Thursday, January 15, 2009

Epiphany I: Baptism of Christ (2009)

Mark 1:4-11

“Who are you?”

That can be either a very simple question, or a very complicated one, can it not? We could answer truthfully by just stating our name, or we could answer truthfully by telling our life’s story. It’s a question of identity, and identity is a very serious question indeed. When we travel abroad, one document that we keep very close to at all times is our passport, because a passport is a fundamental document of identity, and if our identity should ever need to be verified, a passport, and sometimes only a passport, will accomplish that task. Of course, one of the best indicators of how important identity and the documentation of identity are in our society is the burgeoning criminal industry in identity theft—no doubt nearly all of us have either been a victim of identity theft or known a victim.

In one dimension, of course, our identity is fixed at birth. We’re born in a certain place at a certain time. Who our parents are is a matter of record, and one or both of those parents give us a name, which goes on an identity document called a Birth Certificate. For the most part, we can’t change any of these markers; we just accept them as given, though some of them might become more malleable as life goes on.

But in another dimension, the matter of identity is not quite so clear and concise. The circumstances of our lives play a huge role in shaping the identity that we eventually settle into. The sort of love and attention we receive from our parents has a tremendous effect. When Brenda and I met our baby granddaughter Charlotte for the first time the week before last, I was struck by how her mother and father are so completely “there” for her in every way, and how she is already privileged, right out of the starting gate, because there are so many other little ones who are not nearly so fortunate, and it will affect their identities.

In yet still another dimension, all of us consciously take actions that shape our identity. We apply ourselves in school, or not; we go to college, or not, and we choose this college and not that college; we choose this line of work and not that line of work; we marry this person rather than that person, or we choose instead to wait for the person we haven’t yet met. When my Baby Boomer generation was young, we were famous for having “identity crises,” and for needing to take time after graduating from college to “find” ourselves. 

So, as we saw three weeks ago, Jesus had a lot of his identity cards played for him before he was even born. The angel Gabriel told his mother that he would be the Son of God, the one through whom the LORD would save his people. The very name Jesus comes to us through Latin and Greek, but ultimately from Hebrew, where it is rendered Yeshua, and it means, literally, “the LORD saves.” How’s that for an identity!  And as we saw last Sunday, by the age of 12, at least, there were signs that Jesus was “living into” that identity by being about his “Father’s business” when he should have been playing video games with the other boys his age.

Today, then, we mark the event at which Jesus’ identity is revealed, claimed, and seized—his baptism by John in the Jordan River. As Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark’s gospel tells us, he immediately sees a hole in the sky, and a dove flying down through it right toward him. And he hears a voice coming out of the hole in the sky saying, “Attaboy! Nice job!” (That’s the MRSV—the Martins Revised Version translation!) This is a picture, an audio-visual snapshot of Jesus’ identity. It reveals his identity as God the Son in relation to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  And when we look at this snapshot along with the other photos in the album known as the Gospel according to St Mark, we can see that, even as Jesus is still dripping wet with river water, his future is already being shaped—configured to a particular form that looks a whole lot like a Cross.

As disciples of Jesus, our experience parallels his. In our baptism, our identity “in Christ” places us in that same picture, that same snapshot in our family photo album. In our baptism, and when we re-connect with that baptism like we’re going to do in a few minutes, we “hear” the echo of the Father’s voice as we become and continue to be his “beloved” sons and daughters. In that water, we are gifted with the same Holy Spirit that is represented by the dove that Jesus saw crashing through a hole in the sky. Heck, turn around and look at the font—we’ve got our own photographic record of the event right here at St Anne’s!  

Of course, our baptism, then, also places us on the same glide path that is shaped like a cross, shaped like death and resurrection. Today is a sort of transition point in liturgical times, when we begin to turn our attention away from the birth of Christ and toward his Passion and Resurrection, as we’re about six weeks away from the beginning of Lent. The identity we are given in baptism plants a seed. It provides us with the raw material—raw material that does not immunize us from suffering, but which strengthens our ability to respond with grace and gratitude to the suffering that comes our way. In baptism, we are given an identity that transcends any other identity we may be born with or may later acquire. It is in the water of the font that we learn truly who we are, because it is only on the water of the font that we learn truly Whose we are.

So it’s about time we got our ID document renewed. Please stand. 

(Renewal of Baptismal Vows follows)

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