THERE is a second child in the Epiphany story, which is why it is used to celebrate the first child’s baptism — but only when he was grown up. That Jesus should accept baptism shocked his cousin, John.
John was preaching national renewal down by the river, the washing away of the soil of society, the rising out of the water, the cleansed people. But who strides towards him but Christ? Soon, they are in each other’s arms, and Jesus is taken under, although there is nothing to wash away. All three Evangelists record it: how Jesus came to hear what John was saying, which meant to hear his own herald, and to be like other men, although he was God.
The Jews liked to know their own history. Their national and personal past was very familiar to them. How special they felt! How hard it was to live up to this closeness. Their preoccupation with history made it impossible for them to be free of it, and the fact that they knew about themselves both uplifted them and dragged them down.
But always acknowledging the great men in Jewish history, and reminding his countrymen of how they had sometimes been treated, Jesus would now and then show a harsh irreverence towards the old customs and ways of looking back. “Let the dead bury their dead”; “Give us this day our daily bread.” Christ is the teacher of daily-ness, of finding nourishment in the present.
When St Paul took Christianity out into the non-Jewish world, he often found people who had no knowledge of their ancestors. Jews were most careful to know their family trees. Although all those “begats” through the Lord’s own family tree were meticulously placed at the beginning of the Gospels, he seemed indifferent to them. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” He was, as John said, Word made flesh: Light, which was our life; someone who possessed human ancestry, and someone who was beyond it.
The authorities could not see what was so clearly manifest in John the Baptist; so they sent a deputation to question him. “Who are you? Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah, or Elisha, perhaps?”
Instead of answering “I am John the son of Zechariah,” this strangely dressed young man said that he was a voice crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord. They said “Who gave you permission to baptise?” It was then that John pointed to Jesus, who was coming towards him, and said “There standing among you is someone you do not recognise. Someone whose shoes I am not fit to remove.”
It’s a great moment: the presence of Jesus in a crowd waiting for renewal, a queue of men and women longing to be seen in a better light. They would have removed their clothes and sandals at the river’s edge and Christ would have done the same. The Word steps towards John, like everyone else, and asks for baptism. Poor John is aghast. He says: “It is you who should baptise me.”
Coming out of the water, Jesus did what everyone else did: he knelt in prayer. His father acknowledged him and said “You are my beloved son.”