Homily for the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism

Today, what happens? What’s happeneing by the Jordan?

There are many engaging answers to be had. I just want to focus on one. By being baptised in the Jordan, the Lord opens for us the Sacrament of baptism. And so, we can take today as an opportunity to recall our baptism and revive its grace.

It’s as if, today, our Lord released a river into the world. The Native Indian name, Hiawatha, means “He who makes rivers”; it would suit our Lord. There are Shakespeare’s famous lines, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”; they take on a deeper meaning when connected to the event of Jesus’ baptism. One of the last visions of the Book of Revelation is of “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1) through the middle of the heavenly Jerusalem. When our Lord went down into the rather unspectacular River Jordan, he raised it up. He released a spiritual Jordan into the world, a new kind of water, “full”, as the Baptist says, “of the Holy Spirit and fire”. And as result, through the deserts of our world and our lives, there now runs, unquenchably, this river of grace, provoking life and greenness. It’s a river humanity has been waiting for a long time. If we look at the Bible and science and history, we can see hints and suggestions of it, intimations and prophecies. In Genesis ch. 1, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2), and all creation unfolded thereafter. In the paradise of Genesis ch. 2, “a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers” (Gen 2:10), to fill the whole earth. As for life, here or elsewhere in the universe, it can only occur with water. Millennia later, it was by the great rivers of China, India, Mesopotamia and Egypt that civilisation arose. The rivers guaranteed stable agriculture and, on that basis, a richer life could flourish. Nearer home, would London have been without the Thames or Glasgow without the Clyde? Here’s our Aberdeen framed between the Don and the Dee with, in between, the little Den flowing into the harbour just down from here. Why did monks from Burgundy settle at Pluscarden in 1230? Because of the Black Burn flowing through the valley into the River Lossie and on to the Moray Firth. Consider the power of a great river; harnessed, it becomes electricity, light and heat. As we move through the Bible, water rises in meaning. It was by passing through it that Israel reached freedom and by crossing the Jordan that she came to the Promised Land. Ps 46 (v. 5) mentions how “the waters of a river give joy to God’s city, the holy place where the Most High dwells”. Isaiah saw “waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert” (35:6). Ezekiel (47:1-12) had his vision of a deepening river flowing out of the Temple, teeming with fish, flanked by fruit trees, desalinating the Dead Sea. On the day of the Lord, says Zechariah, “there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1), and “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem” (14:8), waters hot summers can’t dry up. Thus, the Bible promises waters which will resource a life more powerful than death.

Today, when Jesus steps down into the Jordan, all this prehistory, history and hope come to a climax. He sanctifies the waters, as the Fathers say, raises them to their highest power, fills them with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and turns this river out in to the world. Life is thereby maximised – for us. “Christ takes the lead in baptism, says St Maximus of Turin, so that the Christian peoples may follow after him with confidence.” Out of Christ’s heart, in the Jordan and on the Cross, flow rivers of living water (cf. John 7:37), and we understand why the Gospel ends with him on a mountaintop sending out the Eleven, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).

This is the river that gives joy to the City of God, and answers our deepest thirst. These are the living waters, the one great river which doesn’t just make for micro-organisms, or trees and crops, or electric power and civilised human life. It is the water of divine life, the river of grace. It is one, one for the one world, for the one dehydrated, desiccated human race, bringing it back to life and love. Into it, one by one, we are baptised- not as a mere one-off, far-off event of our childhood, giving us a ticket to the life of the Church or something to be cancelled later at will.  “The water that I will give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4: 14), Jesus tells the Samaritan woman. The event of our baptism happened once; its grace continues. God gives us our baptism every day. This is the river in which we’re washed from sin, where we’re spawned as the children of the Father, sharing the status of his only Son, crying Abba! Father! As Tertullian said, we believers are the fish who swim in this river. Or, it’s the stream where we sink the roots of our lives, and are kept “still full of sap, still green” (Ps 92:15), still able in dryness to put out shoots of prayer. This ‘Jordanic’, baptismal grace is promised everyone, and it carries the fleet of believers and the little boat of each of us over life’s rocks and waterfalls towards the ocean of God’s infinite love, into eternal life. It gives our life the current of a God-ward orientation. Often baptismal grace behaves like an underground river; it goes subterranean, below our consciousness. We build the houses and lay the roads of our life over it. But like Tennyson’s Brook, it goes on forever. Every Easter, renewing our baptismal promises, we sink a well back down to it and draw it up for irrigation. It always carries the power of the Lord’s death and resurrection and opens our own dyings to his resurrection. It secretly resources us. It surprises us with buoyancy in difficult times. It prepares for spring when we feel winter. Even if we clog it with rubbish, its whole impetus is to flush that away and free us to live and to love again as children of God. God gives us our baptism every day.

Brothers and Sisters, we are at the beginning of another year, and we are living hard times. Behold, though, the river which gives joy to God’s city! Let’s go into it with Christ. Let’s harness its power and ask the Holy Spirit to keep it fresh and flowing in our lives.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 9 January 2022


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
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