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.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis