Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Baptism of our Lord, Year A - January 8, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
The Baptism of our Lord– Sunday January 8, 2017

Br.  Robert Sevensky

“Today we celebrate three miracles: today the wise men followed a star; today at the wedding water was made wine; today at Jordan the Lord was baptized for our salvation. Alleluia!”

Until quite recently, this was the antiphon we sang at Epiphany vespers, January 6.  It expresses a long tradition dating back at least to the fourth century that speaks of the multi-layered dimensions of that great feast.  And ancient and medieval Christians seemed comfortable with this wonderful complexity.  One event mirrored another, the symbolism of one bled into the other, and the poetry of devotion and worship was rich and textured.

Admittedly, each part of the Christian church came to emphasize one or another of these three “miracles” or facets. The Greek and Syriac churches of the East came to focus on the Baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan River.  And to this day, that remains the emphasis of Epiphany, ritually highlighted by the ceremony of the Great Blessing of the Waters.  In the Latin West, the emphasis came to more and more focus on the visit of the Magi or Three Kings, as they became known, with the symbolism of the star reminding us of Christ as the Light of the world. 

By the modern era, this emphasis on the Magi or Wise Men had became so pronounced that any liturgical commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord had pretty much disappeared. So in 1955 the Roman Catholic Pope Pius XII instituted a brand new feast, that of the Baptism of Christ. The date moved around a bit, but by 1970 it was fixed on the Sunday after the Epiphany. Soon other liturgical churches, including our own Episcopal Church, caught up in the excitement of liturgical renewal, established it as well. It fit in nicely with the newly discovered or rediscovered emphasis on baptism as the primal sacrament of Christian Initiation, the ritual gateway to full Christian identity and discipleship.

This is understandable, and all very logical, but I regret that we have such difficulty in our “scientific” and hyper-rational age holding together the rich interplay of diverse events and symbols at the heart of the ancient Epiphany feast.

I especially regret that the focus of today's feast of the Lord's Baptism, it seems to me, has shifted.  As it developed in my (admittedly limited) parish experience, the day has become more about our own baptism and less about Christ's. The two are of course not unrelated. His obedience and identification with humanity in that act of Jesus has resonances with the obedience and humility that are part of our own Christian practice of Trinitarian baptism. But the Baptism of Jesus is much more than that.  It is more than the baptismal covenant. It is more than baptismal regeneration. It is even more than incorporation into the family of the Church through incorporation into Christ's own dying and rising, as important as that is.
As our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters remind us: the event of the baptism of Jesus is above all the first public—if you can call it that—revelation of the Trinity, the doctrine about which we are currently reading in our refectory and which we repeat so many times a day with our signs of the cross and Gloria Patris and various doxologies. It is the central Christian insight that at the very heart of God is relationship, an eternal community of self-giving, self-communicating, self-emptying (but never emptied!) loving. God is never alone and never has been. God has always been in relationship. God is relationship.  And the Good News of Jesus is that each of us is invited into that fellowship of eternal loving.  So despite our Prayer Book and parish practice, today is not primarily a feast of our baptism, though it surely models it.  It is rather the Great Theophany or manifestation, the great epiphany, of the inner life of God.

But there's more.  The baptism of Jesus is not simply an historical event. It is, if we want to venture there, also a cosmic event. And in some ways, it is our primordial ecological feast.

I mentioned the ceremony of the Great Blessing of the Waters. Consider this prayer from the Great Blessing used by the Anglican Church of Canada's Indigenous Ministries and borrowed from the Byzantine tradition:

“We glorify You, only begotten Son of God, born of the Father without a mother, and of a mother without father. For in the previous feast we saw You an infant; in this present one we see You complete, perfect, manifested from the perfect God. For today the time for feasting has come and the choir of the saints holds assembly with us, and angels celebrate with mortals. Today the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon the waters. Today the unwaning sun has dawned, and the world is lit up with the light of the Lord. Today the moon with its brilliant rays shares its light with the earth. Today the luminous stars embellish the universe with their joyous luster. Today the clouds refresh humanity with a rain of justice from above. Today the uncreated One is by His own will touched by the creature. Today the prophet and forerunner approaches the Master, but pauses in awe, seeing God's condescension towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are turned into healing by the presence of the Lord. Today all creation is watered by mystical waters. Today our sins are washed away in the waters of the Jordan. Today Paradise is thrown open to humankind, and the sun of righteousness shines upon us.”

All creation is watered by mystical water!  What if we believed this?

Today we are faced everywhere by water issues: Flint, Standing Rock, Southern Africa, and almost everywhere else you could name.  Drought, flood, pollution, safe drinking, water rights, water wrongs.  If bread is the staff of life, then water is the stuff of Life!  In fact that's the theme of this year's Trinity Institute.  Titled simply “Water Justice,” its website explains:

Access to clean water is an essential human right, yet such access is increasingly compromised by droughts, pollution, rising tides, and flooding. These effects of climate change are most tangibly felt by the very people the Gospel urges us to look to—the marginalized and the vulnerable.

This conference, infused with spiritual principles and common prayer along with science and solutions, allows us to deeply examine what connects us, and empowers us to take unified, faith-based action on the front lines of the water justice movement.

We are invited today to remember the sanctification of all waters accomplished by Christ's descent into the Jordan.  It's now all sacred.  Maybe it always was.  And we are compelled to face our  growing global ecological disruption in the light of that deep truth. Could this be the call to us today? Am I ready to commit myself to study and action this year and beyond?  Anyone who knows me even slightly must know how reluctant I am to bring contemporary political and social issues into the assembly, especially the Eucharistic assembly.   I find myself very often in sympathy with that extraordinary Anglican teacher Evelyn Underhill who wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury on the eve of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, reminding him that the world was not especially hungry for what the church was immediately preoccupied with. As Underhill put it in her letter:

“May it please your Grace […] I desire to humbly suggest that the interesting thing about religion is God; and the people are hungry for God.” (1) 

Truth. But they are also hungry for justice and yes, thirsting for water.  And if they are not now, they shall soon be.  
May the One who today descended into the waters for our sake sanctifying all creation through his birth, baptism, death and resurrection, descend into our communal and political and ecclesial hearts and give us the will and courage to long for and work for the pure, clean water necessary for the very life of all God's children everywhere in this age. And through the cleansing waters of baptism, may the Father bring us with the Son through the Holy Spirit all together safely into the age to come.
(1) Accessed January 7, 2017.

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