Happy season of Epiphany! Epiphany started on Friday, and will take us all the way to Lent, on February 22nd. I asked the Altar Guild to keep our wreaths up because I’m never quite ready to say goodbye to Christmas. It’s also true that much of the Christian world is only now starting their Christmas celebrations. Churches whose roots trace to the ancient Byzantine Church or before--that’s much of the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and Russia--have a different calendar from ours in the West, and you really notice that this time of year when their Christmas begins just as ours ends. So we’re keeping our wreaths up--in solidarity with them and because it’s just nice to prolong the season a bit.
For those of us in the Western Church, it’s the first Sunday after the Epiphany, on which we always remember Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by John. This is one of several principal days for baptisms; we don’t have one this year at St. James, but today we still renew the vows we said (or that were said for us) at our baptism. Because not only is this a day to remember Jesus’ baptism, it's also a day we reflect on our own.
The Baptism of Jesus is one of very few stories narrated in all four of the Gospels. It’s surprising to many that a lot of the events we consider of utter importance in Jesus’ life are not recounted in all four of the Gospels, not even the birth and resurrection--just the baptism and crucifixion. And some variations aside, there’s surprising agreement on the event. Jesus, as an adult, comes to the river Jordan where people are flocking to John for a baptism of repentance. He approaches John, is himself baptized, and then (in two of the four accounts) the heavens open, a dove descends and a voice says “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In Mark’s version, the earliest, the voice speaks directly to Jesus: "You are my beloved, in you I am well pleased." I like how a very recent translation puts it: "You are my son, chosen and marked by my love. You are the pride of my life."
God said something very like this one other recorded time in Jesus’ life: at the Transfiguration. It’s captured right here on our Transfiguration window in the north transept: "This is my son, the beloved. Hear him.” Twice recorded in our Scriptures, but who knows how many more times Jesus heard this from God. I imagine many--countless times, not ever recorded, perhaps not spoken of aloud, but acted out, in his love and generosity towards others. You don’t do the things Jesus did, or love others the way he could, if you don’t first feel loved; if you don’t first have a deep and abiding sense of God’s love for you.
The words we heard in the Gospel were for Jesus, when he emerged from the Jordan, but they’re also words that are meant for us.
Several years ago I baptized a thirteen year-old girl; this was in my former church. In my time as a priest I’ve baptized probably about a dozen kids around this age, and I always look forward to sitting down with them to talk about these vows that they’re very conscious of making. We went through the service and some of the big concepts like “renouncing Satan,” and “persevering against evil.” Then I asked if she had any questions for me, and she paused and said, Will I feel different after I’m baptized? I asked how she wanted to feel. She wanted to feel more loved and at peace, she said.
I still think about this encounter. When I do, I always say a prayer for her. I know her family and that she’s doing well. They’re solid, though they’ve been through hard times like many. But thanks to her, every year when this day comes around, and I read those words of God to Jesus “You’re my beloved, with whom I’m well pleased,” I pray that she, too, feels that same love. I pray that everyone I’ve ever baptized hears this voice from heaven, and often. I pray that I might hear it more, too.
In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans writes (this was from a chapter about her own baptism): “It is said that when [the church Reformer] Martin Luther would slip into one of his darker places, he would comfort himself by saying, ‘Martin, be calm, you are baptized.’ I suspect his comfort came not from recalling the moment of baptism itself, or in relying on baptism as a sort of magic charm, but in remembering what his baptism signified: his identity as a beloved child of God. [She goes on] When Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan a voice from heaven declared, ‘This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ Jesus did not begin to be loved at the moment of his baptism, nor did he cease to be loved when his baptism became a memory. Baptism simply named the reality of his existing and unending belovedness.”
Martin, be calm, you are baptized. Astrid, be calm, you are baptized. Mother Eliza be calm, you are baptized. Baptism helps assure us of God’s love, and that things will be OK. Baptism gives us the strength to love others, in turn. That’s what our baptismal vows are all about. And so on this Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord, we say those vows, again, and we commit to living them out, another year. Because we are--all of us--God’s beloved children.