On epiphany and baptism
Naturally, we would all prefer seven epiphanies a day and an earth not so devoid of angels.
Jim Harrison, 20th Century American poet.
An epiphany is, literally, a “manifestation.” It’s what happens when we see the truth of something, or when something is revealed for what it really is. In that moment we “get it.”
We have all sorts of little epiphanies –
how you treat others matters,
the limitations of our earthly fathers
often cloud our perception of our Heavenly father,
black clothes don’t actually make you look skinnier –
but we are sometimes privileged with a few epiphanies of greater significance –
I am going to marry her,
I have been made to do this,
I’m sure this is the right thing to do –
Epiphany is also the name of one of the feast days on the liturgical calendar, traditionally celebrated on January 6 with much bread and board, sport and mirth.
In Western Christianity, Epiphany celebrates the Magi finding and adoring Christ, proving that he is the savior of the whole world and not merely the Jewish one.
In Eastern Christianity, however, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus. Hungarian Christians refer to Epiphany as Vizkereszt, which means “water cross” They believe Christ’s baptism foreshadows his crucifixion (a connection the apostle Paul explores in Romans 6.3-5 and Colossians 2.12). They celebrate the Water Cross by bundling up in early January and participating in a crucessional (a parade with a giant cross at the head, carried by the bishops and fathers of the church) through the city streets to the banks of a river. The giant cross is then blessed by the bishop and heaved into the sub-zero water. Many burly (presumably sober) men then strip down to their Fehérnemű (underwear) and wrestle for the lumber. The man who returns the Water Cross to the bishop receives a blessing for his family for that year, and hopes no one is around with a digital camera.
I think Christ’s baptism has something to do with us, the church, and what kind of church he wants us to become.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying: I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?
Jesus replied: Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.
Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment Heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from Heaven said: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.
This little conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist takes place at Qasr al-Yehud, a site on the Jordan River traditionally called “The Jewish Castle” and is thought to be the place where the Israelites crossed the river and entered into the Promised Land. It was a spiritually and historically significant location for baptism—a fact not lost on either John, Jesus, or the thousands of onlookers. Maybe this is why John paused to wonder whether he should really baptize Jesus instead of the other way around.
The significance of that moment in the present was underscored further when God spoke from Heaven saying:
This is my beloved Son (a reference to King David, whom the Psalmist spoke of as God’s adopted son in Psalm 2.10; and to Isaac, Abraham’s “beloved” son who he willingly sacrificed to God in Genesis 22), with whom I am well pleased (a reference to the suffering servant of Isaiah 42, a historical and spiritual figure who demonstrated the means by which God would save the world).
The baptism John offered was a ritual of repentance, a form of spiritual cleansing from the pollution of sin. Jesus was perfectly sinless, yet he submitted to John’s baptism to show us two important truths: first, that he had chosen to identify himself with sinful humanity; and, second, to demonstrate the importance of being cleansed from our sin.
Baptism is not merely some kind of ancient purification ritual–though it was, indeed, that. Jesus’ baptism gave it new significance by symbolizing the grave in which he would later be buried, followed by his resurrection. Christians were baptized from then on as a way of identifying themselves with Christ, his sacrificial death, and his supernatural resurrection. So, when we are baptized, we are mystically united with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
This connection is so powerful that Jesus oft en used water imagery to illustrate the spiritual cleansing he offered his followers and continues to offer us now. He is the spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4.14). His flesh and blood are food and drink which give eternal life (John 6.53-54).
He offers streams of living water to all believers, indicative of spiritual rejuvenation and vitality (John 7.38).
Jesus compared himself to Jonah—the First Testament prophet’s three day stint in the belly of the great fish was like Jesus’ three day experience with death.
Jesus was also compared to Noah by Peter—the water carrying the Ark was a preview of baptism, and the newly purified land represents the new Creation.
In many ways Jesus himself is the baptismal water, transforming us from who we used to be into who are meant to become. Because baptism is such a powerful experience of reconciliation and healing, Jesus’ final words to us refer to it:
All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Clearly, getting baptized is one of the most important things that we do as lovers and followers of Jesus Christ. Through baptism we are tied to his death and resurrection more than any other activity described in the Second Testament. It is a concrete reminder that our old selves have died, that sin and death no longer have dominion over us, that God has raised us up into new people here and now, and in anticipation that, like Christ, we will rise again after death.
Since we are followers of Christ, and he was baptized, then we need to do the same, don’t we? He was baptized by John and by death on the Cross, and so we die to our old lives through baptism and are resurrected to new life in Jesus.
Can you drink the cup I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I will receive?
Baptism is about receiving God’s forgiveness (see Acts 2.38), about experiencing God’s salvation (see 1 Peter 3.21, Acts 2.40, and Mark 16.16), and about being reborn into new life with Christ (see John 3.5, Romans 6.3-6).
It is an external washing accompanied by an internal or spiritual cleansing. It is the moment when we die to ourselves and come alive in Christ. It is a proclamation of Christ’s supremacy over death and the truth of the power of his resurrection. It is the moment when our old self dies and our new self rises, when we once again become the people of God in the way we were always meant to be.
It is the first visible sign of the birth of Christ’s church–all of his followers were, and are meant to be, baptized. Consider baptism to be something like a draft into professional sports. It’s the time when we first put on the uniform and shake hands with our new teammates. It’s the time when we stand up and tell people what team we’re playing for and what contribution we plan on making.
Jesus was baptized even though he had no need to be cleansed, and he wants you and me to be baptized as well to lay the foundation of the church he’s building.
This post is excerpted from Seasons of Christian Spirituality. To download the entire book, click here.
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