Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. We recall the moment when Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry came to John the Baptist and asked to be baptised. The observance of this feast is both novel and very ancient, novel because it entered our calendar quite recently in 1955, and ancient because the baptism of Jesus (rather than the visit of the three kings) was the original theme of the Epiphany, and the Epiphany itself was a more ancient celebration than even Christmas.
All this may upset our settled way of thinking; everybody knows about Christmas as the birth of our Lord, some are fairly well acquainted with the Epiphany when the three Kings arrived, very few can be bothered with the baptism of Jesus by John.
We need to do a bit of explaining, and the best way of doing it is by looking at the word 'Epiphany' and explaining what exactly it means. It's a Greek word meaning a sudden appearance. We might for example use the word speaking of the sudden appearance of enemy troops. What really struck the first Christians about the birth of Christ was not so much stories about a babe in a crib with shepherds and angels milling around, or magi from the east paying homage. It was the sudden appearance of God in our everyday world.
They were perhaps more theologically trained than we are. In the original observance of the 'Epiphany' they went to the core meaning of the incarnation rather than to the visual trappings. They celebrated God made man, his manifestation in our midst. This manifestation had several facets. Over and above recalling God made man at Bethlehem they celebrated God's manifestation to all the peoples of the world represented by the kings from afar. They celebrated also the divine manifestation of the voice from heaven after his baptism, announcing 'This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on him'.
All these aspects of the divine appearance in our world were packed into the celebration of the original single feast then called the Epiphany and even today the prayers and hymns for that feast reflect all of them. Eventually of course all these aspects of the divine appearance were made into separate celebrations, Christmas recalling the birth, Epiphany recalling the homage paid by kings, and today's feast celebrating the Baptism of the Lord. They all belong to the Christmas season and it may therefore be said to come to an end with today's feast.
But today we are faced with quite a problem! John the Baptist preached penitence 'Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand'. His baptism was not just a ritual purification to be repeated over and over again, it was a once-in-the-life signal for an entirely changed way of life; he was preaching conversion from sin. And when people came to him with no intention of changing their lives he was quite straight with them. He called them 'Brood of vipers'. But Jesus was without sin. Matthew's gospel recognised the difficulty. John protests saying to Jesus: 'It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!' but Jesus insists. 'Let it be for now. For thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness'.
Mysterious enough words, but they win John's acceptance. Jesus is without sin, but he carries our sins for us. In Paul's vivid phrase 'For our sake God made the sinless one into sin'. It is part of the righteousness of God that Jesus and John must show perfect obedience to God's plan. The mysterious figure of the suffering servant in Isaiah later to be fulfilled in Christ's death is now at the outset of his public ministry evoked by the voice from heaven: 'This is my Son (servant) the Beloved, my favour rests on him'.
Those are the very words used by Isaiah to introduce the figure of the suffering servant. The divine irruption into our world, God's sudden appearance on our scene, upsets all our calculations. He identifies with us in all our weakness. Blessed be he!