Sunday, January 9, 2011

First Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

In the lectionary of the old Prayer Book and the traditional Anglican calendar the Sundays after the Epiphany were divided into two parts, with the first four weeks between this First Sunday after the Epiphany and the Feast of the Presentation having the character of a continuation of themes centered on the Doctrine and mystery of Incarnation, and then as the weeks would roll on after the Feast of the Presentation there would be a shift, sometimes informally called “Pre-Lent.”

(Perhaps you’ll remember the traditional names of those Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima: counting down 70, 60, and 50 days before Easter.)

A thematic move across the pages of the calendar from a focus on the Person of Christ to a focus on the Work of Christ. Or as we would say, from the Doctrine of the Incarnation to the Doctrine of the Atonement. From the Manger to the Cross.

In any event, in the older Prayer Books the gospel readings of the first part of this season “after the Epiphany” began with the story of the Boy Jesus in the Temple. As you may remember, he slips away from his parents and seems to slip into a couple of graduate seminars going on in the Temple’s educational wing, where he mightily impresses the senior faculty. And when Mary and Joseph finally catch up to him and begin a parental reprimand, he tells them, “Know ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”

Then the Second Sunday was the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan by John the Baptist, which we have now shifted to the First Sunday after the Epiphany, our reading this morning. Then on the Third Sunday came the lovely story from St. John of Jesus at the Wedding Feast of Cana, and the miracle of the changing of water into wine. Then on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, the story of the Transfiguration (which we now have on the last Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). Then again, after that Sunday the season began its Pre-Lenten turn, with parables and stories related to the Kingdom of Heaven and the Coming of the Son of Man, all the way up to Ash Wednesday.

But those first Four Sundays after the Epiphany, with their focus on Incarnation, God's self-revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ, is where we are now, even though the calendar doesn’t have quite the same shape, and we don’t get the same pattern of stories.

(Why that is I’m not exactly sure—since they didn’t consult with me when they put together the Prayer Book lectionary back in the early 1970’s nor in more recent years with the design of the Revised Common Lectionary.)

It seems to me as I look over the coming weeks in the Revised Common Lectionary, at least in this Year A of the three-year cycle, that the designers of the lectionary want to us engage in this season in perhaps a more substantial way in what we might call the Teaching Ministry of Jesus, and there is certainly something good about that. Though I hope it doesn’t have the effect of moving us entirely from the mystery of the Stable at Midnight and the sacramental depth and power of the Incarnation itself. Because in these few weeks the fading echoes of the Angelic Chorus would still be part of our background, inviting us to reflect in deeper and deeper ways on what we have seen, to join Mary, and to “ponder” them in our hearts.

So: returning again and again to the words of scripture that were and are for us the heart of the Incarnation. From the Ninth Chapter of Isaiah: “for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” From the Second Chapter of Paul to the Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

A reminder for us that nothing that follows the story of the Bethlehem Stable can have any real or lasting substance without this. A reminder for us that Christmas doesn’t end when the Angels disappear into the cold night sky over Bethlehem, or when the Wise Men pack up and head back to their mysterious homes. We may put the trees out for recycling and pack the ornaments and decorations back into their boxes for another year. But he is still here. And nothing is going to be the same ever again. Certainly anyway the four stories in the old Epiphany pattern made that of first importance. Moments of catching a glimpse, all of them moments of continuing transfiguration.

To see Christmas Eve again from this perspective, standing with the crowds at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. And “what child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Who is he? What is this strange story all about?

And so the conversation in John 14 between Philip and Jesus. When Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied,” and when Jesus replies, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father."

Merry Christmas! The Eastern Churches call this the "Theophany," this moment of a vision of the fullness of God in the Holy Trinity. Jesus comes up out of the River, and the Heavens are opened, and the Spirit of God descends in the form of a Dove, and rests upon him, and the Father's Divine Voice is heard: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

I’m told that in the devotional writings of early Celtic Christianity there is an image of what are called “thin places.” Sometimes around important shrines or religious sites, perhaps beautiful churches like old St. Andrew’s. But often places personal to each individual: a particular park bench, a quiet place in the country, perhaps a corner in our own homes, where we might sense that the boundary between earth and heaven is narrow, even porous. Where with the ear of our hearts we continue to hear the Angels singing. For contemplatives and mystics this place may be even simply a state of mind, reflection, prayer, where what seems often in our day to day lives a gap so wide that no bridge could ever cross it narrows almost to invisibility. Where this world seems to be lifted up, or perhaps better, where the divine presence seems to come close, to reach down to us, to surround and embrace.

A sacramental sense of deep communion, as the rock solid material of all this wide world and we ourselves become like the water in the font, the bread and wine on the altar: outward and visible signs of the inward, invisible grace of his presence. Where the months march along one after another, but where it is always Christmas. And where we are transformed in him, refreshed, restored, healed, forgiven. Where the substance of our lives in the presence of Jesus becomes like the water in those great cisterns at the Wedding Feast in Cana. Miraculously now all at once overflowing with new wine.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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