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Baptism of the Lord

Baptism, our Tomb and Womb

Our baptisms were tame affairs. Quite likely when we were baptised we were babies, and a little water was gently and carefully poured on our heads by a priest speaking softly in a dignified church.

Just a few weeks ago we celebrated Christmas, and pictures of baby Jesus are still fresh in our minds. Birth and baptism came close together for many of us, and so we approach today's feast of the Baptism of our Lord unprepared to feel the impact of what really happened.

By all accounts, John the Baptist was no cosy figure and offered little to soothe. He was fierce, outspoken, direct, outlandish looking, and lived a strange kind of life. Soon he would be removed by execution.

To come to John was to be cut down to size and jolted into repentance. Jesus went to him not as a child but as an adult, and took even John by surprise in doing it. This was no setting for the Saviour, the all-powerful and sinless one. It was a place of repentance, it was a time of humility before God.

What was Jesus Christ doing there? It even struck John the Baptist as odd. Roles were being reversed, the one from on high was plunging this far down, behaving like a repenting sinner and submerged in the matter the world is made of.

Something new was coming to birth from the waters of the Jordan. Water that is womb; Adam and now a new Adam. There had been a parting of the waters of the Red Sea to allow God's people to escape from slavery; Moses and now a new Moses. Christ was using the material and the historical to save.

If the waters of the river Jordan were womb, they were also tomb for an old, dead, sinful way of living. Christ left no space empty, even mingling with the those who were failures and in desperate need. Out of the depths he cried. Out of the depths he was heard.

If this sounds like an anticipation of Good Friday, and it was, then from the very beginning of Jesus's public ministry we see him sharing our materiality and submerged by the weight of sins he did not commit but took on. We were not saved from a distance by a Saviour who kept himself invulnerable.

The catastrophe of sin was universal, and it taints our origins and our personal choices. The waters of the Flood could have finished it all, shipwrecking humanity. Yet an ark of salvation was fashioned to survive the Flood, and the returning dove brought a sign that all was not lost.

A dove, notice. All three evangelists who tell us about the baptism of Jesus (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record that as Jesus came up from the waters, something like a dove signalled again where our salvation is to be found. It is now in Christ.

Our own baptism may well have been a tame ceremony, but its effects through Christ are matters of life and death, and by it we are involved in mysteries that change the world. Today's feast completes that of Christmas day and the Epiphany, showing us just what a distance Christ travelled from the life he shared as God with the Father and the Spirit whilst remaining the Son of God. Christ journeyed to us with a purpose and not in vain.

On Good Friday, Jesus would again be humbled and then executed. For him to be born at all was already a descent, a self-emptying of glory, and his whole life and ministry among us were often in obscurity.

He went to unlikely places and befriended unlikely people - this is not how we might expect God to behave. When Jesus was finally brought down, down from the cross, they put his corpse out of sight in a tomb, submerged in stone.

In today's feast of the baptism of our Lord, we reconnect with that day when he was submerged in water at the river Jordan. Yet as the Gospels tell us, the Father never took back his love for his Son, and the Spirit came to him.

Because of all this, we too are baptised by water in the name of the Trinity of unbreakable and saving love. The Church has been made into our ark of salvation, the baptismal font is tomb and womb.

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