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The Baptism of the Lord [8:00 a.m. Holy Communion]; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In the Orthodox Churches the important truth at this time of year is not that our Lord was born, but that he was manifested to humanity as the incarnate God. Therefore the great festival among Orthodox Christians is not Christmas (Jan 7 this year), but Epiphany. On that day (Jan 19 this year), two manifestations are celebrated; Christ’s birth and baptism. The birth seems to have been incorporated largely because of a legend that Jesus was baptized on his 30th birthday. The significant event was the baptism, when God the Father publicly acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God, and when Jesus was given the Holy Spirit, visibly, in the form of a dove. In the mind of the Eastern Church, this was the beginning of Jesus’s work in the world as the Son of God and the world’s redeemer.

In the Western Church Christmas became established first, and when Epiphany began to be celebrated certain adaptations were made, notably, that our attention was directed to the visit of the Magi, and the story of our Lord’s baptism regrettably dropped out of the liturgical picture at Epiphany. Happily, with the revision of the lectionary, we have it back again, and the Sunday after Epiphany (which this year in the West is today) is now annually celebrated as the Baptism of the Lord.

So, to today’s Gospel. If you read it carefully, and especially if you include one more verse (“Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.”), you will see that St. Luke treats our Lord’s baptism as a kind of inauguration ceremony. Prior to the event, John the Baptist is thought to be, at least possibly, the Messiah. John denies this, and speaks of one who is coming, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The baptism of Jesus is almost mentioned as an afterthought; the important event is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus, and the voice from heaven announcing (about Jesus) that, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Clearly, it is Jesus, not John, who is the Messiah, whose work has now begun.

That work, as we well know, was to reach its climax in our Saviour’s sacrificial death on Golgotha, which means in a broad sense, Jesus, when he was baptized, was beginning to walk the way of the cross. Certainly everything he did from that time on was in line with his redemptive purpose: the healing of the sick, the casting out of evil spirits, the raising of the dead, the preaching of the good news. He was committed to do these things; he had come into the world precisely to save, to liberate, to bring people into God’s dominion. This was his task, and he began it on the day of his baptism.

With all this in mind, the tie between Christ’s baptism and our own begins to become clear. Observance of the Lord’s baptism connects our sense of vocation to the life of Christ. We too, by our baptism, are committed to the redemptive task, and we agree to do this by the same method, the cross. Certainly, this is not the most pleasant assignment in the world, nor is it one that most of us would choose without God’s call. We recoil from sacrifice and suffering; we are interested in a good time. We want to be spiritual, but we don’t want a spirituality that leads to crucifixion. Yet, as St. John of the Cross wrote, “It is not the act of a good disciple to flee from the cross in order to enjoy the sweetness of an easy piety.”

It is sobering to reflect that we are committed by our baptism to a way of life that requires us to live no longer for ourselves, but for him who for our sake died and was raised. We can refuse, of course, to follow through with this. But to do this amounts to a repudiation of our baptism and our status as Christian people, and if we are to do this we must be clear about it! Unquestionably, there are many baptized people who do not live as baptized people. Nevertheless, the requirement remains; if we live as though we had not been baptized, we do so at our soul’s peril.

The New Testament imagery is one of drowning in baptism. St. Paul keeps writing about being baptized into the death of Christ, a death which, since it is associated with baptism, is to be thought of as a drowning. The threat in baptism is, that if you go all the way under the water, you may not come up again. And Paul means this not only as a threat, but as the actuality of death; there is to be a real killing of the old sinful self. And in Paul’s imagery this is to happen daily, hourly, each moment, so that the person new in Christ can continually come forth and arise. Every moment is Resurrection Day in the Christian experience!

It is by this continual dying to our old self, the self that wants to be comfortable and safe, and rising again to our new baptismal life in Christ, that we are able to walk the way of the cross. With the life of our Lord as our model, we too can believe that God will grant us the resources, the strength, the grace we need to fulfil our vocation to a Christ-like life. We can draw on our baptism, and receive through a life of obedience and prayer all the empowerment we will need to persevere. And yes, we will walk the way of the cross, but in that way even our trials may become an epiphany, a showing-forth of God’s power and glory, as well as the core of our own redemption story.

Copyright ©2019 by Gerry Mueller.