Baptism of our Lord
Sunday, January 10, 2021
West Highland White Terriers--or Westies--are a delightful breed of dog. Their nickname is A big dog in a small dog’s body. And it’s true. They’re tough. Strong-willed. Fearless. Another characteristic of the two dogs--Wesley and Eli--whom we loved years ago was the craving for bananas. I kid you not. Wesley and Eli loved bananas so much that if you cracked open the neck of a banana in the kitchen, they would hear it on the second floor and storm down the stairway to get a fruity treat. Of course, Marnie, who was upstairs, would not hear the crack of the banana and wonder where the dogs were careening to.
Which is so often the case when living with other creatures. We realize how limited our senses are when we are surrounded by pets whose hearing, eye sight, sense of smell and intuition defy our limited senses. Thus, we should not be surprised when we recognize that there is more to the world than we thought. Or more to the point, there is more to the world than we are able to perceive. As we journey through this season of Epiphany--literally revelation or manifestation--we are wise to remember that such revelations are not necessarily around or about something new; rather we are invited to see what manifests itself to us may actually be something that has been there all along. We just never knew it. Barbara Holmes captures this well. She writes:
Moments of awareness occur as a dawning of meaning. . .Such occasions feel like personal discoveries. While in the midst of an epiphany, folks inevitably apply the term “discovery” to lands, people, and ideas that have always been present. We use the language of strange and alien sightings when the more accurate statement would be, “Eureka! I have just awakened to a long-standing reality that an inner unveiling has finally allowed me to see.”
We wake up to what has always already been there.
Our observance this day--The Baptism of our Lord--is one of those narratives that underscores this hidden-before-our-very-eyes reality. However, I suspect that most people get tripped up on why John the Baptizer baptizes Jesus--as opposed to the other way around--rather than thinking about finding some treasure hidden but now revealed. Right? Yet, the very brief encounter between John and Jesus ends with the profound rending of the heavens and a voice proclaiming to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And while it may be a brief line in the gospel narrative, it is the heart of the gospel itself. The very heart of God, if you will. God as love loving that which embodies such love to the world. God’s love for Jesus and, by extension, God’s love for us. For you. For me. For the whole of creation. Indeed, we are invited on this day and each day to hear the words proclaimed to Jesus as words proclaimed to us, to you. Listen: “You are my Beloved.”
Furthermore, the rending of the heavens in this moment possesses an analog at the end of Mark’s gospel. As Jesus dies, the curtain that separates the Ark of the Covenant in the temple from the people is torn in two. The same word in Greek--schizomai--is used for the rending of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and for the rending of the curtain in the temple. In both instances, they signify the breaking in of the divine into life. In Jesus’ baptism, it is Jesus himself who bears the mantle of the holy in human form. In Jesus’ death, the truth revealed is that now nothing separates humanity from God, not even death. Indeed, God is on the loose.
Jesus’ baptism is the prototype for all baptisms. The God present there is the God present here. The proclamation of unconditional love there is the same proclamation here. The unmerited gift of grace there redounds here. And what do we do with such a declaration? You are my Beloved? Do we even hear the promise? Do we even know that it exists? Is this divine assurance like the cracking of a banana in the kitchen? Something only other creatures can truly discern? Or has the din of our culture and the hardness of life muffled the gift that God gives in baptism? If we hear the promise, do we believe it? Has the refrain of other identities--not good enough, inadequate, hopeless--crowded out the declaration, “You are my Beloved?”
Lord knows it can be hard to hear at times and hard to believe at others, but this is the promise that we are invited to live into each and every moment of each and every day throughout each and every year of life we are given. And what does the world look like when we hear this? Believe this? What do we feel about ourselves? About others? How do we see the world around us? Our place in it? The stature of those whom we meet? What epiphanies might you have reflecting on these questions? When we uncover this truth for us--You are my Beloved--we also recognize that it is a gift for others as well. No membership dues. No priority zip code. Simply pure grace for each and all.
Again, it is hard to hear at times and hard to believe at others. And Lord knows there are so many who give up on even trying to listen or believe that this promise is true and true for them that they distort and misconstrue the message for themselves and others. The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol building carrying Jesus banners this last Wednesday are prime examples. Whether they ever heard the message that they are loved or they have lived such a life that makes it impossible to believe, they surely were not living out of the promise of being beloved. For love begets love. Obviously, there was so much more going on in the chaos of Wednesday’s outrage against our democracy. And appropriate civil steps are being taken to deal with it and those who instigated the mob action. However, I do think that such activity--individually and collectively--is a sign of a spiritual deficit and spiritual void.
The truth is that the divine reality rooted in love exists. God as Lover, Beloved, and Love. God embodying such love in the flesh of Jesus. God continuing that love in the love shown by us to each other and the world here and now. That reality is here. For us. For you. For me. The promise: You are my Beloved. Our task is, in part, to wake up enough to hear it, to see it, and to believe it. That which is alway already right in front of us. Perhaps the very ability to do that--to hear, to see, and to believe--is also a gift as well.