The First Sunday of Epiphany is anchored by the final Incarnation cycle theophany, a shockingly intimate and surprising appearance of God at the Baptism of our Lord. This day always saddens me a bit. Liturgical time is so compressed, squeezing the entire salvific drama into 52 Sundays and a few weekdays, that Jesus’ infancy, childhood and “adolescence” (although very different than our Industrial Revolution-created extended version) for us lasts only a few short weeks. Perhaps almost two years old for the Magi’s visit last Wednesday, a young adult today. Easter Day is (only) twelve weeks from today…compressed this year like so much else, as if God knew we’d need Easter earlier this year!
But now to Baptismal theophany! Why did Jesus seek baptism at all?! All gospel accounts that He indeed did, receiving a peculiar baptism out-of-doors from a famous 1st century AD/CE Jewish prophetic figure, John the Washer (which essentially is what Baptizer translates to literally). Luke’s Nativity narrative links Jesus and John together by blood and prophetic circumstances, Savior and Forerunner together before birth, at this moment and united by gruesome execution. Few realize that John, to our knowledge, only refused to baptize one person in the many years he was baptizing, or that one person insisted that John proceed. John actually wanted to switch places, an echo of the Last Supper Peter’s exclamation “Then not only my feet Lord, but my head and hands too!” Indeed.
Jesus persisted and John relented, washing Jesus in the River Jordan with his peculiar baptismal brand, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is difficult to convey in words how radically customized John’s baptism was; observant Jews were raised from childhood to wash for ritual purity in indoors religious deep pools called mikvahs. Torah is specific in the quality of the water (living water, or flowing water and not stagnant) and the amount. John explodes that familiar habit by dragging everyone out their homes and cities to a remote, desolate locale in the baked hellscape of the Jordan River valley just above the Dead Sea to baptize them in the muddy, unpleasant modest Jordan River there. One never knew that far down valley exactly what the River would surprise them with, usually in the “dead husbandry animal someone tossed into the River upstream to discard” category. Down the carpenter’s son went with dozens of others, coughing and sputtering as he struggles to find a purchase on the slopy, soft valley wall coming up.
And…BOOM! THEOPHANY R’US! THEOPHANY HAPPENS! The Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our Heavenly Father, Yahweh, shows up! And God speaks, audibly, either to Jesus alone or perhaps to Jesus and John and a few others (the gospels disagree on this point). God’s message however is to Jesus directly, claiming Jesus as God’s own son, and beloved of God. Full stop. Carpenter on one side of the Jordan, Messiah on the other side. Jesus is forever changed, and so are we. Welcome to Epiphanytide…with a divine bang!
- I teach our baptismal candidates that if it happened to Jesus it happens to us. Jesus receives a mission in this moment of profound transformation. Today is a good day to reflect upon our own life mission, the unique purpose for which we were created and take up space. What is your life mission please?
- Jesus also receives an identity, beloved of God. We are the apple of God’s eye, higher than the angels! Can you hear the voice of God booming through the cacophonous, vacuous chaos of our present day, announcing to all creation: You are my beloved child!! I adore you!! A good message for you, uniquely and personally, right now, today!!
- Jesus receives a destination in this moment. Only after the baptism will Jesus say clearly, “I come from God and return to God.” And so do we. When was the last time someone said clearly to you, “I go ahead of you to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you also will be.” Dear readers, at the Baptism of Jesus God is saying exactly that. To me and to you.
- The precise location of this event is hotly disputed between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli, western side of the Jordan River site is called Qsar al-Yahud, the Castle of the Jews, and more information is availablehere. Castle probably from the nearby large Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint John’s which resembles a castle, and as this place is claimed to be the crossing place of Joshua and the children of Israel into the Promised Land many centuries earlier, the Jews. The eastern, Jordanian side facing Qsar al-Yehud (not a stone’s throw) is Al-Maghtas, Arabic for the Immersion, awarded with a UNESCO World Heritage designation (but not the Israeli side) to rachet up the drama. See ithere. Pilgrims must take care when visiting either site as land mines from previous wars litter the landscape. Beware the moors and most definitely, stay on the road!