The First Sunday after Epiphany
The Baptism of Christ
Genesis 1: 1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Acts 19: 1-7
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.
Mark 1: 4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
A Psalm of David.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
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 your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
“The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders”, as Psalm 29 proclaims. What an event we celebrate today! The Baptism of Christ Himself. No wonder it culminated with the voice of God the Father, telling Christ clearly, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The painting of the Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, which hangs in the National Gallery, depicts the very moment of Christ’s baptism. It was probably commissioned for the tiny monastery church of St John the Baptist in Piero’s home town of Sansepolcro in Italy. Legend has it that pilgrims returning there from a visit to the Holy Land had with them some relicts of the True Cross. While the pilgrims were spending the night sleeping under a walnut tree, native to this part of Tuscany, the relicts were miraculously lifted into the tree. The pilgrims took this as a sign which led to the building of the town named after the Holy Sepulchre.
The tree to the left of Christ is without doubt a walnut tree and the town depicted in the distance could be said to represent the town of Sansepolcro. The plants growing on the riverbank to the left of Christ are also native to Tuscany. It seems that it was important for Piero to make the link between Christ and his own place and time.
If you look very carefully, you can see robed figures wearing hats of a style typical of the Greeks behind the figure of the man undressing himself in preparation for baptism. It could be that these figures represented the Council of Florence which at the time the painting was made were seeking to unify the Eastern and Western Churches. Linking the painting to current issues was so important.
The figures standing to the left of the tree appear to be angels. Jane Williams has suggested that they may represent the three angels who came to visit Abraham and Sarah to tell them that, even in their old age, they would have a son. Could their presence in the painting be a sign that God’s promises continue from one generation to another?
There is no doubt, though, that our eyes are drawn to the central figures, to Jesus Christ, who showed such humility in allowing Himself to be baptised, and to His cousin, John. John’s ragged garment reflected those long years spent in the desert in penitence. John has one foot in the mud of the river and one foot on the riverbank, showing, perhaps, that his journey was not to be identical to that of Christ, despite his own violent death. John’s role was different from that of Christ. His role was to point to Christ. He knew that the baptism which he performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The fact that Jesus recognised the importance of receiving John’s baptism reflects his own ultimate mission, that He would suffer and die for the sins of all of us, so that we might be forgiven.
Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan signified the start of his public ministry. While both Matthew and Mark describe Jesus, Himself, seeing the Holy Spirit descending like a dove upon him, Luke implies that the vision was seen by others too, while John quotes John the Baptist as testifying to having seen the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. The conscious witnessing of the infilling of Christ with the Holy Spirit at that moment was pivotal. Whatever actions Christ would perform and whatever actions which would be performed in His name would be truly in the name of God, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The dwelling of the Holy Spirit in Christ was to enable Him to confer it on others.
It is said that baptisms performed by John the Baptist enabled people to be ready to receive the One who came after him. People’s lives would change radically following their baptism. Our reading from the Book of Acts indicates clearly that it was possible for followers of Christ to have been baptised by John or by followers of John, with no mention of the Holy Spirit. St Paul is shown as putting that right and as baptising them in the name of Jesus Christ. With the accompanied infilling with the Holy Spirit, those who had been baptised were transformed, receiving the gifts of the Spirit. They found they could speak in tongues and prophesy.
Whenever I have had the privilege of baptising someone, it is in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Whether the newly baptised are aware of the difference that this baptism could have made to them is uncertain. I know that, over the years, many people have become quite cynical about whether baptism itself actually confers the Holy Spirit, or whether the Spirit comes upon a person at a different time, leading them to want to confirm their faith through undergoing baptism. Whatever happens, I believe that the Holy Spirit has the power to have a huge influence upon the person.
This was clearly the case with Jesus, Himself. The Holy Spirit descending like a dove, accompanied by the voice of His heavenly Father, confirmed Jesus in His mission to show people what God is like. We have already noted that the tree to the left of Christ in the painting by Piero della Francesca is probably a Tuscan walnut. Its position in the painting suggests that it could also be said to symbolise the Tree on which Christ would later die for our sins. As we contemplate Christ’s baptism today, let us give thanks to Him for what He has done for us in taking our sins upon Him and so freeing us from the burden of the consequences of our wrongdoing. Let us pray too for the empowering of the Holy Spirit in each one of us as we seek to live our lives in these extraordinary times.