Readings: 1st Sunday of Epiphany

02 January 2015

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The Baptism of Christ

1st Sunday of Epiphany

Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11

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 

ALL four Gospels record the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3.13-17, Mark 1.4-11, Luke 3.21-22, John 1.29-34). That suggests immediately the importance of the event, but it also presents us with a puzzle. Is what happens at the Jordan about Jesus or about baptism?

That question has been sharpened by continually growing historical and liturgical interest in baptism, its origins, meaning, and ceremonial. For the first generations of Christians, however, it may not have made much sense to try to separate the significance of Jesus from the significance of his baptism.

In the space of eight verses, Mark manages to use words with their root in "baptise" six times. This event mattered. Why it mattered did not have so much to do with the way in which it was done, as with the fact that it was Jesus undergoing the kind of baptism John offered to all who came to him. In the midst of a common experience, he is publicly acknowledged as the Son of God.

The effect of that public acknowledgement is easy to miss in the Gospel accounts, which concentrate on the dynamic between Jesus and John the Baptist, and the proclamation from heaven which accompanies Jesus's emergence from the water: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1.11, Matthew 3.17, Luke 3.22).

Happily, the artistic imagination was more alert. The 17th-century painter Nicholas Poussin produced two series of works depicting the Seven Sacraments. Both of the "Baptism" paintings show John baptising Jesus in the presence of a number of awestruck people who are pointing at the descending dove. In the earlier version, it is clear that these are fellow baptismal candidates, so distracted that they have not even put all their clothes on again. Perhaps Poussin had worked closely with the Marcan narrative, with its vivid description of "the heavens torn apart", to achieve such a tangible sense of alarm. The later interpretation is calmer and more decorous; but the point of both is that there were enough people there to stand as witnesses. In future, their testimony might count.

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Yet, what people think they have seen and heard is often subjective. Whoever took the good news to the baffled Ephesians with whom Paul tried to discuss the Holy Spirit (Acts 19.1-7) had not grasped that, after the baptism of Jesus, there is only one baptism.

Paul's brisk account of the difference Jesus makes to baptism may be one of the earliest records of a form of catechism. The words were simple and direct, but they conveyed this truth: that, as with every other human institution Jesus shared, baptism, too, is transformed. It is no longer just about repentance (Mark 1.4), but about the gift of the Spirit. It is the first hint of the glory that he is prepared to share with humanity, made more explicit when he is transfigured in the presence of three disciples and once more acknowledged as the beloved Son of God (Mark 9.2-8, and see Matthew 17.1-9, Luke 9.28-36).

This is the promise that Christians are invited to claim through their baptism. Though the first verses of Genesis in modern translations do not evoke the idea of a hovering dove as the Authorised Version did (Genesis 1.2 "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters"), that loss is redeemed in the gain of a stronger typological relationship with the profound sense of Jesus's baptism. God the Creator speaks into something that is almost too difficult to describe, even to an audience that has seen satellite images of distant galaxies and been introduced to scientific arguments for the origin of the universe - "a formless void" (Genesis 1.2).

The first move in resolving this dark, unstructured mass is the creation of light, an astonishing achievement summed up with beautiful understatement as "the first day" (Genesis 1.5). That first day is recapitulated in the way Mark positions Jesus's baptism as the very first thing that happens to him. It is the event that reveals his identity and empowers him for his earthly ministry.

For those who are "born again by water and the Spirit" (collect of the day) in baptism, and thereby also made sharers in Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6.3-4), it is a momentous first day: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5.17).

Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain and Research Assistant to the Bishop of Ely, and a Visiting Scholar of Sarum College.

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