Wonder Without Water
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: spirit, water, baptism, epiphany, theophany
The Church of the Ascension, Munich, Germany
January 10, 2021 • The Baptism of the Lord
Text: Mark 1:8: "I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Something is missing. We know what this day should be like typically; it’s the feast of The Baptism of the Lord. There should be a little child, and there should be a baptismal font, and a family, and a community—and there should be water. But something is missing today. It isn’t the usual way that we celebrate today. As we have had to do for so long now, almost a whole year, today we have to do without—without some of the things that usually give this day meaning.
So what else might we be invited to focus on today? How else might we make sense of the Baptism of the Lord in the lives that we are living—still in this pandemic?
The disciples who gathered around John the Baptist were adapting a Jewish ritual to what they believed was an emerging new reality. The use of water for purification, and as a sign of both repentance and preparation for an inbreaking future, was well known to the Jewish people of the first century.
We even find an account of water purification in the apocryphal book of Judith, in which the heroine’s daily ritual of bathing is connected to her preparation to act to save Israel.
But there is something different in the account of Jesus’s baptism. John gives us a preview of what that difference will be; he says that while the baptism he will give Jesus is a baptism of water, the baptism Jesus gives will be something entirely spiritual in nature—a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
We know that the very first Christian communities understood this pointed to the joining of a physical, material sign with a spiritual reality in a single act—initiation by baptism in the Christian community. Those early disciples in Ephesus still hadn’t heard about the connection between the two—so Saint Paul immediately gives them the whole baptismal treatment.
We hear the story of Jesus’s baptism each year in Epiphany because it is one of the ways in which Jesus is manifested to the world as the promised Messiah of God. But that manifestation happens as the inbreaking of God’s presence into the world—they see a dove and hear a voice.
That’s a different sort of showing forth—the EfM students will know that it’s a theophany, a showing forth of God within the frame of the world, like the burning bush or the still small voice.
This epiphany, we have to do without the usual physical aspects of this feast. The stuff of this world—water, air, hugs, touching—it all makes a pathway for this virus to travel.
Christianity is a religion of incarnation. Just as there are some things only an incarnate God can do, there are some things only physical stuff can do—at least when it comes to the sacramental world.
But maybe we can think of that absence, not as a deprivation, but an invitation—an invitation to reflect on the little theophanies of our lives, the signs of the connections between our spirits and the Holy Spirit. Maybe this absence can help us be more sensitive to a different presence—the sights and sounds by which the spirit of God can suddenly appear, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.
We will have water again. We will be able to gather as a community again. But until then, it’s maybe the case that we’re being invited to ask ourselves where God is present in our lives spiritually—where we have that sense of God’s presence, that theophany that we learned about today, in our lives. Where the spirit is taking up the space that we would usually want to see filled by the physical. That’s the invitation of Epiphany—at least of this Epiphany. Amen.