This Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29-34) speaks of the Baptism of the Lord, yet that was celebrated this past Monday. Some of the more observant among you might be thinking “Isn’t the Baptism of the Lord a Sunday celebration?” Most years it is, unless Epiphany falls on January 7 th or 8 th which it did this year. In such cases, the Baptism of the Lord celebration falls on Monday. Not sure what to make of that, but there it is. It made we wonder why the Baptism of the Lord is so connected to the Epiphany.
The Baptism of the Lord often is thought of as the instance when the Sacrament of Baptism was established. That is not quite so. Baptism, or rather a washing with water, has a long history in the Jewish traditions. At different times the cleansing act has carried different meanings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) speaks to the prefiguring of Baptism in the Hebrew Scriptures – take a moment later to look at paragraphs 1218-1222. It is as though each of the events of the Old Testament are little “epiphanies” in which something is revealed about God. In just the accounts that the CCC uses to highlight Baptism we see the creative, healing, life-giving, cleansing, forgiving, and freeing power of God – powers God is willing to pour into the world for our salvation. John the Baptist is using it as a means of repentance, of returning to the covenant in preparation for the One who is to come, the one revealed as Messiah.
It is as though each one of those accounts is one of what Celtic spirituality calls the “thin places,” places where the boundary between the earthly and the eternal becomes permeable. A place and time when we catch glimpses of God’s love, majesty, and power as it pours into the world. In Baptism, the water becomes the “thin place” in which the Holy Spirit infuses the newness of life into us. If something as ordinary as water can be a “thin place,” then such epiphanies call us to look beneath and beyond what think of as the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and discover the extraordinary. And then be faced with a choice: Limit yourself to the known or to enter the revealed mystery.
If one were to take a look at Jesus of Nazareth, I suspect he looked like everyone else in his day. It is easy to see why folks of his age were scandalized by Jesus’ baptism, which is a wonderful blend of the ordinary and miraculous. Doves and voices are one thing, but what scandalized the on-lookers from Jerusalem was the potential Messiah placing himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser such as John. The one who would
claim to be God’s incarnate Son receiving a baptism of repentance? What was he doing in that murky water, aligning himself with the great unwashed? And why did God the Father choose that moment to part the clouds and call his Son beloved? Why were they only able to see the surface and not peer into the “thin place?”
Then again, we always think of our lives as ordinary. So, what do you find most impossible to believe in your own lives? That God appears by means so familiar that we often miss him? That our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail too often to honor? Or that we are God’s beloved — not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because our Father insists on blessing us with his approval?
I think we have always been people of the “thin places,” where the little epiphanies surround us. I pray that 2017 will be a year in which the boundary of your lives and the eternal become easily permeable, more easily seen, and we all come to know the miraculous gift of this life and our Lord.