John asks an important, honest question, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” He has already recognized what seems like an inappropriate ordering of events. Things are upside down and he doesn’t understand. And Jesus isn’t really going to make things clear to him in advance except by way of confirming that yes, indeed, something extraordinary is at work.
But first maybe we should back up. I mean, we just cleaned up all the Christmas decorations yesterday. The silent night, holy night, wasn’t even two weeks ago and here we are waist deep in the River Jordan on the outskirts of Judea. There was such a long wait for the nativity of our Lord. And then it burst forth suddenly with heavenly hosts singing Gloria. And then begins the Epiphany.
The Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ, is really a collection of vignettes that inaugurate the incarnate life of God. The visit of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord, and his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, form a kind of triple feast. And each one of them is a scene of the ordinary meeting the extraordinary. Of the natural touching the supernatural, of humanity meeting divinity. They are the opposite of esoteric and vague, they grounded and rooted in human experience in ever widening circles of revelation. The meeting place was here on earth, on this same planet we still use today; in the very human bodies that we still inhabit; all of the senses that we use to perceive this world were turned to perceive another world.
The incarnation happened in an instant but it had been building from the moment creation was spoken into being.
Like kernals of popcorn set over heat to slowly warm and then, without warning one pops open! A burst of soft white flesh amidst the hard yellow kernals. And then another and another, then the rat a tat tat in what seems like a chain reaction. It doesn’t all pop at once but those first little messengers bespeak the rest. Or like the first few explosions of a big fireworks display. A single rocket trailing up into the sky until it breaks wide open in a shower of sparks, then another, and another swelling to a crescendo as a crowd oohs and aahs and applauds. If they all burst at once we could hardly perceive their glory.
The silent night, holy night gives way to some surprising, exciting, even jarring revelations. The visit of the magi must have been a dazzling sort of display to arrive in the rustic accommodations of the couple from Nazareth. Think of the rich fabrics of Persia, embroidered silks flashing and glinting amidst the woolen garb of the Judeans. Consider the heft and sheen of gold, the spice of incense and the thick, potent smell of myrrh next to the fresh clean skin of the infant child. Can you imagine the fancy wrappings of these gifts sitting on the table of a daycare center? This kind of mixing doesn’t ordinarily happen but the extraordinary was being revealed. It doesn’t seem like an appropriate offering at all.
But the flashes of Epiphany are exactly that, the encounter of the supernatural life of God breaking into our world. Father Benson wrote of the call of God as continuous, abiding, and progressive. Of the genesis of it all he says, “Our life is not a supernatural plant which afterwards is to grow with a natural growth. It is supernatural in its origin and supernatural in its development. That same voice of God which called us at the first is ever calling us on, and we must ever be listening for that voice, yielding ourselves to that voice, obeying that voice, acting in the strength of that voice.”
Father Benson would point out that we might need to change our expectations when we perceive that it really is God at work. We can’t keep assuming things are going to develop according to our ideas of the appropriate order. We will be invited to keep attuned, to keep using our senses to listen, yield, obey, and act.
So, when Jesus tells John that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” he is further revealing the manifestation of the Christ in the only way it could happen. Through the very sensory experience of human life itself. And in the mystical body of Christ, the baptism of our Lord is about our baptism as much as his own, as every baptism that has ever been and all that shall be.
There in those waters on a cloudy day in the wilderness, Jesus approached John and entrusted himself to his arms. He allowed that long-haired prophet to embrace him and lower him into the water up over his mouth, nose, and eyes, his whole body submerged. And then he felt those arms pull him back up, water streaming down his hair and face, breath returning and as clarity returned to his eyes the heavens themselves opened, streaming sunlight down upon him, bright and warm as a dove landed on him and a voice proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Imagine the sensory overload!
The offering made there in that river was the offering of an entire life to the service of God, the submission of Jesus’ will to the self-giving love of the Father. In the manifestation of Christ the whole Trinity of the Godhead was made apparent, practically bursting forth like fireworks. It was an offering that seemed inappropriate, but it was proper to fulfill all righteousness and point towards things to come.
In every sacrament of the church we see the same pattern. We offer to God what is ostensibly foolish, weak, low, and despised and God’s love sanctifies, redeems, and reconciles it. In marriage and holy orders, we offer our finite and flawed lives to abiding faithfulness. In confession we offer our own admitted transgressions to be transformed by the beauty of God’s healing love. We offer our illness, and even our last breaths to God in prayers for healing and last rites so that they might be sanctified to God’s glory. And at this holy table we offer the gifts of bread and wine, which are first and foremost the products of the creation of supernatural God spoken into existence and they become to us the Body and Blood of Christ binding us ever more completely to himself.
Jesus may not have had sins to be washed clean of, but he had his whole will and life to offer to God’s love. I wonder if he remembered the waters of his baptism when his sweat fell like drops of blood to the ground as he prayed, “not my will but yours be done,” and realized that soon his baptism would be complete.
And we were buried with him in our baptism and we rise with him through our faith in the working of God. The working that is supernatural from the start, and goes on supernaturally revealing Christ’s sanctification all things.
Hear again that voice that is ever calling you on. “This is my child, with whom I am well pleased.” Let the waters of this Asperges be the physical sign and seal of your self-offering and receive in the form of bread and wine the holy presence of Christ’s self-offering for you. As you listen, come to yield, obey, and act. Continue to make the offering of your life as paltry as it may seem because it is in fact the manifestation of Christ drawing all people to himself to dwell in the endless love of the triune God. Amen.
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