The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Psalm 42 speaks of a soul thirsting for God which may help our thinking as we journey with the themes of the Epiphany season. Very few people have ever experienced real thirst, but our ancestors certainly did not take water for granted. This year however, gardeners and farmers have reached the same conclusion that all life without water becomes thirsty because we have all struggled to keep our plants and crops alive during a hot year.
This year, the Feast of Epiphany falling on a weekday, the local Church may transfer the celebration to the nearest Sunday and then Sunday 8th or 15th.January they may observe the Lord’s baptism which in many ways is the crucial epiphany event starting the whole ministry of Jesus on earth.
How special it must be in the Holy Orthodox Churches to begin each New Year with the blessing of water, proclaiming water as the precondition of life itself. This not only is a reminder of the gift of water in creation, without which life on earth cannot exist, it also is a theme that underlines so much of what the Lord Jesus did and spoke about as he set about manifesting God’s purpose in his taking human flesh. The Baptism is importantly the gateway to the incarnate ministry of Jesus as he gathers his followers. The baptism manifests who Jesus was in signs, the traditional truths of the faith. For example that Jesus is the “lamb of God and Messiah” anticipated by the Hebrew Prophets, he “upon whom you see the Spirit descending… heaven like a dove” revealing the Trinity. “He baptises with the Holy Spirit …. is the Son of God.” [John 1;37-38] All these are manifestations of the incarnation, and with the first disciples we are invited to “Come and see.”
This theme of thirst for living water we see in events that follow in the gospel narratives themselves, (especially St. John), and the Sundays before Lent, water is ever present. At the wedding in Cana [John 2], so that the guests do not thirst, Jesus changes water into wine. Meeting Nicodemus [John 3], Jesus tells him to “be born of water and Spirit” without which he cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. In [John 4;7ff] the Samaritan woman at the well asks for “the living water”. The disciples are called from the waters of Lake Tiberias to be “fishers of men”, and a healing takes place in the pool at the sheep gate in Jerusalem. This cannot be accidental because the implications for us who receive the Lord as Our Saviour, water and the Spirit are the agents of our own rebirth. We hear these gospel passages are like Nicodemus, thirsty for connection with the source of true life responding to their thirst for God and beginning the journey of rebirth by water and the Spirit. Our baptism and adoption as children of God is our beginning.
When the priest blesses the Baptismal water, he recalls “the gift of water to cleanse, nourish and sustain,” how God “leads the people of Israel through the Red Sea to freedom”. These are all signs of life that links us back to the gift of water in Creation itself, for that is the point at which we humans became disconnected from God and need to return by a re-birth. The Baptism of Jesus manifests the return to the purpose of life at Creation and to our own baptism, by which we become incorporated into the new Creation brought about by the incarnate Jesus Christ.
The world does not see how unconnected it really is to the source of true life. The prophet Isaiah [Isaiah 64;5] was well aware of the need for thirsting for participation and communion with the divine, describing disconnected people, like leaves “that fall from the branch to be carried away by the wind and lost”. Jesus uses similar images, saying, “Abide in me, I am the vine and you are the branches”. Maybe a modern and alternative non horticultural image could be the electric plug while inserted into the socket, is connected to the power supply. Yet in view of the problems with electricity at this present time, the water image and it’s recognition of thirst may still be a more serviceable and long term symbol!
“My soul is thirsty for God” is the yearning voice of the Psalmist but it becomes our voice too during the coming weeks of the Epiphany season as we think about the descent and self emptying of Jesus the Christ whom we call Saviour of the human race, and who says, “If anyone thirsts let him come to me and drink”.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal