St John & St Stephen’s Church, Reading, Epiphany 2, Sunday 12th January 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-end.
The Baptism of Christ
Today, in the church’s year, we celebrate the baptism of Christ. It may be that it’s not specially on our radar…it’s not Easter and it’s not Christmas, it’s not even Epiphany which was last Sunday. But I love the way that the lectionary, the order of readings set by the church that we have every Sunday, takes us each year to places we wouldn’t necessarily go to and bids us have a look again. And look is exactly what I invite us to do. 3 weeks ago I shared a beautiful picture of the Annunciation – the moment when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of our Lord; today I would like to use another painting as a way of literally seeing this moment in our faith history. This painting, by Giovanni di Paolo, was made in 1454 and it hangs in the National Gallery in London. I went to see it this week. It’s small, only 30 x 45cm, 12 x 18 inches. The painting shines with all that gold, and it’s really detailed. I got quite close to it with my reading glasses on and could admire the fine brushwork. It’s one of a sequence of 4 paintings on the life of John the Baptist and formed a predella, pictures set low down in front of the altar.
This is not a life-like picture! It’s not like a photo of the event. The artist had clearly understood something of the profound significance and mystery of this moment but instead of writing about it, he painted it. Despite being nearly 700 years old, this picture may help us to encounter this sacred moment, and hopefully to even touch us. We need what we do and say and see and experience here on a Sunday morning – the truths and the beauties – get to our hearts, our emotions and sensibilities to deeply affect us, not just to remain ‘out there’, but to inhabit a space ‘in here’, in our hearts and even our bodies as well as our minds. What do we see? Take a moment now to just look at the picture.
So, there are lots of angels surrounding the two central figures with gorgeous robes and golden haloes. The upper tier seem to be in heaven, mostly looking towards the figure of God the Father at the top in the middle, but one at the top left maybe even looking at us. At the bottom left are two people standing chatting – they look pretty glorious though! May be they are wondering what all this means? Which is exactly what we are doing, so we can think of these two as placing us in the scene. In the centre, in the lower half, we can see Jesus standing in the river Jordan, with John the Baptist on the right, pouring water on his head – that is, baptising him. The image of a bird, a dove, hovers over his head, in that space between heaven and earth.
Now lets’s plunge into what all this means. Do you see those silver spindles in the top half of the picture? A bit like flying fish? They are meant to be tears, rents, rips, slashes – the heavens, the realm of God and angels, is open! We are seeing heaven and earth in one view. This is a sensational moment. Mark, in his gospel, puts it like this: ‘Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart’ (Mk 1:10). As a result, in the picture, we see a representation of God the Father. In the gospel reading of course, we don’t see but we hear him. What do we hear? ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (Mt 3:17). These words are for us to hear as well as Jesus, firstly so that we can know who Jesus is – the Beloved Son of God, but also so that we can know that within the Godhead, within the mystery of the Trinity, between Father, Son and Spirit, there is love and delight. In the sending of the Son, Jesus, that love bursts out into humanity. We know those words, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’ (Jn 3:16). I think the artist tries to capture that in the loving gaze of the Father to the Son – and perhaps also we can see that the right hand of the Father is held in blessing – and is mirrored in the right hand of Jesus.
These words for Jesus were a declaration of who he is. Jesus the man, the carpenter, the son of Mary, adopted son of Joseph, brother to his siblings, friend and neighbour, refugee, soon-to-be itinerant preacher and healer was (and is) at his deepest, truest level, the Son of God, the Beloved. And his baptism at John’s hand was the declaration of that. Jesus’ baptism did not stand for repentance, it was in a profound sense, his naming.
In between the Father and the Son is the dove, the symbol of the Spirit. She hovers between them, caught between them in that force-field of love. In fact, in all 4 gospels, it says that the Spirit of God descended ‘like a dove’ or even ‘in a dove-like manner’ – that is, not exactly looking like a dove but quiet and gentle, not loud and forceful. But it’s OK to stay with the dove! In the first two verses of the Bible, in Genesis 1, it says, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’ At that moment, the Spirit, hovering over a formless void, was the agent of creation; this time, hovering over a human being, we are pointed to God’s intention to transform humanity.
Finally, we come to Jesus. Of course, the most outstanding thing is that he is naked. Look at the angels in their glorious robes, even John the Baptist with something respectable covering his camel’s hair garments. But Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, is unclothed, naked. His nakedness connects him again with the book of beginnings, to Genesis, to the mythical story of Adam and Eve – both naked as they were made ‘in the image of God’ (Gen 1:26,27). The artist captures Jesus’ vulnerability, his humility, even his aloneness as he stands strangely apart from the clamour of angels around him. He is even separated from John. This is our Saviour and Lord. His nakedness takes us to two other events in his life, one which we just celebrated at Christmas: his birth. It is how he came into the world; it is of course how we too come into the world, naked and vulnerable. And we think of his death on the cross: he was naked then too. Naked and vulnerable, unresisting to all the insults, goading, beating and violence.
And He is looking at us. Looking at me, Looking at you. There are lots of eyes in this painting, the Father looking at Jesus, most of the angels looking at God, one looking at Jesus, one just looking up, John the Baptist looking at Jesus, the two on the left looking at each other, but Jesus, naked, vulnerable Jesus, alone looking straight at us. His face is serious. What will you do with me?
Probably almost all of us here have been baptised. For some of us, that’s something we cannot remember since it happened to us when we were small babies. Others will have experienced the joy of adult baptism. For infants, baptism coincides with our naming. But I want to say, that beyond our receiving of a name – Richard, Elizabeth, Stephen, Mary – baptism is also a declaration, an affirmation of who we are at our deepest, truest level: a beloved daughter or son of God. We are baptised into the Name of the Trinity: that infinite, wonderful, eternal dance of love between Father, Son and Spirit. That love which was expressed out loud at the baptism of our elder brother, Jesus; and expressed through and in him in his life, death and resurrection. In fact, everything, from creation right through salvation history is to do with love! Our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God is in reality our truest self. Can you hear those words come to you? You too are the beloved daughter, the beloved son? I’m just wondering if that nakedness of Jesus in our picture expresses something else: we see him as he really is, a human being, beloved of God. He was simply a naked man, and then God declared him to be his Beloved Son. The pearl beyond price. Our clothes are part of our identity, aren’t they? They tell something. Rich, poor, office worker, manual worker, policeman, nurse, soldier, priest, lay reader: but strip that away and we are simply human beings. We get down to who we really are. At a still deeper level, transcending skin and bones is our heart, our soul, what Thomas Merton calls our ‘True self’. It is our True self that knows it is deeply loved by God, that we came from God and dwell in Him all of our days. But we need to hear the words, to understand the symbols in order for us to awaken to that wonderful, eternal reality. ‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O God, and our hearts can find no rest until they find their rest in thee’.
So much here. Perhaps when you’re at home, having a wash, a shower, a bath, you can use that moment with water to remember your baptism: what it means, that inner truth that you are a beloved child of God. Many churches have a stoup or bowl of water at the door, and people coming in can, if they wish, simply splash a little water on their forehead as a physical reminder of their baptism. It can be quite a powerful gesture, as other physical gestures such as kneeling, putting your hand over your heart, crossing yourself, receiving the laying on hands, being anointed with oil, eating bread and wine, sharing the peace. Try it! Christine and Claire have placed the font, full of blessed water, at the door of the church. So you are invited this morning, if you wish, to do just that. And as you do, pause, open your heart and hear those words: You too are my beloved.