11 January 2009

The Baptism of Christ

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 11 January 2009: The First Sunday after the Epiphany: the Baptism of Christ

Genesis 1: 1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19: 1-7; Mark 1: 4-11.

May I speak to you in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Three Gospel stories are traditionally associated with the Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated last Tuesday.

The first and the best known is the story of the visit of the Magi in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. It is such a traditional part of our Christmas celebrations, that few of us will take down the Christmas tree, the decorations or the cards until at least Twelfth Night, Nollaig na mBan, or Little Christmas, on 6 January.

The second of these three Gospel stories is the story of the Baptism of Christ, which we heard in our Gospel reading this morning.

And the third traditional Epiphany story is the Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11), which is not provided for in the Epiphany readings in the lectionary this year, except in the Church of England (Epiphany 3, 25 January).

We often describe the moment when something profound dawns on someone, when the penny really drops, as an Epiphany moment. But in theological terms, an Epiphany or, as it is called in the Orthodox Church, a Theophany, is a moment when God becomes manifest, when people realise who Jesus really is.

In the story of the Magi, God-incarnate-in-Christ is made known to the Gentiles when the wise men lay their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh before the Christ child, proclaiming him Priest, Prophet and King, the promised Messiah.

The wedding at Cana is the first of the seven signs in Saint John’s Gospel, when Christ shows who he truly is through turning water into wine, which also prefigures the Last Supper and our own celebration of the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

And this morning, in our Gospel story, we have that other Epiphany moment, which is a revelation of not only who Jesus is, but a revelation of God as Trinity.

Saint Mark’s Gospel has no Christmas story: no baby born in Bethlehem, no shepherds watching their flocks by night, no wise men arriving with their gifts.

In Saint Mark’s Gospel, our first meeting with Jesus is when he arrives from Nazareth of Galilee and is baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.

It is like the story of a new creation. All the elements of the creation story in the Book Genesis are here: we know we are moving from darkness into light; the shape of the earth moves from wilderness to beauty as we are given a description of the landscape; there is a separation of the waters of the new creation as Jesus and John go down in the waters of the Jordan and rise up from them again; and as in Genesis, the Holy Spirit hovers over this beautiful new creation like a dove.

And then, just as in the Genesis creation story, where God looks down and sees that everything is good, God looks down in this Epiphany story and lets us know that everything is good. Or as Saint Mark says: A voice came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What a fitting crowning for the end of the Christmas Season: God is pleased with the whole of creation, God so loved this creation that Christ has come into it, identified with us in the flesh, and is giving us the gift and the blessings of the Holy Spirit.

Very few of us can remember our own baptism. But at that baptism we were baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Baptism made us heirs of God’s promise in this new creation. Christmas is not just the story of Christ’s birth, but also a reminder that we too are the beloved children of God.

And our Epiphany story this morning is not just a reminder of Christ’s baptism, but a reminder to us that in our own baptism we were claimed, adopted, loved as the Children of God. And when God looks down on us as his baptised, adopted, loved children, as we live in the power of the Holy Spirit, God is saying to each and every one of us: “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

As we move on from the celebration of Christmas to preparing for Lent, Good Friday and Easter, may you be assured of your place as a Child of God, a new creation.

And may you be filled with the love and the light and the blessings of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This address was delivered at the early morning Eucharist (Holy Communion 1) in Rathfarnham Parish, Dublin, on Sunday 11 January 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This morning after mass at All Saints, Small Heath I read about your own "Epiphany Moment" in Lichfield and was drawn to the stained-glass window of John Piper, which is indeed visually impressive. It brought to mind another Lichfield "John Piper", whose real name was John Alcock. He was organist at Lichfield Cathedral and his one semi-autobiographical novel "The Life of Fanny Brown - a clergyman's daughter" (1760) caused a bit of a stir in the Close. He was something of a non-conformist, criticising the drinking excesses of some of the vicars, playing a little too jauntily for the likes of some, and far too fast for the likes of others, but he was undoubtedly devout in his beliefs, and it can be imagined that he gave the services a bit of a bounce. At All Saints we have a lively organist, Mike Sullivan, who, I'm sure he won't mind me saying, served his time in the clubs, and brings a musical fervour and enthusiasm to "Let your living waters flow over my soul" and other favourites. Where would we be without the Mike Sullivan's and John Alcocks?

I suspect that the Elford novelist, Robert Bage (1730-1801), was a friend of Alcock's since there are only two books to which Bage is known to have subscribed, and one of these is "The Life of Fanny Brown - a clergyman's daughter".

Bage had a paper-mill just downstream from Comberford mill so I suspect he knew some of your ancestors at Comberford Hall. He moved to Tamworth in 1794, where he died in September 1801. He is buried in St Editha's, one of two churches where Alcock played the organ following his rift with some of the vicars choral.

It occurs to me you may already be aware of Lichfield's first John Piper. So apologies if you are.

Let us hope and pray that peace will come down like a dove upon the earth this year and may the heavens open to spread the holy teachings of the son of God. May many other people have their epiphany moments too in whatever way God chooses to move them.