January 11, 2015
Genesis 1.1-5; Mark 1.4-1
+ So, I don’t know about you, but, doesn’t it seem like Christmas is already a long time ago? Of course, for us, as Christians, the Christmas season just ended. But Christmas Eve and Christmas Day seem like a long time ago. We now are in this very long, very cold month of January. I have always said, I think January is my very least favorite month of the year. But, we find ways to go on.
For me, it’s the liturgical calendar. Our regular cycle of feasts and fasts and saints days help me get through this cold, bleak time. And right now, for us, we’re in this season of Epiphany. This past Tuesday was the actual Feast of the Epiphany.
Epiphany is a beautiful feast, though I think it’s a bit anti-climactic, following Christmas. My dear friend, Fr. John-Julian, an Episcopal priest and a member of the Order of Julian of Norwich in Wisconsin, wrote wonderfully about Epiphany. He starts out by reminding us that this word, Epiphany, comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means, “manifestation” or “showing forth”. He then goes on to explain that the Epiphany commemorates four manifestations of Christ in his life:
1) The adoration of Shepherds at the manger in Bethlehem, which we commemorated essentially on Christmas Eve
2) The Visit of the Magi or the Three Kings, which is very much the traditional understanding of what Epiphany is.
3) Jesus baptism by John the Baptists in the River Jordan, which we commemorate this morning.
And 4) Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find what Fr. John-Julian and many other Christian thinkers call a Theophany. Theophany means “A manifestation of God”, but today we see it in a very profound way. We actually find the very Trinity—Father, Son and holy Spirit—being revealed—the Father, in the voice that proclaims, “You are…my Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” the Son in the flesh of Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the dove that descends upon Jesus. It is an incredible event—in the lives of those first followers and in our lives as Christians as well.
Here the standard is set. In this moment, it has all come together. In this moment, it is all very clear how this process is happening. Here the breakthrough has happened. For us it’s important because we too are still experiencing the benefits of that event. From now on, this is essentially what was spoken to each of us at our own baptisms:
“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
For most of us, we have no doubt taken for granted our baptisms, much as we have taken for granted water itself.
Yes, I know: I preach a lot about baptism. And I don’t just mean that I preach a lot about how much I like doing baptisms. I preach often about how important each of our baptisms are to us because they are important. In a sense what happened at Jesus’ baptism happened at our baptisms as well. At each of our baptisms, a theophany happened. And when we realize that, we also realize that Baptism is THE defining moment in our lives as Christians.
Whether we remember the event or not, it was the moment when our lives changed. It was the moment we became new. It was, truly, our second birth.
I am so happy that we do something as simple as commemorate our baptisms here at St. Stephen’s. I ask on a regular basis for you to search out the dates of your baptisms. And we remember those dates in our prayers here in the Eucharist each Sunday. I like to encourage people to find out the date of their baptism. Of course, as you know, I always look for a reason to celebrate, but baptism anniversaries are truly great opportunities to celebrate. Why shouldn’t we celebrate the theophanies of our lives, those manifestations of God in our own lives?
There was a bond formed with God in our Baptism. In our current Prayer Book this bond is probably best defined. After the Baptism, when the priest traces a cross on the newly baptized person’s forehead, she or he says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” This is essential to our belief of what happens at baptism.
In baptism, we are all marked as Christ’s own. For ever. It is a bond that can never be broken. We can try to break it as we please. We can struggle under that bond. We can squirm and resist it. We can try to escape it. But the simple fact is this: we can’t. For ever is for ever. No matter how much we may turn our backs on Christ, Christ never turns his back on us. No matter how much we try to turn away from Christ, to deny Christ, to pick Christ apart and make Christ something other than who he is, Christ never turns his back on us. Christ never denies us.
What Baptism shows us, more than anything else, is that we always belong to Christ. It is shows us that Christ will never deny us or turn away from us. It shows us that, no matter what we might do, we will always be Christ’s. Always. For ever.
In this way, Baptism is truly the great equalizer. In those waters, we are all bathed—no matter who we are and what we are. We all emerged from those waters on the same ground—as equals. And, as equals, we are not expected to just sit around, hugging ourselves and basking in the glow of the confidence that we are Christ’s own possession. As equals, made equal in the waters of baptism, we are then compelled to go out into the world and treat each others as equals. And we remind ourselves of this fact in others ways.
This coming Thursday night, we will be having the Vigil service for Rick Holbrook. In that service, there of course will be a time for people to get up and speak about Rick. But before any of that, we, as the church, will receive his ashes. And we will cover the urn with his ashes with a white pall—a white cloth. And the ashes will be sprinkled with holy water.
Everyone who is buried from St. Stephen’s has a pall placed either on their urn or coffin. The pall is a beautiful remembrance of our baptism. And, in that moment when the pall is placed, it does not matter how ornate, how expensive, how poor or simple the coffin or urn are. The pall, as a symbol of baptism, is the great equalizer. No one is better or less under that pall. We are all equal and all precious and deeply loved by our God.
And that is also the case with our baptism. In the same waters all of us, rich or poor, physically perfect or imperfect, were washed. All of us came out of those waters reminded that we are all loved and cherished by our God.
For us at St. Stephen’s, Baptism is not some quaint dedication ceremony. It is the event that still provokes us and compels us to go out into the world and make a difference in it. Our baptism doesn’t set us apart as a special people above everyone else. It forces us out into the world to be a part of the world and, by doing so, to transform the world.
So, in those waters of baptism, something incredible happened for us. We went into those waters one person, and emerged from those waters as something else completely. It was an incredible moment in our lives, just as it was in the life of Jesus, who led the way and showed us that Baptism was an incredible outpouring of God’s love and light into our lives.
So, with this knowledge of how important it is, let us each take the time to meditate and think about our own baptisms and the implications this incredible event had and still has in our lives.
When you enter this church, and when you leave it, pay attention to the baptismal font in the narthex and the blessed water in it. Touch that water, bless yourselves with it, and when you do, remember you do so as a reminder of that wonderful event in your life which marked you forever as Christ’s very own. And let that water be a reminder to you that you are called to go now from this church and from this Eucharist we have shared in, to love. To love, full and completely. To realize that we are equally loved by God—no matter who we are or what we are.
And as we go from here, let us listen for those words—those beautiful, lulling words—that are spoken to each of us, with love and acceptance:
“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”