Saturday, January 15, 2011

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Romans 12: 6f Mark 1:1f

In December 2005, Diane and I with three of our four grown children, saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. It has been said that no matter how well the Grand Canyon has been described, and no matter how many photographs one has seen, “no one expects it.” The canyon itself is grander than the pictures, and is beyond expectations, a surprise to everyone who sees it for the first time. No description and no photograph does it justice.

And, no matter how well the truth about God is taught, He will be a surprise when we see Him face to face on the Last Day. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God,” writes Saint Paul to the Corinthian Church. We know God by revelation, just as we know the Grand Canyon by descriptions and pictures. We could spend weeks exploring the canyon before we truly know it. We will spend eternity learning evermore the knowledge of God, never exhausting all that we can learn, for He is without end, without limit.

The pictures of the Grand Canyon are true; they are a genuine revelation of what really is there. What we see in them is no deception, but the truth. It is less than the reality itself, that we see once we arrive at the place and our eyes take it in; nonetheless, the pictures have been true and accurate. When Christ returns in glory and we rise from the slumber of our graves, whether to terror or joy- which depends on whether or not we prepare to meet Him in this life- and we see Him on the throne of His Father’s glory, we will see that God is more than we have been taught, but not different. The full majesty of Divine Glory will surprise us, because we cannot raise our minds to a level of expectation high enough in this time of mortal frailty. But, what has been revealed is true and no lie. God is greater than we understand; but He has, by revelation, made Himself known truly.

This is the meaning of this Sunday in Epiphany. God has made Himself known in our world. Unfortunately, many preachers this Sunday are telling their people that it was here, in the waters of Jordan, when the Father spoke, that Christ became aware of His true identity. This interpretation has been popular for about fifty years. But, it is dead wrong. Clearly, to anyone who knows the Gospels, and who knows the doctrine of Christian Faith, Christ was mysteriously aware in early childhood of His Divine Nature, and of being one with the Father. This is clear from the words He spoke to Mary and Joseph in the temple when He was but twelve years of age. No. On that day at the River Jordan, in the presence of John the Baptist and of the crowd gathered, the voice did not come for Christ’s sake, but for ours. It did not meet any need He had, but rather it meets our need. To try to analyze Christ in psychological terms is always a mistake. But, suffice to say, that He remains fully God, even while being fully human. And, on that day He had no need of assurance to boost His confidence. Neither did He need to be told His identity. He had need of none of these things, for “while He walked the earth as a man, He filled the heavens as God (On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius).”

On that day, when our Lord was baptized, the most amazing revelation of God took place to human eyes and ears. Within the realm of our senses, God revealed Himself as Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. What did each manifestation of the Divine Persons signify, as we consider them respectively? Let us consider these manifestations of the Persons of the Trinity (who together are One God, world without end), and learn from them. Yes, what we learn will be less than the reality in its fullness, but it will be true.

Here is the scene: Jesus Christ is standing in the water having been baptized. The Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove descending upon Him, and the voice of the Father is heard. First of all let us consider the Son. We see the Word made flesh; the One Who was in the beginning, Who was with God, Who was God, and Who was in the beginning with God (and that is not redundant), present as a man, sharing our world of matter and space and time, where He was seen and heard, and where He was touched by the hands of men. His presence in our form, His coming in our nature, is the greatest revelation of God, and the seal and proof of His love for us. Whatever it means that we are made in God’s image, clearly it means that our nature was such that the Word could assume it, that He could take it into His eternal uncreated Person without compromising His Divinity or His holiness. And, as He stood in the waters, Himself without sin, He objectively identified Himself with our weakness, and began to be the offering for our sin. This foreshadows the cross where He would die in our place the death of sin that we deserved. For John baptized sinners unto repentance, and here he baptizes the Holy One, who has no sins to repent of. Thus, Christ begins His ministry of redemption by letting the weight of our sin fall upon Him. Remember that it was from this experience that John the Baptist saw that Jesus is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.

The Holy Spirit appears as a dove. Now, this is a different kind of manifestation than the physical presence of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit is appearing in a vision granted to everyone there; His appearing is in a symbolic way, that is to say, it is a Divine writing of iconography in the very heavens. The appearance of a dove is a symbol, and the message is that God’s wrath is over and done. This is the Christmas message of the angel who appeared and spoke to the shepherds of “peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” Not “among” men, but towards men. We are reminded of the story of Noah, who sent out the dove, which returned with an olive branch in its mouth to reveal that the waters of God’s wrath had abated from off the earth. Noah later offered a sacrifice after he left the ark, and God promised not to destroy man, and hung up His bow, His rainbow, as a pledge. The meaning is this: By appearing as a dove that descended upon Jesus, the Holy Spirit signified to us that Christ is the peace offering that reconciles us to God. This too, just like the very baptism itself, points to our redemption by Christ’s full and complete offering of Himself on the cross.

And, to the ear came the audible voice of the Father, telling us of His pleasure in the Son. This is more than simply His approval of Christ’s holy life. It is the eternal love within the Trinity, wherein God delights in being God, where each of the Persons delights in the perfection and worthiness of the other two Persons. Again, like those pictures of the Grand Canyon, we know this is true, but our speaking of it cannot do justice to the reality as we shall begin to know it when the risen Christ returns in glory. For now, we see the significance in the Father’s words, telling us not only of His Son’s worthiness and holiness, but speaking this in contrast to the pleasure He cannot take in the fallen state of every other human being who was there; because all of the others who were there, just like you and me, were sinners in need of forgiveness. Here too we understand why this voice was heard at the Lord’s baptism. As Jesus Christ identified Himself with sinful mankind, the other Persons of the Godhead told us Who He is, and why He is Himself without sin, but standing in for us to save us. The Father speaks of His Son Who always pleases Him, telling us not only that He remains holy and without spot or stain of sin, but even more, that He is the Son Who throughout eternity and before all worlds gives delight to the Father in that Divine love that is beyond our comprehension.

We see the Trinity in this report of the Lord’s baptism that day. The vision of the Holy Spirit was for our sake; the voice of the Father was for our sake. Here we see and hear the Trinity with eyes and ears, and we see also that only in Jesus Christ and His offering of Himself do we have salvation from sin and death. And, we can say, from all this, that the revelation of the Trinity tells us that, in the words of Saint John the Apostle, “God is love.”


Brendan said...

I came home from Mass to read the comments by Frs Hart and Wells only to notice that both had 'The Baptism of our Lord' as the gospel reading whereas here in Australia we had the 'wedding at Cana' which is the appointed reading both in the English Missal and the Book of Common Prayer for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany. 'The Baptism of our Lord'was set down for the 13th of January. Could you explain please?
By the way the analogy of the Grand Canyon with seeing God face to face seems very applicable. "And, no matter how well the truth about God is taught, He will be a surprise when we see Him face to face on the Last Day. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him".
I could not believe it when I actually saw the GC .... totally awesome - which pictures, television footage fail to convey in its entirety.

Anonymous said...

The EO tradition, as I am told, was to celebrate the Baptism of Jan 6. The Missale Romanum celebrated this epochal event of salvation history on the Octave of Epiphany, Jan. 13. I would presume this was the case in the Sarum calendar as well but am not sure. The 1549 Prayer Book suppressed all observance of Our Lord's Baptism and this remained the case until 1928. In that revision, the Baptism was inserted into the Epiphany readings on the 2nd Sunday. The other Gospels were shoved down a Sunday, resulting in the elimination of the Gadarene Swine passage from Matt. 8 (wouldnt that be fun to preach!)

The 1928 revisers chose Mark's account for the Baptism. This was probably owing to the notion current that the time that Mark's Gospel was the earliest. Either Matthew's or John's account is theologically richer.

To my way of thinking, they would have been wiser to assign the Baptism to Epiphany I, keeping the three major epiphanies together, the Magi, the Baptism and the Cana marriage feast.
The Boy Jesus in the Temple story could have been moved back to Christmas II (a Sunday which occurs only 3 out of every 7 years). And the loss of Matt. 8:23 on Epiphany 4 is regrettable. Perhaps the occasion could be observed with a parish potluck featuring pork barbecue (a cherished delicacy in my part of the country).