In the Church year, a lot has happened since Christmas, though you’d be forgiven for not noticing it in the rush. In the space of less than two weeks, the Church has celebrated not only the birth of Jesus, but also His naming and circumcision, the visit of the Magi at Epiphany, and now we fast-forward some thirty years to His baptism by John. Somewhere in there, in the Epiphany season, is His first miracle as well, the changing of water into wine during the wedding at Cana.
So here we are, still decked out in our glorious white and gold, with the pretty crib only just put away, and memories of Christmas turkey, mulled wine, time with the family and the Coronation Street omnibus still fresh in our minds. I leave it to you do decide the relative merits of each of those for yourselves. But what I’m getting at is that it’s at least meant to have been a time of celebration and joy.
So forgive me for putting a bit of dampener on it, and this might tell you more about my psychological makeup than I really want you to know, but after the joy of Christmas, I can’t help seeing in all of these jolly Epiphany stories a bit of a dark side, a twist in the tale, if you will. Yes, I know, Epiphany is all about light: the Greek ‘phaneia’ means “shining” and ‘epi’ means “upon,” so it’s all about Christ’s light shining out on us. Sure. But light does cast a shadow.
Take the visit of the Magi, for a start. Nao and I have a little one on the way, so friends and family have started knitting cardies and cruising TK Maxx for bargain baby gifts. I don’t think they’ll find any discount gold and frankincense, although either of those would be quite welcome. Myrrh, though, we can really do without. I mean, what did the wise man say to Mary when he presented her with that? “Here you go, love, have some of this oil to rub into dead bodies.” A pretty odd gift for a baby. You see what I mean by a dark side to the story.
Or there’s the Wedding at Cana, another part of the Epiphany narrative. It all seems pretty innocuous, an innocent tale, doesn’t it: them running out of wine and Jesus doing his famous party trick. But then there are those rather chilling words: “My hour has not yet come.” Imagine if your child had said that. “My hour has not yet come.” Time to call the Exorcist.
And here we are now at the Baptism of Our Lord. Now surely even I’m not going to find a dark side here? Jesus goes to John, joining the ranks of sinners waiting to be purified by his baptism, John protests, Jesus insists, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, God announces Jesus’ divine sonship. Powerful stuff, but all pretty positive, no?
Except… It raises certain questions. Such as, given that the Jewish baptism of John was a cleansing rite, to wash away sin, a ritual you could go through as many times as you liked, not a once-and-forever initiation rite like our Christian baptism— why on earth does the sinless Son of God need to be dunked? It’s not as if He needs to repent. Or another question: this opening of the heavens, this coming of the Holy Spirit: what does that remind us of?
Well, the first question can be answered by saying that Jesus is taking our humanity with Him into the waters, that it is us He is cleansing, and even that, by dipping into it, He cleanses the water itself and all of creation. But you and I know, in hindsight, that it is going to take more than just a baptism for Jesus ultimately to achieve this.
And this leads us to second question. The time the heavens will open will be when Jesus ascends into them, and the time when the Holy Spirit comes will be at Pentecost, when the Apostles speak in tongues. But of course, all of this can happen only after one event, one event that, for all Our Lord’s light, casts a long shadow over His entire earthly life. We are being pointed, right from the start, to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, here in Epiphany already looking onwards to Good Friday and Easter Day. That is when the myrrh will anoint Him for death, that is when His hour will come, that is when the cleansing gift of His Baptism will be empowered to wash the sins of all humanity, all creation. Through His sacrifice on the Cross. Through His glorious Resurrection.
This is why, following St Paul, we call our baptism a death to sin, because it is a sharing in Jesus’ death on the Cross. But is is at the same time a rebirth, to sinless and eternal glory. And yet, baptism is no more the end of our self-offering to the Father than Jesus’ was. For us as for Jesus it marks only the beginning of a life of sacrifice.
We offer that sacrifice now, in our Eucharist today. Or, strictly speaking, we join in Christ’s sacrifice through the Eucharist, in the same way as through baptism we were joined with his death: really, the sacrifice we call “ours” is Christ’s, sacrificing Himself eternally to the Father through His Body, the Church. In the Eucharist, we are drawn in to that, we participate in His self-offering, and that is why our baptism makes all Christians part of Christ’s priesthood. Our High Priest, Christ, offers Himself to the Father through us, taking us with Him.
What this means for us is that, honouring our baptism and the grave responsibility it puts on us, we must make sure that our offering is pure and spotless. We must continue to repent, and if there is anything we are doing that we know we should not be, anything that dirties the glorious image of God in which we are all made, we must confess it and truly ask God to help us change our ways before we make our offering at this Mass. There is no cheap grace; baptism marks the beginning, but it points very clearly to the truth that Christ wins us eternal life only through suffering and the Cross.
So rejoice today, at the very end of Christmastide, in the light of Christ; but get ready also to walk through the shadows. For that is the way His Baptism points us if we would reach the fulness of His glory and see the Father face-to-face.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.