Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

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Today we remember the Baptism of the Lord. It’s an event that moves the imagination. We can picture Jesus making the journey from Nazareth south east to the Jordan valley, then standing in the crowd listening to John, joining the queue of those lining up for baptism. John recognises him. He’s taken aback. He hesitates. Jesus insists. The rite is performed. Into the river and under the water he goes. And then comes up. And something happens. Three things says St Mark: the sky is torn open, the Spirit appears in the form of a dove, and a voice speaks to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Who saw and heard this we don’t fully know. Jesus, yes; John yes; perhaps some others. This is often how these things are: visible and invisible, inner and outer, factual and mysterious at the same time. In any case, it was an epiphany: a manifestation, a disclosure of who Jesus is. And it marked the beginning of his public life. He did not go home to Nazareth and carpentry.

This feast marks the end of the Christmas season. As Jesus passed from his hidden life into the maelstrom of his public life, so the liturgy passes into a new time also and we listen to the Gospels telling of Jesus’ first words and actions. All this as we leave the holiday respite and go into another year. As the cycle of Lent and Easter ends with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost and the beginning of the apostolic mission of the Church, so the cycle of Advent and Christmas concludes with coming of the Holy spirit on Jesus and the launch of his messianic mission.

Indeed, beginning is one grace of this feast: beginning again, beginning well, beginning with Christ. One of the titles of Jesus is “the First”. Another is, “The Beginning.” Early in his Rule St Benedict says, “First of all, whatever good work you begin, ask him, with most earnest prayer, to bring it to completion.” Today we can remember our own baptismal beginning, and seize the moment to plug our own small beginnings and undertakings, our new year, into the Great Beginning, so that his power can flow in, like a river.

Today, then, Jesus “epiphanies”. He appears. Indeed, the Father “epiphanies” him:  “You are my Son the Beloved, my favour rests on you.” And this happens as he emerges from the water. In the 2nd Reading St John says a cryptic thing. He speaks of “he who came by water and blood, not with water only, but with water and blood.” Another description of Jesus. And then he mentions the Holy Spirit. Jesus was baptised in water at the beginning of his public life and sheds his blood at the end of it, and through this the Holy Spirit comes to us. Beginning and end join hands, as it were, and make the story complete.

Today’s Epiphany goes with water. That’s not by chance. Water is big in the Bible. We remember the Holy Spirit hovering over the water in the beginning, then the stories of Noah’s Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea and of the Jordan, the very river where John baptises Jesus. Water means many things in Scripture – beautiful things certainly. Water is the mother of life. Like baby Moses in his basket, we are all in some way drawn from the water: all biological life, our life, Israel born into a free life through the Red Sea, we reborn as children of God through the water of baptism. But there’s another side as well, just as there is to life. Water can bring death. And when Jesus goes down into the water he’s symbolically rehearsing his own death. He’s anticipating it, committing to it, just as coming up from it, he’s signalling his Resurrection. Here we come to the point. In the Bible, water is often a sign of chaos. So at the beginning of Genesis. So, in the story of Noah, the flood embodies the return of creation to chaos. In the prophets, invading armies are likened to a flood of water. In the Psalms, water’s a symbol of personal distress. In our ordinary speech, don’t we talk about being overwhelmed or swept away or flooded with grief? Don’t we say we’re drowning under too much pressure? Rightly so, if we think of storms and shipwrecks, rivers bursting their banks or tsunamis, sea levels rising as result of global warming or even the effects of too much rain. Water is the opposite of dry land, firm earth. It stands for everything we can’t control. Even if we just spill some, it goes all over the place. It doesn’t sit politely like a book dropped on the floor. A flooded house can take months to dry out and un-stain. Last Palm Sunday, speaking of the pandemic Pope Francis compared our situation to the Gospel episode of the storm on the Lake: we together in the boat, a prey to the wind and the waves, while Jesus sleeps. Water is a scary thing, just like life.

Here, then, is today’s Epiphany. Jesus goes down into the uncontrollable, into chaos. And he’s not defeated by it. He rises from it. And as he rises, he’s declared the Beloved Son. And the dove who was a sign of the end of the flood for Noah is the sign of the Holy Spirit who turns chaos into beauty and order. And Jesus shines out in another title, given him by the Baptist: “the Stronger One.” This is who he is. And what was rehearsed symbolically in water then, happened in the full reality of body and blood in his death and resurrection. Today, the Lord’s voice resounds over the water and the Lord rides the flood. As the Psalm goes:

“The Lord sat enthroned above the flood;

The Lord sits as king for ever.

The Lord will give strength to his people,

The Lord will bless his people with peace” (Ps 28/29: 10-11)

That’s what shines out today.

His baptism and his epiphany, his death and resurrection have the same message and convey the same grace.

Because we have drowned and died and risen again with him in our baptism, what is true of him is true of us. The children follow the Son. “This is the victory over the world: our faith.”

“When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you…For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour” (Is 43: 2,3).

Remember what we hear at the Easter Vigil: “I am now as I was in the days of Noah when I swore that Noah’s waters should never flood the world again: So now I swear concerning my anger with you and the threats I made against you: for the mountains may depart, the hills be shaken (global meltdown), but my love for you will never leave you and my covenant of peace with you will never be shaken, says the Lord” (Is 54: 9-10).

“You are my Beloved; my favour rests on you.” “My favour rests” – stronger than all the waters.

(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 10 January 2021)