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Light and Water: Epiphany and Baptism

Epiphany/Baptism of Christ

6 and 7 Jan 2024




 

The Feast of Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ occur this year on two consecutive days, a wonderful juxtaposition of feast days. With the celebration of a baptism in Denison, it was too tempting for me not to talk about both occasions. 

I would like to read to you the text from Mark concerning Jesus’ baptism.  I am using the First Nations Version of the New Testament.  Mark starts his story with John the Baptist and Jesus’ own baptism.  No babies, no shepherds, no magi.

Gift of Goodwill came wearing buffalo skin garments with a cowhide sash around his waist. The food he ate was grasshoppers and wild honey. “I am preparing the way for the one who is greater and more powerful than I”, he announced to all. “I am not even worthy to bend down and untie his moccasins. I perform the purification ceremony with water, but he will perform the purification ceremony with the Holy Spirit.”

It was in those days that Creator Sets Free came from his home in Seed Planter Village in the territory of the Circle of Nations, to have Gift of Goodwill perform for him the purification ceremony.

As soon as Creator Sets Free came up from the water he saw the sky open. The spirit of Creator came down like a dove and rested on him. Then a voice from the sky spoke like distant Thunder, “this is my much beloved son who makes my heart glad.”[1]

Baptism is such a confusing topic. It is almost as hard to explain as the Trinity.  Just what is it?  Why do we baptize people?  What does it do for the person baptized? 

It is bound up with the story we tell at Epiphany. It is a great revealing.

These days it seems gender reveal parties are the big thing.  People spend money sending out announcements, throwing a party, and then doing something spectacular to let everyone know the gender of the child. I was curious about the ideas some folks had and the lengths to which they would go. One site said avoid fireworks and smoke bombs; people have been injured and even killed with these kinds of reveals. Most ideas seemed a bit like a pinata: something you had to puncture to find the answer and at the same time receive candy or confetti or something good!

At best these parties are harmless; at worst they perpetuate gender stereotypes and can even be dangerous!  Having gender reveal parties for your family dog is, well, too much in my mind.  I just want to see a healthy baby!

When the magi arrived (and incidentally the exact number is unknown and none of them were kings (it just sounds good in the hymn)).  What that start revealed to them it did not reveal to others; only they could read the signs of the heavens. The gifts they brought were gold (the symbol of a king) frankincense (used to anoint a king) and myrrh (to anoint the dead.)  The entire gospel story told as succinctly and symbolically as it could be. Jesus true nature and destiny are revealed, all by foreigners who were gentiles living in a far away land.

Mark had a story to tell; it is always best to hear Mark from start to finish, told by someone as you would listen to a storyteller. I imagine him, or the people who had copies of the gospel, sitting in a house around a fire, or maybe outside the walls of a town where prying ears and eyes could be kept at bay. 

Was Jesus divine at birth or when he was baptized, or did it happen later at the transfiguration, or perhaps not until his death.  Mark does not reveal any of this to us.  It is not important!  We speak of the Holy Trinity, but Mark’s listeners would have stared blankly at us if we held a discussion about the divine versus human nature of Jesus. What was important to them is that Jesus was in complete harmony with God the creator. Whatever Jesus did, he did in the name of the Creator and the people could be sure Jesus was telling them what the Creator was telling them to be and do.  Indeed it was such Good News that those are the first words Mark uses to begin his story.

At his baptism, Jesus is revealed as the divine son and spirit filled servant, which we the listeners know, but no one else does, not even his closest disciples. Jesus did not sin, but his baptism marked his oneness with God and with us.

What about us?  What about Dante, who will be baptized here in this place today?  Over the millennia the church as had all sorts of ideas about what baptism means for we mortals.  For the early church, baptism was only for adults who had spent a great deal of time being instructed in the faith, as well as prayer and good works.  It may only have been done at the Easter vigil, with the person completely naked, immersed in cold runnint water, and then after the ritual clothed in a new white robe.  It marked one’s full entry into the community of Christians.  We believe that children can, through their Godparents, who vow to care for the Christian education of the child and to be a good example for them, join the community.  While we acknowledge baptism as a way of  “washing our sins away”  we do NOT believe that an unbaptized individual who dies will be in eternal torment.

We are baptized to be part of a beautiful community, one where love rules and care for one another and all of creation is the norm.  Jesus was far more concerned with how we conduct our lives than what we believed. 

In a very short time we will baptize Dante.  I say “we” because we are all  part of this family and we are all responsible for him and for each other. Jesus joined with us as fallible humans when he was baptized as much as he saw his divinity.  Someone pointed out to me that when a dove lands, it is not a graceful thing.  I watched some films and, low and behold, he was right.  Doves land with no finesse or grace whatsoever.  Maybe it means that our lives as Christians aren’t meant to be like a Hollywood musical from the 1930’s, but more of a hold on to your hat because you don’t know what’s coming.  Being baptized does not make us perfect and it does not make us better than someone else. It does not make life easy; in fact it may make it more difficult as we live into being a Christian. What it surely does is make us one of the family, the big, beautiful rainbow family.

Be part of this 2000 year old movement, which is as relevant today as it was when Jesus came out of the water and heard the voice and saw the dove. He began the work of restoring humans to God and to all of creation; let us continue that work with both great humility and great joy.

 


[1] First Nations Version.  And Indigenous Translation of the New Testament. Downers Grove Illinois, Intervarsity Press 2021 p62-63.

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