We have now moved from Christmas into the season of Epiphany and while it may not be such a popular festival, really Epiphany is where it all starts. The Christmas story is beautifully poetic and comes with all the trimmings to tug the heart-strings – angels, shepherds and wise men, the baby in a manger. At Epiphany we take all the decorations down! But as we read in Mark Chapter 1, the earliest gospel in our bible begins with the baptism.
The Greek word which gives us “Epiphany” means a revealing, or appearance and apparently in classical Greek could be used for dawn or an enemy in war, and particularly for the manifestation of a deity to a worshipper. The feast of Epiphany has encompassed a variety of elements over time, including the birthday of Christ and the visit of the Magi. The Magi, or wise men, gained importance in the Latin-speaking west as a symbol of revelation to the gentiles, but it is the baptism of Jesus which was celebrated in the Greek-speaking east, and the feast of Epiphany (or Theophany) still has great importance in Eastern Orthodox Churches. In this respect, they are aligned with the author of the Gospel of Mark, who has no Christmas story and instead begins the account of Jesus’ ministry with the arrival of John the Baptist, preparing the way and baptizing Jesus in the Jordan.
It is an appropriate story for the start of a new year, this starting point in Jesus’ ministry. Although the 1st January date is by no means the only New Year date around the world, it is our tradition and widely celebrated as a time when we look back at the old year and forward to the next. Many of us write Christmas letters summarizing the year past; and some make New Year’s resolutions looking forward. Like the New Year, John the Baptist’s arrival was also a time of renewal, of looking back to past wrongs and making promises for the future.
So, as we make our new year’s resolutions there is a sense of a pivotal moment, a tipping point, that everything has the potential to change. This probably resonates strongly in 2021 as the arrival of vaccines and several significant geopolitical events seem to promise a change for the good…. or at least a change. And we have this same sense of significance when Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John.
The Old Testament reading from Isaiah 40 is quoted in all four Gospels… “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord…’”. It is also a tipping point in the book of Isaiah. The previous chapter concludes with a warning to King Hezekaiah that a time will come when all his treasures will be carried off to Babylon and his descendants made eunuchs in the palace of the King of Babylon (ouch!). Juxtaposed against this, and almost certainly by a different author, is a message of comfort, a promise that after the hard times, the Jewish people will be restored to God’s favour. If you are familiar with Handel’s Messiah, you will find elements of Isaiah Chapter 40 set to music there – “Comfort ye my people”, “Every valley shall be exalted” etc.
This message would have resonated with John the Baptist’s audience. When John preached, Judea had been under Roman occupation for around 100 years, and for much of that time a family of foreign collaborators were the “client” (aka puppet) kings, until 20 years previously when the Romans had deposed Herod Archelaus and installed a Roman procurator to rule. At least the Herods had been Jewish, now there was no pretence of independence! The first readers of the Gospels would also have seen the brutal suppression of the Jewish Revolt by Vespasian and his son Titus (both later Emperors), the destruction of the Temple in AD70, and final defeat at Masada in AD73. They would have felt enslaved like Hezekaiah’s descendants and due for that comfort promised by Isaiah; it was high time for a Messiah!
It is in this context of anticipation that Jesus steps into the water. The anointing described in the gospels is both a religious and a political message. Jesus rises from the water, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven is heard confirming Jesus as God’s beloved son with whom he is pleased. The Scholar’s Translation of Mark Chapter 1 says, ‘You are my favoured son. I fully approve of you.’ Less poetic, but the point is made, this is a divine stamp of approval. The original readers would immediately recognise the story of Jesus’ baptism as the anointing of a Messiah. They would also have recognised that the Roman Emperor claimed the title ‘Son of God’ (“divi filius” was actually stamped on the coinage) and so to call Jesus the Son of God was also to make a political claim. In making this claim for Jesus, the writers show the tipping point has been crossed, the balance has changed and conflict with the authorities is inevitable.
And so to my 21st Century take on the readings. What Jesus had been doing prior to his baptism history does not relate. That didn’t stop a large number of early authors from having a go at filling in the gaps. The only story included in our bible is in the Gospel of Luke who follows the Christmas story with an episode from Jesus’ boyhood when he astounded the teachers in the temple courts with his understanding. While Luke’s suggestion of the family’s annual pilgrimage nearly 150km from Nazareth to Jerusalem seems unlikely, and while the story is in the style of other heroic writing of the day, nonetheless it poses an interesting question about the early part of Jesus’ life. Did he, as the writer of John’s Gospel imply, arrive on the scene fully fledged Son of God, the Word made flesh, complete with God’s plan, to save the world? Or did he spend his early adulthood studying with his local rabbis, seeing the injustices under Roman occupation, talking with other radicals, thinking over the implications of Isaiah 40?
This question is also raised for me by the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of John. In this version, Jesus spends several days in the area where John is baptising. On the first day, John the Baptist tells his sceptics that one stands among them that they do not know but who whose sandals he is not fit to untie. On the second day John sees Jesus coming towards him and gives testimony that he had seen the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. On the third day John again sees Jesus passing by and testifies about him, upon which two of John’s disciples follow Jesus, address him as “rabbi” (teacher), go to where he is staying and spend the day with him. The next day Jesus gathers up his new disciples and sets off to perform his first miracle at the wedding in Cana.
The writer of John’s Gospel may have been placing a mystical significance in the three days of preparation for Jesus’ ministry, but as a 21st Century reader of the bible I am left wondering, did Jesus spend time talking with John the Baptist before, as it were, taking the plunge. I must admit it is quite hard to imagine Jesus discussing ideas or asking anyone’s advice – he is only ever portrayed as teaching, giving out wisdom, not receiving it or even thinking things over. Did he listen to, or find motivation and encouragement in John’s preaching? There is much similarity in the teachings ascribed to John the Baptist by Luke’s Gospel and those of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: if you have two tunics share with someone who has none; share your food also; tax collectors – don’t cheat; don’t extort money or accuse falsely.
The baptism was a tipping point in human and religious history, when Jesus overturned prior conceptions of God and started humanity on new path, albeit slow and winding, towards a better way of living. Was it also a tipping point for Jesus himself? Had it taken thirty years of life experience to bring Jesus to the point where he was ready to spread his teaching more widely and confront the authorities? And was John’s baptism, for Jesus, a ritual purification and symbol of his start on this way? Whether you are, like me, rather a humanist in your view of Jesus, or believe that he was both fully divine and fully human, I think this is still a valid question to ask. Because I believe it changes our perspective from one of passive belief that God will solve our problems to one of active human involvement in the process. And if we really want to follow Jesus we need to be able to relate to him on a human plane, not elevate him as a remote figure of perfection.
One final point. After his baptism the synoptic Gospel writers say Jesus went into the desert where he was tempted by the devil. Matthew and Luke provide details about the temptations, which revolve around how Jesus will use his special status, what form his ministry will take. Although the baptism, the epiphany, may be seen as a tipping point, it was not necessarily an instant conversion but one which involved Jesus wrestling with his conscience over a lengthy period. For us to truly follow Jesus’ example takes a great deal of commitment and we need to recognise that it will not be easy for us either and will take a great deal of patience. Our baptism was just the beginning.