Sermon at Evensong of the Baptism of Christ 2020

Today, again is Epiphany, today is Theophany.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence

Sunday, 12th January 2020 at 3.00 PM

The Baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan which we celebrate today is one of the most important stories in the New Testament. It was also regarded by the early Church as a Feast Day of absolutely central importance, alongside Easter, the Transfiguration, and Christmas. Today, it is still one of the twelve great feasts of the Orthodox church. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters in the Christian east refer to this feast as Theophany, that is not merely the revelation of Christ to the whole world, but also the first revelation recorded in the New Testament of the Holy Trinity. In the Gospel account we heard this morning, the Father’s voice acclaims Jesus as the Beloved Son, and Christ – the anointed one – sees the Holy Spirit descend upon him like a dove. Last week, I suggested that the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated last Monday, propels us further into the mystery of Christmas, as we discover the ramifications of Christ’s birth. For all our usual and predictable Epiphany imagery of the Three Kings, the celebration of the Epiphany is actually marked by three simultaneous wonders: the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the wedding feast at Cana, as Christ turns water into wine.  At evensong on the remaining Sundays of this month, I am exploring each of these wonders in turn. Today, again is Epiphany, today is Theophany.

The beautiful Italian city of Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire for over seventy years until it collapsed in 476. You may have been there and visited its two baptisteries – one is known as the Arian baptistery, and the other, Orthodox. Ravenna was for years in the grip of one of the bitterest battles of early Christianity – the Arian heresy effectively taught that Christ, whilst still divine, was subordinate to God the Father, rather than co-Eternal. “Begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father”, we say in the Nicene Creed. The Arian Baptistry was built by a gothic king, Theodoric, to replace the Orthodox one. Each building has a stunning mosaic depiction of Christ’s baptism. The Arian Christ is young and clean-shaven, perhaps representing his supposed youthfulness in relation to the Father. The Orthodox Christ however is older, bearded, sterner, more like an image of a classical god. That these two famous baptisteries remain in one small, historically important city is perhaps appropriate, given that precisely what we say about what is going on in the scene of Christ’s baptism is intensely delicate. Jesus does not become God’s Son at his baptism, although this is clearly a moment of some kind of inauguration or commission; he is not cleansed from some kind of sin at baptism, and yet he voluntarily submits to the waters; he is, in eternity, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews put it in today’s second lesson, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So, what is it we celebrate on the Feast of the Baptism, how is it an Epiphany (a showing forth), and why does it matter?

Saint John of Damascus, reflecting on the topic a couple of hundred years after the building of our two Ravenna baptisteries taught that Jesus was baptized, not because He had need of cleansing himself, but “to bury human sin by water”,[1] to fulfil the Law, to reveal the mystery of the Trinity, and finally, to sanctify “the nature of water” and to offer us the example of Baptism. That’s quite a lot of substantial reasons – from the fulfilment of prophecy, to the imagery of washing, and an encouragement to all those millions who would later be baptised as his followers. But there’s another reason, perhaps even more fundamental than the rest, which is hinted at by a peculiar figure depicted in the mosaics in both our baptisteries.

This third figure, alongside Jesus and John the Baptist, is an elderly, bearded man holding a reed with what looks like a crab perching on his head. This, the artistic codes tell us, is the personification of the River Jordan.  But it maybe goes further than this. Many think that this figure recycles a Greek and Roman tradition of depicting pagan gods in human form. This is perhaps the river god, rather than a simple personification of the River Jordan. In biblical language, the waters were symbolic of chaos. The Holy Spirit hovers over the waters in creation at the very beginning to bring order; think of the flood which forced Noah to build his ark; Jesus walks on the water later in the Gospels, revealing his mastery of all that would destroy or lead to chaos, and in the Book of Revelation, we are told by the visionary that in the New Jerusalem, the sea is no more, the chaos is gone. It was the River Jordan which was crossed by Joshua and the Israelites, this water only controlled and stilled by the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in its midst, prefiguring this moment of Jesus’ baptism.

A little later in John of Damascus’ account, he lists another reason for Jesus’s baptism which ties into this. In the River Jordan, John tells us, Jesus breaks “the heads of the dragons on the water.” Who or what are these “dragons”? Fulfilling psalm 74, this is the ancient sea serpent of Jewish mythology, a powerful enemy linked with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, as well as with other near-eastern pagan myths. As Jesus plunges into the waters of the Jordan, he “smashes the heads of the dragons in the water” - we see his destruction of hell, his mastery of all chaos, his victory over pagan religion. This is the primeval battleground. It is simultaneously the formless void brought to order by the act of creation, it is the Red Sea, it is the deep waters of death, it is the new creation emerging from the old – all rolled into one.

So how does this land for us today? Might we say that all this is all very well, but isn’t it to put a little bit too much weight on the symbolic? Well, in some ways such pictorial language is something which comes to us from another age. But deep truth is meditated to us within the realm of the sign. How can we communicate that which is overwhelming, unspeakable, utterly luminous without the language of signs? This symbolic world is able to bear fullness and complexity in a way that speech and prose somehow can’t.

We say in the Creed, that God became incarnate in Christ “For us and for our salvation.” Each and every action we see in Christ, is somehow for us: God, pro nobis. It is this extraordinary truth which links everything together. Jesus is baptised for us so that the chaos is now mastered. All that would destroy life, dignity and fragility has had the whistle blown on it. So, those waters which are transfigured by the presence of Jesus Christ also stand for the waters of the Mediterranean in which drown the innocent who seek security and a home; they are the deep waters of death in which dwell tragedy, hopelessness and despair; they are symbolic of the potential for chaos and disorder which dwells in every human heart and every human community. But Christ has plunged into those waters, and arisen from them victorious, himself now revealed as the living water for all who come to him in faith. This is the baptism in which we share, this is the vantage point from which we Christians address the chaos and violence of the world. Our Feast of the Epiphany, which also celebrates this great moment of Christ’s baptism, propels us further into the mystery of Christmas. God is with us and will not leave us, and has already plumbed the depths of the waters, so that we might be washed, and therefore live in him and he in us.

[1] In fact, literally to bury “all the old Adam” An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV, 9