert describes so wonderfully as "the Church's banquet".

 

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