The Beloved

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.” Mark 1:4-11.

The Lectionary offers us this reading from Mark’s Gospel on this first Sunday of the season of Epiphany.  The Greek word epiphaino translates roughly as the appearance or manifestation of the light.  This Gospel reading fits perfectly within that idea, and you’ll remember that we previously discussed  Jesus had describing himself as the “light of the world.”

I’ve always been fascinated with the issue of Jesus’ understanding of himself:  what did the incarnate Lord understand about his role, and when did he begin to understand it?  The story of Jesus’ baptism offers us some remarkable insight into these questions.

The story begins with a character we’ve become familiar with, John the Baptist.  Now, at the time, the practice of ritual purification was fairly common.  John seems to have been doing something different, though, in this rite of baptism. More than just a ceremonial cleansing, John appears to have called  his followers to a spiritual act of  initiation.   Rather than a regular ritual purification, John seems to be engaged in something unique, radical and challenging at the time. 

John’s baptism would have challenged the institutional church of the day, offering baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  John lacked any institutional authority and forgiving sins lay within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Temple priests.  Like most of the prophets, John presents himself as a fanatic, an outsider and a critic of the status quo.  So, when Jesus endorses John’s ministry, his baptism itself challenged the authority of the Temple. 

Jesus shared in listening to John’s prophetic call. He waded into the same waters as the rest of John’s followers. He approaches John just as everyone else came to John. Thus, Jesus shared those waters with all humanity. And then, something astonishing happened….

Earlier, we talked about the collision of heaven and earth in Jesus’ nativity.  We discussed the notion that the Incarnation changed the very fabric of space and time.  We see those ideas reinforced in this remarkable story of the Epiphany, as God begins to reveal Himself, to “enlighten” the world a bit.

 As Jesus comes forth from the water, Mark reports that the heavens were “torn open.”  That terribly interesting phrase, “torn open”, suggests this was no peaceful, gentle encounter.  Mark uses that same word, “torn”, to describe the separation of the Temple curtain after Jesus “breathed his last” on Golgotha.  As the veil separating heaven and earth rips apart, the Spirit emerges.

These remarkable events unfold as Jesus (whose very name means “God saves”)  emerges from the water.  The story reverberates with the memory of the Jewish people emerging the Red Sea, their principle narrative of salvation.  And then, from the heavens, God claims Jesus as His son, the Beloved.

I’d encourage you to engage in an exercise.  I’d like you to think back to your own baptism.  And I’d like you to imagine that same voice announcing that you are God’s child, and His beloved.  I believe it’s important that we become acclimated to that idea.  It may offer the first step in going beyond celebrating an Epiphany to living out the Epiphany and spreading the light of Christ into the dark places of the world.  My friend, Father Mike Marsh noted recently ( here)  that God calls each of us to “become Epiphany”.  Our vocation and our challenge lies in manifesting God’s love, helping His people hear that voice as the heavens are torn apart.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

  © 2012 James R. Dennis

16 responses to “The Beloved

  1. Our baptism is the constant reminder of the our own sonship through Christ. Thank you for this reminder and encouraging post to be a light.

    • Coleman,

      You are most welcome. I think we do not reflect often enough on our baptism and what it means to be children of the Living God.


      Br. James

  2. Brother James

    I enjoyed this post and appreciate the challenge to reflect on my baptism. I will carry this thought with me today! Thank you also for reading my posts each day.

    Today at mass, I will prayers for you and your readers.

    • Jeffery,

      Many thanks for your kind words, and your prayers. Have a good and holy Sabbath, my friend.

      Br. James

  3. Thanks for your reminder that we are to live out and become the epiphany!
    Also, this past week I was hearing a teaching on this passage. A point was made that not only did John offer the forgiveness that had previously only been available at the temple, but he also did so on the other side of the Jordan River. So, in essence, forgiveness CAME to the people, no longer did they have to go to it. An interesting thought to ponder.
    Blessing to you this day,

    • Carole,

      It’s an interesting thought, indeed. John’s a critical figure for the early Church, and perhaps even more important for the Church today.

      God bless,

      Br. James

  4. Bravo, James! I forwarded it to my 27 year old son who is on the edge of the church, I hope he reads your wise words!

    • Walt,

      I’m glad you liked the piece. Having spent a number of years away from the Church, I’m sympathetic to such concerns. Even now, sometimes, being on the “edge of the church” doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

      God’s peace,

      Br. James

  5. Meaty post, great insights. I especially liked the “torn open” mention, it has me thinking of other times the Bible notes something was torn or broken open. Transformative moments…

    • Jodi,

      Yes, it’s a terribly interesting choice of words. I believe (but am not certain) that in the Greek the word is schizo, which of course forms the root of our words schism, and schitzophrenia (a torn mind). Tearing apart that which separates heaven from earth, allowing passage and commerce between those two realms, is a common theme of Incarnational Theology.

      Peace, my friend,

      James R. Dennis

      • Hello, Brother James,

        Yes, the Greek word here is indeed schizo. I have never noticed the connotation of violence in this passage before, of ripping or tearing the heavens open. Thank you, as always, for giving us something to think about as well as something to do about it.

      • Ron,

        I’m not sure I had paid much attention to it, either. It’s a challenging passage, hopefully calling us into a deeper understanding of the Incarnation.


        Br. James

  6. Thank you for a wonderful post, James. What a difference: waiting for an epiphany or BECOMING epiphany. I will meditate on the latter.

    • Lana,

      I think the latter is more challenging, and almost certainly more important.

      Peace on you and your house,


  7. “Jesus shared those waters with all humanity.”

    Loved this insight into Jesus’ baptism. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

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