Thought for the week 8 January
As soon as Jesus was baptised, 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 lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said,
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
We are now in the season of Epiphany when the person of Jesus, who he is, what he is, is revealed to the world. On the feast of the Epiphany itself this revelation was to the gentiles as represented by the magi, or wise men. In the baptism of Christ, which we celebrate today, the person of Jesus is revealed in the symbol of the dove and the voice from heaven: “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
In one sense the baptism of Christ is puzzling since the baptism that John the Baptist preaches is one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; whereas Jesus is sinless and has no need of baptism which is why John tries to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” And of course in one sense John is right. But there is more to the Baptism of Christ, as the story itself suggests.
The brief account of the baptism in Matthew’s gospel is rich in symbolism and imagery. Early Christian writers interpreted the baptism of Jesus using many images drawn from the Old Testament – much of which is included in the prayer over the water in the Common Worship baptism service.
Jesus, as he comes to be baptized, is seen as a new Noah who carries his people through the waters of destruction. He is also the new Moses delivering his people from slavery and bringing them to salvation in God’s kingdom. He is also the
new Joshua who in the same river Jordan leads his people into the promised land, and interestingly, of course, the Hebrew form of the name Jesus is Joshua.
So then, in the baptism of Jesus we see revealed the promise of salvation that he brings. As Jesus comes up out of the water “the heavens opened.” That opening of heaven is not just a sign to Jesus of who he is. It is a sign to us that Jesus opens for us the way to heaven which otherwise would be blocked because of our sin. As the lovely hymn puts it: “He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in”.
At the moment Jesus came out of the water the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove. The imagery here is very rich indeed. The Spirit of God descending like a dove recalls the moment of creation in Genesis when the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of chaos to bring life and order. In the context of the Baptism of Jesus this is a reminder that in him, through our own baptism, we are a new creation. And as if that were not enough our minds are led back to the first Pentecost when the Spirit of God calls into being a new people in the form of his Church.
There is all this in the story. But the central revelation, the epiphany, comes in the voice from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Here we have God’s approval of Jesus, an approval confirmed much later by the resurrection. But the gap between the first approval and the final confirmation of that approval has darker overtones, again brought out in the imagery of baptism. Much later on Jesus asks James and John whether they are able to undergo the baptism that he must undergo. And there he is speaking of his death; for it is only through the death which leads to new life that God’s final approval is revealed.
There is all this, and much more, in this short narrative. And it relates to us directly because we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Through our baptism we have been cleansed from sin and adopted as children of God, those whom God loves and with whom he is pleased. At our baptism and at the place of baptism the barrier between earth and heaven is removed. Through our baptism we have become a new creation, a holy people dedicated to God in the service of Christ and in the fellowship of the Church which is his mystical body.
If the baptism of Christ is an epiphany, a revelation of Christ – who he is and what he is – our baptism is also an epiphany a revelation of who we are and what we are. We are that holy and dedicated people called to reveal Christ’s glory to the world and to offer his saving presence and peace to others.