Second Sunday after Epiphany
The Gospel. Mark 1. 1.
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the Prophets; Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight; John did baptize in the wilderness and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; and preached, saying: There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him; and there came a voice from heaven, saying: Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
As some of you may know in the Eastern Church the Baptism of Christ is commemorated on the Feast of the Epiphany. Well, today is, obviously, the day that we Anglican Catholics, along with many other Western Catholics, celebrate the same event.
Now on the surface of it, today’s Gospel lesson seems to be nothing more than a logical next step in our lectionary for the year; after all, we’ve just gotten through Christmas and Jesus’ infancy, including the visit of the Magi. And you will also recall that the last weeks Gospel lesson (on the Feast of the Holy Family) told us about Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem with his parents, when he was just twelve years old; and his experience with the teachers in the Temple.
So we might be tempted to dismiss this recounting of Christ’s Baptism as being merely the next chronological “stepping stone” towards the real “meat” of the Gospels; which are the stories that we will hear throughout the rest of the year about the life and teachings of Jesus. But if we do this, we risk missing the real significance of this singular event.
Remember first of all, that we are still in the Epiphany season, the time of year where we contemplate the Manifestation of Our Lord to the world; a time when we humbly consider the Revelation of the Son of God in the human person of Jesus Christ. And of course, this is one of the most significant points about his Baptism.
The baptism that St. John Baptist performed was really somewhat radical in its time; not just because it was one of repentance, but because the Jews of his day were used to thinking that this ritual was necessary only for Gentile converts to Judaism. But John had somehow convinced many Jews that they too needed to be washed in order to return to God. His following was quite large, due in no small part to the fact that he also preached the coming of the Promised One; the Messiah. And then, one day, along comes this carpenters son, this Jesus of Nazareth, and he gets in line to be baptized.
Today it is easy for us to scratch our heads and wonder at this; why would Our Lord and Savior, the Son of God, submit to this baptism of repentance? Whatever would “he who was without sin” have need to repent of? Indeed, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, even The Baptist questions this, (Matthew 3:14, “But John forbad him saying, I have need to be baptized of THEE, and comest thou to ME?”). St. John is basically saying, “hey, YOU should be baptizing ME, not the other way round”!
But the answer Jesus gives John in that same Gospel is earth-shaking; “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Or as I like to interpret it, “John, YOU know, and I know, but THEY don’t know, so we need to show them”. And so they are shown two things.
First, by submitting to the Baptism of John, Jesus of Nazareth, who is God Incarnate, shows himself to be wholly human by identifying himself with the human experience. It is an example that he will repeat throughout his remaining years on Earth; concluding with his very human suffering and death. He experiences everything that we would in our mortal lives; including joy, pain, contentment, and anguish. He submits to all that comes with being fully human; and by doing so, Our Lord shows that he is as human as those whom he has come to redeem.
And second, as required by the rules of this kind of baptism, a confession is made. But it is not a confession made by a penitent sinner who is seeking to be cleansed; rather it is a confession made by the one who cleanses us all. “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him; and there came a voice from heaven, saying: Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”. Yes, this is a confession made by God Himself.
Now believe it or not, but this particular passage was one of the inspirations for a heresy known as “adoptionism”. Adoptionists would basically have you believe that God was looking around the ancient Middle East one day and having found this carpenters child said to Himself, “oh, he’s a good boy; I’ll give him some divine power and make him my Son”. Let me assure you that nothing can be further from the truth; nor is there any supporting evidence for it in any of the Gospels or in the rest of Holy Scripture.
No, this was not a Father adopting a Son, but rather THE Father acknowledging His Son, His Messiah, His Incarnation. The spirit that descends on Jesus, God’s Spirit, is that same Holy Spirit that the Baptist had predicted;” but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Mark 1:8). And that spirit then comes in the form of a dove, a symbol of purity and gentleness; showing us just what kind of Messiah this will be.
Further, as Jesus baptism is completed and he comes up out of the waters of Jordan, St. Mark tells us that the heavens are opened above Jesus; literally “torn apart”, “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened“ (Mark 1:10). To this point in time, heaven had been closed to sinners. But now, at the baptism of Christ, heaven is thrown open and made accessible to all those who are penitent. And then, of course, God speaks “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased“.
What St. John Baptist and the others there saw, and what we are witness to here today, is the beginning of Our Lord’s earthly ministry, and the practical end of John’s. The transition is made from the Old Testament, John being the last of the Old Testament prophets, to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The Baptist is given the sign that he’s been waiting for; and he knows that all has been fulfilled. The Messiah has come, and it is now time to defer to him; as the Baptist is quoted in St. John’s Gospel, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).
All too often, we tend to focus on the major holidays in the Church’s year, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and we think of them as being the only events that hold any real significance. It is for these “holidays” that we will usually spend time in preparation or contemplation; and it is good that we do. But we must remember also all those other events in the life of Our Lord that hold significance because of what they mean for the Revelation of God.
And so today, we do not simply commemorate the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth; we also celebrate the life and witness of God’s messenger, St. John Baptist; we celebrate the beginning of the earthly ministry of Our Lord and the Gospel that we have received as a result; we celebrate the humanity of God’s Incarnate Word; and we celebrate the opening of Heaven to all who truly repent and believe in him.
And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him; and there came a voice from heaven, saying: Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.