Baptism of the Lord/First Sunday after Epiphany
So many moments fold into this one.
Here the One before all time who sweeps over the face of the waters, dividing light from dark and making days, now stands within them.
Here the Lord of glory, holy splendor, majesty, power, and strength in the psalms stands ankle deep in the mud of the Jordan River, yielding power to the hands of the baptizer. The breath of life which spoke a world and animated living beings will now stop in the chest, held in the cheeks, as body is pressed under the current and pulled back to the surface.
He will open his mouth and take a breath, blinking into the sun.
Like the moment after the press of labor stops and slippery child has emerged, now held in hands and gathering breath to announce himself in the world, the heavens like lips will part with joy. Here come the pronouncements: “It’s a son! My son – He is beloved! I am well pleased!”
Here in the Jordan River, Jesus held in the hands of John the baptizer, the Word of God is once again placed in the hands of the prophets as it has always been since the beginning – the God who entrusts self to human tellings.
This is the moment of incarnation for Mark’s gospel. This is the moment of God with us – the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In Matthew and Luke, we get genealogies, angel visitations, the virgin birth and a barren woman expecting, the Magnificat, shepherds and wisemen, and all the stories we know. In John’s gospel, we begin with echoes of the beginning, the Word who was God and was with God now becoming flesh to tabernacle with us in the wilderness of human existence.
But in Mark, it begins here in the Jordan.
Or rather, even a bit earlier, for it is a curiosity that before we even come to the baptism of Jesus in verse nine of chapter one, we’ve already worked through eight verses that connect what is to come to Isaiah and authenticate John’s status as the prophet crying in the wilderness, preparing the way.
Here the wilderness evokes those forty years of wandering, and we’re reminded of Moses – yet another prophet. We’re reminded of life outside of empire rule, where we are in desperate need of God, and where God appears as pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. We are reminded of tabernacle worship, where God journeys among us in a tent, revealing self as “I Am.”
From the beginning, this story is grounded in God’s intimate involvement with humanity. And from the first moment of Mark’s gospel, the sparse description evokes so many of those stories of God’s involvement with us, each word laden with countless resonances.
Having been formed first in a tradition which takes baptism to be the ultimate saving event chosen by the believer, this story for a good bit of my Christian life made little sense. Jesus, the sinless one, washed with a baptism of repentance – Jesus, the saving one, going through the motions of salvation. It was puzzling.
But as my life with God has shifted from a concern with the need to be saved from hell to gratitude for the presence of God with us, this story has taken on new meaning for me. The baptism of Jesus is God with us, in the depths of what it means to be human.
Where else could Jesus begin his ministry, if not in the water with us?
Where else could Jesus begin his ministry, if not in our need for repentance and a new direction – a new Way?
Where else could Jesus begin his ministry, if not in a state of humility and vulnerability, placing himself in the hands of another, yielding power to a peer – one from his human community?
And where else could he begin but in this moment of identity, the “You are beloved,” which extends to us: “And you, and you, and even you. You are all beloved.”
It’s a different kind of birth narrative, wherein the people of the story – past, present, future – are the family to which Jesus is born, and the prophet John becomes an unlikely midwife, handing us the Messiah.
Yet even beginning with different details than the other gospels, Mark like them underscores the centrality of incarnation. In the baptism of Jesus, we again glimpse the mystery of an all-splendorous God choosing to be held within the bounds of human flesh for our sake.