January 9, 2022| 1st Sunday after Epiphany (Baptism of the Lord)
Isaiah 43: 1-7
Acts 8: 9-25
A great voice comes from the sky when Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan. Is this a great, magnificent, resounding voice, the voice that “shakes the wilderness” and “strips the forest bare”? Or is it something like “the sound of silence” that can only be heard by Jesus? The Gospel text does not specify. All we know is that this is not the voice of a creature. It comes from high above, meaning that when you hear it, you look around and there is no identifiable source for it. “What did just happen? Did you hear that voice? Which voice?” somebody says; “I didn’t hear any voice.”
If I told you that I hear voices coming from the sky, you might try to get me the number of a good psychiatrist. Such is the distance between our world and the world of the Bible. The writers of the Bible knew very well the reality of mental illness, although they interpreted it often as demon possession. But they also knew that extrasensory experience, sometimes taking a “bodily form” such as that of a dove or a voice from heaven, can be from God. That is, our ordinary reality sometimes opens up all of a sudden: the heavens open and there is a break in the sky, which is also a mental upheaval. We see and perceive things as we never did before. Today, just as in the 1950s and 1960s, there is a renewed interest in LSD experimentation as connected to spiritual experience. In biblical times, LSD was not available. Yet there were other techniques that helped some people get a vantage point different from their usual one. For example, a prolonged period of fasting.
I do not suggest to you today to try either LSD or prolonged fasting. But I wonder about this year 2022 that is in front of us, and how to gain a different perspective on it. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the transition in our calendar between Christmastide and what we sometimes call “Ordinary Time.” I don't know about you, but I feel pulled out of the world of carols and magic back into my everyday world of regular worries and anxieties. In particular, I think of the future of our beloved parish. Changes are in sight. We don't know yet their extent, and we have a measure of choice in what the future will look like. I hope that we will exercise such freedom collectively in the most thoughtful way. Your unwavering support is clearly shown in the draft budget for the year, where the pledge amount is almost the same as last year, despite the fact that some people have left the parish. Yet things will not continue as before. The routine on this campus will change; we don't know how yet. But that in itself provokes worries in those who have seen this place as an anchor for their lives--myself included. Add to that the Omicron surge, the political upheavals, personal health issues, and family circumstances, and we all have plenty to be worried about.
What does the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan say to us in this situation? The basic metaphor of baptism, as you know, is that of death and rebirth. Death in the waters of chaos; rebirth by catching breath, a new breath or Spirit, out of the waters. It is precisely at this moment, as soon as Jesus emerges from the water, that the voice from heaven comes to him. The world around him has not changed: same level of poverty and oppression under Roman occupation, same spread of illnesses in the population, same huge sets of legitimate worries. The voice does not change any of these things. The miracle, the wondrous event, happens for Jesus, within Jesus. Baptism is a reorientation. The world remains what it is; the person changes. The vantage point is new. Imagine, for a moment, the words of the prophet Isaiah that we heard today as an extended version of the voice from heaven addressed to Jesus. And then transfer those words from Jesus to yourself. “When you pass through the waters I will be with you . . . you will walk through the fire and you will not be burned . . . you are so precious in my eyes that I would give the richest of nations in exchange for you . . . Fear not! I have called you by my name, and you are mine!”
A recent movie has made me capture a nuance of this text that I did not see before. One of the two lovers tells the other: “Call me by your name, and I'll call you by mine.” It's a silly game, if you like, but one that bespeaks the intimacy and the desire for union among the two. That is what God says: “I have called you by my name, and you are mine!” Yes, this means that YHWH has chosen Israel, but it also means that their relationship is as intimate as that of lovers. I cannot ask you to walk in life, to walk into this year 2022, feeling that God loves you so much that no harm can come to you. I cannot ask you that, because feelings don't work in that way. I cannot even tell myself what to feel, so imagine if I tried to tell anybody else how they should feel. This, in fact, is not a matter of duty. It is a matter of possibilities. You cannot concoct the voice from heaven telling you that you are a beloved daughter or son of God, children of the divine through the divine Child. Fasting, LSD, or any other efforts on our part will not, by themselves, be able to create such an experience. Yes, our theology tells us that, through Jesus the Beloved, we have been welcomed by God as beloved. And this is not hot air, empty words. It is a kind of precipitate derived from the experience of many of our ancestors in the faith. Yet, like them, we need to struggle, one by one as well as collectively, to make it our experience as well. This is not just a matter of believing in the idea of being God's children. It is a matter that involves all our being. I cannot control when, and how, I will feel that God is in me, calming me, soothing me, speaking to me, energizing me, making me feel that I am safe no matter what this year will bring. But I can remember that this is a possibility, and remain open to it. I can pray about it. I can walk regularly in the garden and habituate myself to feel a presence, the voice of silence.
Baptism has meant many things, to many people, throughout Christian history. Like anything sacred, it can be manipulated. The emperor of the Franks, Charlemagne, in the 10th century, conducted a bloody war against the Saxons and then forced baptism on them. What a perversion! But we already find in the New Testament stories about the attempts to buy the power of the sacred, to make of it a commodity. Simon Magus, the man in today’s second reading, thinks of baptism and the imposition of hands as a sort of magic, as something that can be handled to one's advantage. In the story about him, the author of the Acts of the Apostles tries to correct this vision. God is free. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles shows how God works within pagans and Samaritans, even against the wishes or the expectations of the apostles. The Samaritans are baptized by the deacon Philip without the apostles’ being informed. Then they rush in to make things right. Later on, the Holy Spirit descends on the pagans whom God has chosen, not only on those that the Church has already baptized. The apostles are shown, in the stories bearing their names, as running here and there to certify the acts of the Holy Spirit and to include those whom God has already chosen. God is free, and baptism is not, cannot be, a way to restrict God's grace to those that we choose to baptize.
Yet, for us, baptism is of the utmost importance. Yes, most of us were baptized as infants and we have no memory of the event. But we remember it collectively, on days like today, because on such a ritual act is based our identity. I have a name, a family, a gender, a nationality, and, more importantly, a personal history. But all of these pale before the sheer possibility of having a much deeper and truer identity: that of a child of God. I was generated, no doubt, by a sum of several different circumstances. But more importantly, there is the possibility for me to achieve the knowledge and the experience that I was generated, that I am generated every day, by God and from God. Jesus descends into the river. He is the icon of our descending into our everyday business and worries and sinful habituations. Jesus rises from the waters. He is the icon of our new orientation in life. Reality around us has not changed. I may be someone who has already heard the voice, or I may be waiting to hear it. But what a difference it makes to have even the possibility that, one day, I will hear that voice!