Note: In the Lectionary published in 1969, the first and second readings for today were the same each year; the revised version published in 1981 provides a three-year cycle for all three readings.
At this time of year, the Church celebrates the “Epiphany”, which means a solemn, striking, royal or divine visit. We recall how God the Word, Creator and King of all creation, visited his people and was seen on earth. In particular, we focus on the events that made it progressively clear who our Visitor is, and why he was here. The revised Lectionary has enlarged on this theme, inspired by the old cycle of readings which gave us, in sequence, the visit of the Magi, the Finding in the Temple, Jesus’ Baptism, and the Wedding at Cana.
These events point us towards the great event that made it clearest who Jesus is, namely his Crucifixion. He said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM HE,” and, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.” It was when he was raised up on the Cross that Jesus could most clearly be seen as the Word that did not return to God empty, but accomplished the mission given him. The Magi represent all humanity, drawn to Jesus; the symbolism of their gifts was fulfilled when God reigned from the Tree, and the eternal High Priest offered himself in sacrifice. In the three days’ “loss” between his Death and Resurrection he fulfilled the prophecies the teachers of the Law had pondered, in a way yet more astonishing than when, when he was twelve, they had been amazed at his replies.
St. Mark structures his Gospel around three great moments of revelation. At the beginning, Jesus is baptized, and the Father’s voice declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Half-way through, he is transfigured, and the voice tells the disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” At the end, Jesus dies on the Cross, and the centurion can declare, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” I suspect Mark intends us to apply this to ourselves. When we are baptized, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, we are given a share in Jesus’ own ministry. On our pilgrimage we may be given moments of “transfiguration” – sacramental celebrations, answers to prayer, times when faith is strengthened, and so on. But, like the disciples who could not keep Jesus on the mountain of the Transfiguration, we must learn to follow him on the Way of the Cross, since it is when we share Jesus’ self-giving love that we most truly appear to the world as God’s children.
We may flesh this out, following the tradition that it was by being baptized that Jesus made our Baptism possible, and taking a lead from the custom of depicting Jesus’ Baptism in baptisteries. When we accepted the invitation to come to the waters, we went into them with Jesus, and the Father’s voice said to each of us, “You are my child, my beloved.” We were begotten from God the Father as members of his eternal Son, and commissioned – as the new rite of Baptism emphasises – to love our Father and to love all the others he begets. We were given a share in Jesus’ victory over the world, that is, the Holy Spirit empowered us to resist “the world, the flesh and the devil” whenever they would have us not love.
St. John reminds us that Jesus did not come with water only, but with water and blood; and the Spirit, who is truth – truth in the sense of loyalty – is the witness. For while the Holy Trinity was revealed on the public stage for the first time at Jesus’ Baptism, the great moment of revelation was when Jesus died and “handed over the Spirit”, symbolised by the Blood-and-water, living water. That is when Jesus revealed the Father’s mercy and loyalty, and the shedding of his Blood was the everlasting Covenant, the ultimate pledge of God’s loyalty to his People, his Bride. All the Sacraments draw their power chiefly from this Sacrifice, which obtained the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s Love and Loyalty in Person.
In Baptism, and again in Confirmation, the Holy Spirit sealed us: he claimed us as the Father’s; he christened us, that is, he conformed us to Christ; and he forged in us a love which can keep us loyal to our Father, and empower us to minister his loyalty to those he gives us to care for. This work the Spirit wrought is a resource on which we can continue to draw, so that we may securely journey into our inheritance.