Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Baptism of Christ

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Rev. Deborah Magdalene, OSH
Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

We begin the season of Epiphany today with the Baptism of Christ. For the first Christians, it was Jesus’ baptism that introduced this extraordinary man and his ministry. During Epiphany we focus on the miraculous “showings” of God, through his son Jesus. These showings began this last Wednesday on the Feast of the Epiphany.
The Christmas season ends with the arrival of the three kings, travelling from the land of the Gentiles. Their gifts to the Christ Child represent the coming together of all nations under Christ.

The star they follow is the star of the Epiphany – the miraculous light of God, breaking through our dark doldrums and routines to show us a much grander and more glorious world than we could ever imagine on our own.

Epiphany shouts: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” Throughout this season we are asked to pay attention to the epiphanies of God’s inspiration and creativity all around us – in our personal lives and in our shared sacred stories. Christ continues to shine his extraordinary light on our ordinary existence, transforming us all into little lanterns of God’s light.

Christ comes down to the Jordan River to be baptized, and emerges glowing with the light of God. The most important thing to remember about his baptism is that it was God’s action through his Christ, and toward us.

Luke is unique among the gospel writers in claiming that Jesus was baptized, not by John the Baptist, but by God. If you look carefully at our Gospel for today you will see that John’s name is not mentioned after Jesus enters the scene. The Baptist, for Luke, is the last of the Old Testament prophets, standing at the precipice of the old age and pointing across the divide to the One who brings in the new age.

The words, “After Jesus had been baptized...” omits John’s name on purpose. The phrase is meant to downplay the actions of the Baptist, and emphasizes that it is God who baptizes his son, as it is God who baptizes us. God affirms his presence at Christ’s baptism through another epiphany – the Holy Spirit, sent from God, descending as a dove upon Jesus, followed by God’s voice from heaven, proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

This epiphany, or showing of God, is the first example of the Trinity revealing itself to the community. The audible voice of God, the visible body of the dove, and the presence of Christ, emerging naked out of the waters of the Jordan are a shocking sign of the emergence of a new creation. Our own baptisms are meant to shock us, if not by the temperature of the water then by the tangible presence of the Holy at every baptism.

The mention of water, Spirit, and the voice of God also recall the story in Genesis, when all three are mentioned as part of God’s activity in Creation.

Our baptisms are intended to make each of us a brand new creation taking our first breath after emerging out of the waters. God tells the story of the divine love that created the universe and continually creates history as each individual is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

It is through the waters of baptism that God calls to mind the stories from Genesis: the creation of the world, where God’s Spirit hovered over the watery mass of chaos and divided the waters into seas, rivers, polar ice caps and streams by creating the magnificent masses of land.

The waters of Baptism remind us also of the story of Noah, when the torrential floods punished the sinful as they redeemed the faithful few who floated in a homemade ark. It is the dove that brought the good news of approaching land to Noah....the same dove of the Holy Spirit that anointed Christ. That this dove appears again at the baptism is no coincidence.

The land Noah and his family discovered rose out of the very water that caused so much death. God made a new covenant with the people – never again to destroy the world with the flood of many waters. The water that brought death to God’s creation is the same water that brought Noah’s family to the redemption of a new life, sealed with a promise and marked by a rainbow.

It is this same death and new life that we are called to in our baptism. We symbolically sink into the waters of death, renouncing our old way of life as we renounce Satan. We emerge from the waters, joyously alive – a brand new creation, as God makes a new covenant with us.

The baptism itself is the covenant, initiated by God. The water is the sign that reminds us of our emergence into a new life. Like a newborn, bursting naked out of the watery amniotic fluid, we are vulnerable, innocent and teachable. We emerge from an old world into a new, Christ-centered world where stars lead our way, and ancient sacred stories build our path.

The earliest Christians looked back to Isaiah and recognized that his prophesies had come true with Jesus – the beloved servant of God. When Isaiah wrote the words from our first lesson, he was anticipating the restoration of Israel after their Babylonian captivity, which happened in the sixth century before Christ.

Christians believed that what was written by the prophets not only predicted the restoration of Israel from Babylonian exile but also clearly pointed to the restoration of Israel through the coming of the Messiah. The first Christians were Jewish, and were so immersed in scripture that most of them had the first five books of the Bible memorized, as well as the Psalms, and much of the Prophets.

This immersion in Scripture allowed them to see that God’s mighty acts in history followed a consistent pattern, and that God is true to himself and his purpose.
The pattern God consistently follows isn’t as easy for us to see today. This is why we need to remind ourselves of God’s covenant with us through our sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism.

That is why our current version of the Book of Common Prayer places Baptism front and center and gives a place of honor to the ancient Vigil of Easter where we tell the ancient stories of our faith and renew our baptismal vows at the font full of Holy Water before we receive the Easter Eucharist at the first light of dawn.

Look at the water imagery in the Isaiah reading in relation to baptism. “Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel. Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”

The sponsors or parents of the soon-to-be-baptized Christian must say his or her name before presenting them to the priest. This first name is known as our Christian name, so that God and the Christian community can call us by name. The names of the Trinity are also called out as the new Christian receives the branding of the cross, marked with Holy Oil, as Christ’s own forever. The rainbow was Noah’s sign, and the cross is ours.

Before we are doused with or submerged into the water we can imagine God using Isaiah’s words, “When you pass through these waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you...For I am the Lord your God and your Savior.”

The ancients associated death with any body of water. Baptism likewise reminds us that we die in the baptismal water, in imitation of Christ dying for us. We emerge from the waters of death as newly resurrected children of Christ.

Jesus warns his disciples in Mark’s gospel, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus refers to his approaching death as his baptism. And invites us to follow him there.

“Do not fear [the water of death] for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;’ bring my sons from far way and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

We are a new creation after our baptism. We are known as Christians, and are identified through our love.

The ancient baptismal rite was a lengthy process. All who sought admission to the Church had to be carefully scrutinized and examined. Christians were under persecution at the time, and they had to be certain that no spies infiltrated their ranks. To be baptized was to be called to a life of grateful, obedient service to God.

During the Eucharist service itself, the non-baptized were allowed to stay only until the sermon was finished. The Eucharist itself was celebrated just for the baptized.

Once you were selected as a baptismal candidate you began a three-year course of instruction known as the Catechism. The final phase of this instruction occurred during Lent, and culminated in the early dawn during the Easter Vigil, where the entire group was baptized by full immersion and then clothed in white garments and, in some cases, given a lit candle.

The newly baptized then processed into the church and received the laying on of hands by the bishop. He then poured oil on their heads and made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with his thumb. He blew air in their faces to represent the wind of the Holy Spirit. They then received the kiss of peace from the bishop and the entire congregation.

In this way the new Christians were welcomed to the table of the Lord where they were allowed to receive communion for the first time.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit among the Samaritans. This group of Jews was particularly hated by the Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Saved and redeemed by their baptism into the body of Christ, they still lacked the vibrant sense of God’s presence.

The laying of hands is what brings the Holy Spirit among them. In the baptismal rite, it is the priest’s hands touching the head of the baptized, that signifies the same holy touch of the first apostles upon the heads of the brand new Christians.

John the Baptist is clear that he baptizes with water, but the one who is to come will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit. The first Christians understood that our baptism makes us Christ’s own forever, but it is only through prayer that can we receive the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is in the act of praying when the Spirit descends upon him. During the ancient baptismal ceremony, the non-baptized were allowed to listen to the readings and the sermon. But it was only after the three-year preparatory course of study, followed by their Easter baptism, that they were finally allowed to pray with the congregation.

Those early Christians took the story of Jesus’ baptism literally. He emerged from the waters of his baptism and immediately began to pray. The early Christians reserved the right to pray with fellow Christians only after the lengthy baptismal process was over. Because it took so long, many died before they were actually baptized. But they were considered saved and were as Christians.

Our modern service of baptism includes prayer before, during, and after the baptism – assuring all of us of the continual presence of the entire Trinity during our Eucharist service.

I invite you this morning to pay attention to the water in our service. Douse yourselves with water from the baptismal font, and dip you hand into the water at both entrances to this church.

Watch the water being poured into the wine at the preparation of the Eucharist. This represents the water of our creation, our baptism, and the water of Jesus’ first miracle that he turned miraculously into wine. The water that flowed from his side at his death becomes the mixture of water and wine that we drink.

We gather together this morning to remember Christ’s baptism as a sign for us to follow. May we pay attention to all of God’s signs, sent to us, because of God’s abiding and eternal love.

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