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.
Some of you may know that 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 get to celebrate it, along many other Western Catholics.
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 with Christmas and Jesus’ infancy, including the visit of the Magi. And you will also recall that the Gospel lesson last week told of 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 telling of Christ’s Baptism as being merely the next chronological “stepping stone” towards the real “meat” of the Gospels, which are those stories about the life and teachings of Jesus that we will hear throughout the rest of the year. But if we do that, we risk missing the real significance of this 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, that is the first point of significance 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 again 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 Jesus of Nazareth, and he gets in line to be baptized.
It’s easy for us today 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 to repent of? Indeed, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, even St. John Baptist questions this, saying basically, “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”. 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 here on Earth, concluding with his very human suffering and death. 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 repentant sinner who is seeking to be cleansed; rather it is a confession made by Him 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”.
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 the rest of Mark’s Gospel, nor in any of the other Gospels.
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”. And that spirit 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 his baptism is completed and he comes up out of the waters of Jordan, the heavens are opened above Jesus; literally “torn apart”. To this point in time, heaven has been closed to sinners. But now, at the baptism of Christ, heaven is thrown open and made accessible to the penitent. And then, of course, God speaks.
What St. John Baptist and the others there were witnessing, and what we are witnesses 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 has been given the sign that he’s been waiting for, and he knows that all has been fulfilled; the Messiah has come, and now it is time to defer to him; as the Baptist is quoted in St. John’s Gospel, “Behold, the Lamb of God”.
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 contribute to the Revelation of God. And so today, we do not simply commemorate the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth; we 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 because of it; we celebrate the identification 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.