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On this First Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany we always celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. Since we are in Year C, it’s Luke’s version that we read. As the evangelist most preoccupied with the formation of the church, Luke emphasizes the importance of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit in both his gospel and the history book of the New Testament (also written by Luke), the Book of Acts.
Sometimes, but not always, it is helpful to describe things by what they are not. Let’s try this with our baptisms.
1. Baptisms are not “christenings,” even though the word “Christ” is in its name. We christen boats; we baptize people.
2. Baptisms did not begin with Jesus or John the Baptist. Baptisms were an ancient custom in Judaism for purification of the body Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte, or newcomer, to Judaism.
3. Purification from sins was also not a new idea with John. Baptism was practiced in ancient (Ḥasidic or Essene) Judaism.
4. Baptisms are not about dunking someone in water, though some traditions, ie.,American Baptists, practice full immersion, but usually not Episcopalians- though we can. The water is critical to baptisms, however. Interesting to note that in ancient Judaism, full immersion 3 times in water was a part of baptism.
In addition to naming the Holy Spirit and fire, beginning in the baptisms John performed, the church has used this joining, this “initiation rite, ” to name the child or adult about to be baptized. This too is different from its ancient roots.Names are the first means by which we are set apart.
One thing that stands out in the story from Matthew’s Gospel about the kings coming to the stable in Bethlehem: they are disobedient. In their attempt to find “the King of the Jews,” they receive an audience with Herod the King. It is Herod who points their search in the right direction, with instructions to come back with details. The orders are very clear. Yet after their experience with the baby, Matthew tells us that they went “home by another road,” blatantly disregarding the orders of the king. Their journey to the messiah led them to loving disobedience of even the most powerful ruler.
This story traditionally marks the season of Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the wise men and our call to take the light of Christ to the world. This season of Epiphany urges us to probe deeper into the epiphanies in our own lives, and discern, like the magi, what roads God calls us to. It asks what powers we must say no to because of Christ’s manifestation to us: consumerism, racism and hatred? Waste of resources? These things call to us today just as Herod called to the wise men long ago.