10 January 2016

The Baptism of Christ and our
role in caring for God’s creation

An icon of the Baptism of Christ, worked on a cut of olive wood by Eleftheria Syrianoglou, in a recent exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

Sunday 10 January 2016,

The First Sunday after the Epiphany

11 a.m.: The Solemn Eucharist

Readings: Isaiah 43: 1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Well, Christmas appears to have come to an end. The 12 Days of Christmas came to an end with our celebrations of the Epiphany on Wednesday [6 January 2016]. But long before that many people had returned to work, the schools have reopened, the Christmas decorations are down, the trees and the tinsel have gone, and the shopping centres have stopped blaring out those awful versions of carols.

But Christmas is not over. Christmas is a season of 40 days that ends with Candlemas, the pivotal feastday between Christmas and Easter, that links the cradle with the cross, the Incarnation with the Resurrection.

The feast of the Epiphany celebrates not one but three Theophanies or great events, reminding us what Christmas is truly about and who this Christ Child is for us.

We celebrated the Visit of the Magi on Wednesday [6 January 2016]. How we love the story of the three wise men, and how it gives us an opportunity to sing the last of our favourite carols!

This Epiphany story is a Theophany, in which the kingdoms of the world are seen bowing down before the King of Kings, sacramentally laying before him, in their gifts, all the wealth of the world. But their gifts are also named because they recognise the Christ Child as Priest, Prophet and King.

The Wedding at Cana, which we read about next Sunday [17 January 2016], is an Epiphany or Theophany event too when, even before his time has come, Christ shows who he is.

It is a sacramental moment, with the water and wine after the meal, with the wedding banquet that so often symbolises the Kingdom of God, and where the bridegroom and the bride, as so often, symbolise the covenantal relationship between Christ and the Church. It contains the promise that, to parody the words of Frank Sinatra, “the best is yet to come.”

This morning’s reading, Saint Luke’s account of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, marks the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, is also an Epiphany or Theophany moment.

It is a Trinitarian moment, when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit come together, acting as one, with distinctive personal roles: when Christ is baptised, heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ “in bodily form like a dove.” And the voice of the Father comes from heaven declaring: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3: 21-22).

The Baptism font in Saint Bartholomew’s Church … Epiphany is a reminder of our own Baptismal commitments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When we hear this story, it serves as a reminder of our Baptisms. In the Orthodox Church, Epiphany is a day for blessing the waters, at lakes, by rivers, by the sea, and Baptismal water for use in the Church. Many places around the world mark the day with a blessing of the waters and the immersion of a cross in seas, lakes, and rivers. In many places in Greece, for example, the local priest or bishop throws a cross into the sea, breaking the cold ice if necessary, and the diver who retrieves the cross is said to be blessed for the coming year.

At the beginning of the new year, it is good to be reminded of the promises at our baptism, and that we have been incorporated into the Body of Christ, which is the Church. A good example of how this is done at the beginning of the year is the Methodist Covenant Service and the Methodist Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

But the Baptism of Christ is also about new beginnings for each of us individually and for us collectively as members of the Body of Christ, the Church.

This morning’s Gospel story is also the story a new beginning in every sense of the meaning. Did you notice how after the waters are parted, and Christ emerges, just as the waters are separated, and earth and water are separated, and then human life emerges in the Creation story in Genesis (see Genesis 1: 1 to 2: 3). Here too the Holy Spirit appears over the waters (see Genesis 1: 2), and God says “I am well pleased,” just as God sees that every moment of creation is good (see Genesis 1: 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and with the creation of humanity it becomes “very good” (verse 31).

But this morning’s Gospel story also forces me to ask two sets of questions.

My first set of questions begins by asking:

● What would a parting of the waters and the promise of a new beginning mean for people devastated by the floods in Ireland?

● Would they be able to believe that what God has made is “very good”?

● Would they be able to have hope in Epiphany promise that the best is yet to come?

We drove through Co Wexford on Friday [8 January 2016] to see these floods for ourselves and to see the plight of people living along the banks of the River Slaney. Some people are coping with the sort of humour that helps us to cope and to build up resilience at times of crisis, and I have heard people with humour referring to Enniscorthy as “Venice-corthy.”

The Bishop of Cork, Bishop Paul Colton, has been very practical in trying to understand what people in his diocese are suffering and in responding to their needs and to their plight.

We can understand some of what has happened in the past few weeks by attributing it to climate change. But there must be other factors too:

● Why were so many developments allowed on lands that everyone knows are flood plains?

● Why is no-one asking who is controlling how the ESB is discharging water into the Shannon basin without having apparently managing the water levels and water flow earlier in the year, before the present crises arose?

● Why is there no apparent centralised response to crises that cannot be dealt with by local communities on their own?

● Have we paid enough attention to, given enough resources to, dredging our rivers and securing their banks, and clearing our drains in urban areas?

● Have we been responsible enough when it comes to the care of the creation that has been entrusted to us?

And my second set of questions arising from this morning’s Gospel reading is:

● What would a parting of the waters and the promise of a new beginning mean for people caught as refugees in the cold waters of the Mediterranean in this winter weather?

● Would they be able to believe in the hope that “the best is yet to come”?

I have been moved by the response of Canon Malcolm Bradshaw of Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens and volunteers throughout the Greek Islands to the refugee crisis in the waters of the Aegean Sea.

But are we leaving it all either to “those out there” or to governments to respond?

It is at the very end of the creation cycle, after the creation and separation of the waters, when God has created us in human form, that God pronounces not just that it is good, but that it is very good.

In responding to our promises at Baptism, we must take responsibility for creation and for humanity – those responsibilities are inseparable. But they are at the heart of the Epiphany stories if we show that we truly believe that “the best has yet to come.”

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 10 January 2016.


Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
Grant to us, who are born of water and the Spirit,
that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Refreshed by these holy gifts, Lord God,
we seek your mercy:
that by listening faithfully to your only Son,
and being obedient to the prompting of the Spirit,
we may be your children in name and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

15 Προσδοκῶντος δὲ τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ διαλογιζομένων πάντων ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν περὶ τοῦ Ἰωάννου, μήποτε αὐτὸς εἴη ὁ Χριστός, 16 ἀπεκρίνατο λέγων πᾶσιν ὁ Ἰωάννης, Ἐγὼ μὲν ὕδατι βαπτίζω ὑμᾶς: ἔρχεται δὲ ὁ ἰσχυρότερός μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ: αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί: 17 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ διακαθᾶραι τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ καὶ συναγαγεῖν τὸν σῖτον εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην αὐτοῦ, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ.

21 Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν τῷ βαπτισθῆναι ἅπαντα τὸν λαὸν καὶ Ἰησοῦ βαπτισθέντος καὶ προσευχομένου ἀνεῳχθῆναι τὸν οὐρανὸν 22 καὶ καταβῆναι τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον σωματικῷ εἴδει ὡς περιστερὰν ἐπ' αὐτόν, καὶ φωνὴν ἐξ οὐρανοῦ γενέσθαι, Σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα.

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

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