There are three great themes of Christ’s manifestation which are played out over the Epiphany season: the coming and worship of the Gentile Magi, the baptism of Jesus with the manifestation of the Holy Trinity, and the first sign at Cana in which water is turned to wine. Today we deal with the second, Jesus’ baptism, as recorded so succinctly in St. Mark’s Gospel.
Mark begins his Gospel wedding a prophecy from Malachi “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” with Isaiah: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” They are prophecies about Jesus only peripherally. They first deal with the Forerunner John, who, as Mark says “did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” He describes the context; all Judea and Jerusalem are going to John, who is clothed like Elijah, a wilderness prophet who points to the One who is coming. With John’s baptism the old covenant ends and the new begins. He is the crown of all the prophetic tradition – “among those born of women there is none greater than John.”
His baptism of repentance was the sign and seal of repentance for all whom God was calling through grace to inherit the promise made to Abraham, to bring them to the grace of remission of sins in Christ.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem describes the repentance John called for as like a snake shedding its old skin by pushing through a narrow place. Repentance must first acknowledge sin that grace may blot it out. So this baptism of repentance with water is the last act under the law, and the baptism of the Spirit is the first act under grace in Christ.
In the opening of heaven, the reconciliation through the Redeemer by the Spirit between Creator and creation, between the visible and the invisible, is begun,. The Spirit, like a dove, hovering over the baptismal waters of the Jordan precedes the Father’s voice, just as it did as the Spirit hovered over the primordial waters before the Word was uttered “Let there be light.’ Here the Light is come in the form of a man, the beloved begotten in eternity by the Father. The source of all the graces of baptism comes Himself to be baptized, to be made known to the world by the testimony of the prophet.
An application of all this is made in our epistle today. There we are reminded that we have each already been gifted by God according to His grace. We tend to forget that our spiritual journey is primarily one of discovery of what is already in us by the Holy Spirit. We are not on a moral path to perfection, but a healing path to spiritual sight. As we discover and use what is already given by God, we will begin to manifest the kinds of life St. Paul speaks of this morning.
No amount of moral striving can produce the kind of love he describes. It is by walking in what we have been given, in remembering who we are that we begin to manifest the life of Christ which is already in us by His Spirit. Only our transformation by grace can bring us to the place of loving without hypocrisy, blessing them which persecute us, being of one mind toward each other. And all this brings us back to Baptism. “All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Repentance brings us to Christ’s baptism by the Spirit, and this has placed in us all that is necessary for us to become like Christ. Our task is to discover it within and then to allow it to manifest in our lives. How we come to this is alluded to in the final line from our epistle: “Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate” It is that familiar virtue of humility which brings us to the place of love.
The Church is often described as a hospital, a place for the healing of our souls – yet we forget that when we are in the hospital, we are generally not experiencing pleasure – like some expressions of Christianity which seek only to provide rather empty comfort or an emotional high to those who present themselves for the entertainment or group-fest of good feelings. A hospital is, despite all medical attempts to cloak it, a place of pain, at least initially.
There is pain involved both in our disease or injury, and often in the treatment required to heal it or mend it. And so it is with the Church to a degree. Yes, there is comfort in worship – but there is also the pain of recognition of our sin, of how far we are from our full experience of our union with God which is the goal of our salvation in Christ. The pain of dismantling our long-established patterns of self-love, vanity and pride.
I don’t know if a snake experiences pain in sloughing off his old skin, but certainly we experience some in sloughing off the “old man” as St. Paul describes it. The pain of letting go of old offenses, old insults, to which we sometimes cling so selfishly so we can feel better about ourselves as victims of what is always to us unjust criticism or treatment. The pain of realizing these things is given to us as an apportunity to reveal the Holy Spirit and not our old passions. And there is always, if we are attuned to the call to repentance, the pain of realization of the insults and judgments we have inflicted upon others.
There is the familiar discomfort of fasting, the uncomfortable demand of love even within the Body of Christ, which is borne of the awareness that we can’t just continue to act as we always have when our sensitivities are assaulted by the rubbings that are necessary to our personal “sloughing off” of our old habits borne of the passions that have been established in us by sin.
But, as St. Paul also reminds us – none of this is worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. The Son in whom the Father is well-pleased is the same Son who indwells us who have put on Christ at our baptism. Our task is to strive that He is not obscured by our own impurity or sin.