This is always a strange time of year in the life of the Church. Even without this year’s COVID disruptions and myriad other anxieties, this season of Christmas and Epiphany is more nuanced than it would seem. While at first glance this should be a time of straightforward joy as we celebrate the Birth of Jesus at Christmas, the coming of the Wise Ones at Epiphany, and today the Baptism of Our Lord (a head-spinning transition from Jesus’ infancy to adulthood in the span of days,) a closer look at the liturgical calendar reveals that there is more going on in these couple of weeks than we usually notice. Perhaps it is natural that we would tend to soft-pedal our commemorations of the Martyrdoms of St. Steven and St. Thomas Becket, and the murder of all male children under the age of two by King Herod, known as the Slaughter of the Innocents.
We would just as soon look away from these scenes of violence in the life of our faith, especially at a time of joy and hope. But as most of us can attest, the path of faith has never been free of grief. The world into which Jesus was born was one that cried out for hope; it was into a broken world, not a perfect one, that he came to show the way of compassion, healing, and reconciliation. So it is right that we should hold in prayerful tension the joy and pain–the love and loss, the creativity and chaos–of this season. It is the way of Creation; it is the way of Incarnation, this weaving together of contradiction and seeming paradox into the rich, mysterious, and complex wholeness that is life in God.
Today’s Gospel uniquely portrays this tension in Luke’s story of the baptism of Jesus, depicting its complexity in a way that the other Evangelists do not. All four Evangelists felt the encounter between Jesus and John at the Jordan to be of great enough importance to be included in their Gospels, which is significant, because each had their own literary and theological priorities and audiences. Luke was no different; but unlike Matthew, Mark, and John, Luke didn’t exclusively set Jesus apart as Messiah/Holy One; he alone used his narrative and its context to locate Jesus also as part of the human condition.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…
You can almost picture a line of people waiting to be baptized by John, with Jesus practically unnoticed among them. Luke doesn’t single him out for a particular conversation with John, as occurs in Matthew’s Gospel, in which John protests that he is not worthy to baptize Jesus, and Jesus responds that it must be done “to fulfill all righteousness.” And unlike in Mark’s account, in which Jesus and John are shown alone together, Luke shows Jesus as one of a crowd of people massed at the river; standing among the repentant, the seeking, and the yearning. This is where Luke tells us that we will find Jesus: not at the front of the line, but praying—and only Luke notes that he is praying–among the people of God.
Luke also locates Jesus uniquely within the narrative context, and as is often the case with our Lectionary, we can only see it through what we do not hear in today’s passage. First, there are the missing verses: our reading skips verses 18-20, which tell of John’s arrest and imprisonment by Herod. This is not a non sequitur; it functions to transition John off the stage to make way for Jesus’ ministry. It is also another reminder to us that the world at that time was not a safe or just place. It was desperately in need of a Messiah and his prayers.
Second, if we were to read further than today’s story, the next fifteen verses comprise a genealogy of Jesus: seventy-six generations (if I counted correctly) between Jesus, son of Joseph–“as was thought”, Luke writes– all the way back to Adam, son of God. It is a fascinating lineage that includes both divine and human; presenting a family context that holds in tension both inspiring figures, like David, Jacob, and Noah, and flawed ones, like…David, Jacob, and Noah. Luke shows us seventy-six generations, and Jesus is right there in line with all of them, amidst all of the complexity of the human condition as well as in human/divine relationship.
…the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
Characteristic of Luke, the Spirit blows and weaves and entwines Her way throughout his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles. Again unique to Luke, the Spirit alights, not simply in response to Jesus’ baptism, but also in conjunction with his prayer: Jesus in prayer, and in active relationship with the Spirit, are hallmarks of Luke’s work. And here again we see an interweaving of worlds— in this case a “thin place” of mutual participation between divine and human—between Lover and Beloved; mediated by the Love-Sharer.
So Luke has offered to us here a nuanced portrait of Jesus; of a human being, yet revealed as Messiah, as Beloved; part of the world as well as set apart from it, and at his baptism called to challenge the world as well as to save it.
What might this mean for our baptism?
Baptism is one of the most ancient traditions of the Church—a rite of initiation into the Body of Christ. In the earliest liturgies candidates for baptism, after a long period of preparation, were immersed in water, symbolically dying with Christ, and then emerging from the water, raised to new life in Christ. Nowadays and in the Anglican tradition full immersion has been replaced by sprinkling of water on the head, and it is often our practice to baptize infants and children. But regardless of age and the amount of water, our baptism is a participation in the life of Our Lord. This gathering with the community in the thin space of water and the Spirit; this welcoming into the arms of the Household of God, is a source of great joy and absolutely cause for celebration.
I’d like to re-emphasize here that baptism is about an irrevocable relationship with God; about initiation and adoption into the Body of Christ. While there are other traditions, and even other members of our own tradition, that view baptism foremost as a cleansing of sin (and our Prayer Book admittedly does include this outdated language), this isn’t a primary consideration. If adults are being baptized, certainly a discussion of repentance and letting go–the biblical “burning away” of the chaff that comes between us and God– would be appropriate. But I will never tell a parent that their infant or young child needs to be baptized in order to eliminate the stain of original sin or in order to keep them from going to Hell. Baptism is less about cleansing a person from sin than it is about equipping a person to participate in the Dream of God for the healing of a sinful world.
Yes, it is a sinful world, full of suffering of innocents and martyrs, but it is also a beautiful world, abounding with the joy heralded by angels. We have been baptized into the life of the One who stands with us as he did at the River Jordan—among the repentant, the seeking, and those yearning to be part of the healing of the world. And just as Jesus stands with us on the shore, we are raised from the depths with him, and hear ourselves called “Beloved.”