St Peter's Church, Epiphany 1, 8th January 2006
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19: 1-7; Mark 1: 4-11
The significance of Epiphany
As I said on Thursday night with those who were able to get here for our Epiphany celebration, the Feast of the Epiphany is one of the major feast days of the year, and it was with good reason that last year we introduced a full Sung Eucharist for the day itself, to rank it alongside Ash Wednesday, Ascension Day and All Saints Day in the liturgical calendar. I am glad that the choir and a reasonable number of others also recognise its significance.
Timkut in Addis Ababa
But it may seem odd then, in the story telling, to jump in one jump from Epiphany to the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus, because there are other important bits of the story like the Feast of the Presentation that we will have to jump back to in a week or two. But the Baptism of Jesus is another major festival in some Christian traditions, like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I was in Addis Ababa in January 1996 for their celebration of Timkut, which includes a wonderfully exotic procession through the streets of the city, with multi-coloured umbrellas (or perhaps they were sun-shades), rich vestments, incense by the.... well whatever you measure incense with, but there was a lot of it, and all culminating with the renewal of baptismal vows, and everyone, well everyone except the rather reserved and formal looking English visitors, taking a running jump into the enormous swimming pool around which everyone had gathered – and by everyone, I mean everyone. I suppose it could have been quite a press coup to get a picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury diving in in all his purple, amongst all the ragamuffins of the streets and the grannies and the fit and semi-naked young men, and even a goat or two, I think.
Now that was a celebration!! And the feasting afterwards... well the goats didn't do much feasting themselves, but.... Our rather tepid colourless baptismal services, and genteel receptions don't really convey very much of the fervent, raw, unabashed liberation that Timkut represents. But there is something very significant about it and the fervour of the religious practise from which it grows. I confess that I worried a bit when I lit a bowl of incense for five minutes before the service on Thursday in case anyone took violent objection to it. Our infamous English reserve, our tendency towards the chilled intellectual approach to faith contrasts with the fiery and colourful flamboyance of some other traditions quite significantly. It is not always bad, but I do fear sometimes that we don't really know how to celebrate with all our senses – and in so many ways the practise of our faith is profoundly sensual, as I have said before.
The transfiguration of an ordinary life
It was not always thus. I was reading the backpage interview in the Church Times yesterday, which this week was with our old friend Clive Handford, Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, who had recently visited the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where he was reminded of the story of St Cuthbert whose faith was strengthened by standing for long periods up to his neck in the north sea – enough to douse the fiery flamboyance in anyone I should have thought, but certainly exotic in concept! But those sort of instinctive, unguarded responses to Christ indicate to me a level of immersion in the Good News that is really important for us to reflect on. You see, I'm pretty sure that Epiphany and Jesus' Baptism are actually intimately linked in the thinking certainly of St Matthew, whose Gospel is the only one that records the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, but also, thematically, the other evangelists as well. The story of Jesus' baptism is the key moment of public revelation of who Jesus is. Matthew's story about the Magi and about King Herod is also in a specific way about establishing Jesus' identity. For the magi from Persian lands afar, this is the King who is above all kings, the Morning star, the light to lighten the Gentiles in Luke's words. In the baptism, with that authoritative voice from on high, echoing the experience of Moses and of Elijah, the proclamation of Emmanuel, God with us, 'this is my Son, my beloved, in you I am well pleased'. A turning point for Jesus himself, plucked out of obscurity at whatever age, rumours of birthing to the songs of angels and archangels, shepherds and wise men at the crib long forgotten, a turning point at which an ordinary life is transfigured, a moment when we know – don't ask how – that everything has changed. And that is the testimony of the early church and of Christians down the ages. This man standing waist high, or neck high or whatever it was in the River Jordan, is God, completely immersed in the mess of our lives, of a wounded, self-seeking and self-regarding world, but in that moment of human life, offering us another transforming vision of life in God, the life of God. Jesus is the channel through which God is revealed in all his glory, and we are borne into the heart of God.
So this story is about identity. It is about the identity of Jesus – and as I said on Thursday unless we know and believe in Jesus' identity, our mission is a charade, it is empty, there is no foundation for our care and service and proclamation. Without conviction about the name of Jesus, there is no Christian mission. Our good works remain good works of course, but they are random and based on our own flawed judgements and predilections. As the body of Christ we live, or at least we try to live and work for the justice of God which proclaims that every person and every part of creation is of God, is loved by God and is of ultimate value to God because God creates, nurtures and loves just because. And not only do we care and work for change because God cares, but primarily because in our baptism we are immersed in the River Jordan with Christ in his life, in his death and in his resurrection. We are not just looking in on the rest of the world. If God is immersed in, at one with the world, the we are too. We are not rescued from the world, hoiked out of the suffering to look in on the needs of others with sympathy from the safety of our own saved-ness. We are the Body of Christ. We are part of one world. We are one with another, and the transforming vision of hope and new life that we carry among us and within us is not our reward for good behaviour, but our responsibility and God's gift to all. As Paul says, where one hurts all hurt and where one rejoices all rejoice. Or as John Donne says, 'No man is an an island entire unto itself....so do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.' We do not sympathise. We do not help out of the goodness of our hearts. We do not become self-righteous and complacent about our faith and our church. We are broken by every death in Iraq. We are broken by the poverty and destruction that comes with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, or the abduction and rape of a small child. We are broken by every moment of injustice, oppression and suffering. We are broken because God is broken. And we rejoice too at the goodness of humanity wherever that goodness breakjs out, wherever the transforming love of God offers new life and hope – in the forgiveness of the mother of a murdered son, in the extraordinary sacrificial service of aid workers in disaster areas, in the everyday care and commitment shown by one individual to another regardless of the consequences. We rejoice because God rejoices, and because God is glorified.
So what we are on about today and in this Epiphany season is about confidence in the identity of the one whom we bear in the world and who bears us; and it is about confidence in our own identity and our own motivation, our own foundation. If we really have been baptized in Christ then that exuberance, that total immersion of the Timkut celebrations in Addis Ababa seems much nearer to the appropriate response. We can't pick and choose the bits of Jesus we want to live in. We ARE the Body of Christ. Its all or nothing. Perhaps we all need to hold our breath, take our courage in our hands, as Cuthbert must have done when he dipped his toe for the first time in the North Sea, let go of our inhibitions, and take a running jump. You never know. We might all feel better for it!
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