Tomorrow, the majority of Christians across the world will be celebrating the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we discussed earlier this week the Baptism of Jesus was originally simply a part of the Epiphany Day, but in the modern version of the Epiphany season has been placed on the first Sunday so we’ll all be sure of celebrating it, at the expense of the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple.
One of the handy things about the story of Christ’s baptism is the fact that three of the four Gospels relate it, and it’s the same three books that the revised common lectionaries highlight each year: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark’s telling of the baptism of Jesus (which we heard last year) is extremely short; it’s hardly more than a single verse, giving little context for the preacher to deal with the event itself, and perhaps therefore turning to other theological connections to the event as brought up in the other readings. This year, however, is from Luke’s Gospel, which tells us something of the ministry of John the Baptist and more details of the event of the baptism itself.
A few misunderstandings about the baptism of John sometimes float around in popular artwork or teaching. The mode of this baptism is not related – whether Jesus was fully immersed in the river or simply stood in it and had water poured on his head. The Holy Spirit descended in the appearance of a dove after Jesus came out of the river, not (necessarily) the moment after he emerged from being fully immersed. And this baptism was not even Christian baptism, either. As Acts 19 notes, those who only received the baptism of John had to be baptized again in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Jesus instructed.
The way this Sunday is observed in the lectionary, depending upon how you look at it, either creates some liturgical tension, or adds theological richness. The tension lies in the fact that the readings from Acts 10 and Isaiah 42 emphasize the baptism of Jesus as a “missional” moment, instead of making it out to be an epiphany of Jesus to be God, as the traditional epiphany season would have done. But if the reader and the preacher keeps the epiphany theme in mind, then the emphasis on mission – a light to the nations – can be seen as an enrichment to the traditional focus of Epiphanytide.
Oh, and, as usual, don’t forget to start the use of tomorrow’s Collect at Evening Prayer tonight!
Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.