Reflection for The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 13th January 2021
So far on our journey through the Christmas season we have been in the realms of the hidden mysteries and cosmic origins of the incarnate Christ, expressed differently in different gospels. Now at his baptism the man Jesus emerges into human history in an event recorded in all four gospels. For the Eastern churches this is the event that is celebrated as the Epiphany- the time when the voice of God proclaims Jesus his son and the spirit visibly descends in the form of a dove. An Epiphany of the Trinity.
From the gospel of Luke, chapter 3:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
There is so much that could be said about this event that marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry – where to begin! But one detail in all the accounts that has caught my eye this year is the Spirit descending like a dove. That all four gospels liken the Spirit to a dove suggests that this is important – but why? Much more often we think of the spirit in terms of the tongues of fire at Pentecost but this is a quiet and gentle coming.
Thoughts of the dove led me to the dove that Noah released from the Ark and which returned with a sprig of olive to signify that God’s wrath was ended and the flood abated. It was a sign of God’s love and mercy towards humankind, a fresh start in a world washed clean by the flood. The dove with a sprig of olive has become a universal symbol of peace, along with the rainbow that marked the end of the flood. But sadly humankind continued along the path of pride, selfishness and conflict and the promise of the dove of peace was not realised.
The coming of the Spirit in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism showed forth again God’s love and mercy in revealing his beloved son to us as he emerged from the waters. Here was the one who would baptise us with the Holy Spirit, empowering us to live a new life and to follow him on the way of peace. At last humankind was made ready to receive the promise of the dove of peace through God taking on the fullness of our human nature and receiving the baptism of John.
I have come to associate the baptism in the Spirit with dramatic manifestations akin to those of Pentecost and seen in some of Paul’s communities. But here the coming of the Spirit is like that of a dove – a shy bird that comes quietly and coos with a gentle voice. Perhaps the baptism of Jesus was a very undramatic affair. In Luke’s gospel Jesus is said to be praying as the Spirit descends. I picture him listening in deep silence to his Father’s voice as the dove settles on him. John recognized what was happening but I wonder how many others around him did? The account in John’s gospel has John the Baptist pointing Jesus out to those who were to become his first disciples. It had not been obvious to them that something extraordinary had happened.
I wonder whether we can miss the coming of the Spirit when we are expecting something dramatic? From New Testament times onwards there have been times when the Spirit has come in dramatic ways but there are plenty of undramatic lives in which the Spirit has worked powerfully. Our lives here in the monastery are rightly described by Michael Casey as 'unexciting' and this is how they need to be for us to live at depth in God’s love. We are in this for the long haul and we need the sustenance of the life-giving breath of the Spirit, to use an image from John’s gospel.
At times, for some people, a jolt of fire is what is needed to transform their lives but I do believe in the end the real transformation happens when we let go the desire for drama and rather allow the Spirit to breathe quietly within. I am reminded that in my studies of biochemistry respiration was described as 'controlled fire' – without the energy of that invisible fire, driven by the oxygen of our breath, we would be dead. In the same way we need the oxygen of the Spirit to fuel our spiritual lives, burning with an invisible interior fire. That Spirit was given us in our baptism and confirmation in the name of the Holy Trinity.
In these troubled and anxious times we need to embody God’s peace and calm – for one another, for our staff and for the wider world. We can only do this as we immerse ourselves in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, allowing the Spirit to breathe within us and whisper to us 'You are my beloved child'. In that love we know that we are safe and, however dire the outer situation, 'All shall be well'.
Mother Anne - 13th January 2021