The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 13th January 2024
Icon of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ written by Christine Hales, artist/Iconographer
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, the start of his adult ministry. For the Eastern Church this is seen as his ‘epiphany’, the time when he was publicly announced as the son of God. In this community we celebrate it as the culmination of the octave of Epiphany, holding together the stories of revelations to small groups of people around the time of his birth with this public announcement of the adult Jesus to the people of Israel gathered at the river Jordan to be baptised by John.
I have been pondering the iconography of this feast, which portrays Jesus standing vulnerable and naked in the river Jordan as John baptises him. The river is portrayed as a rocky enclosure containing the waters, which gives the appearance of a tomb. It makes the link between the baptism and the death of Jesus. The waters are a dark and dangerous place, a place of monstrous fears. Jesus goes through these waters to open the way to a new life beyond the fear of what lurks in those waters in a prefiguring of his crucifixion and resurrection. He holds out his hand to bless those fearful waters.
I found myself seeing the rocky enclosure as my stony heart and the waters as the dark and murky depths of myself, full of all sorts of monstrous distortions, neuroses, anger, judgemental attitudes… all the things that cut me off from God. As I looked at the icon I saw Jesus being baptised in the depths of my own soul, plunging in to bring blessing in those deep dark places. In his baptism he identified himself with us in our sin and brokenness, nothing is too dark and broken for him to redeem.
As he rose up out of the water ‘he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’ [Mark 1:10-11] As I sat with that image I saw his feet still in the murky depths as he stood in the water and yet the heavens were opened to him, to God proclaiming God’s love for him.
Is this an image for us to hold of our own baptism into Christ? In union with him we stand with our feet in the murky depths yet able to lift our faces to heaven. We hear God say to each one of us ‘you are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased’. However murky those depths, when we come to baptism or renew our baptismal vows, God’s love lifts us up to stand before him as a much loved child of God.
I find here too an image of intercession, picking up on Helen Luke’s explanation in her book ‘Old Age’1. She points out that the word "intercede" comes from the Latin roots "inter" and "cedere," which means "yielded between." The one who offers intercessory prayer is literally "yielded between" heaven and earth.
Jesus Christ stands with his feet in the muck of earthly life yet open to God his Father. He becomes one who establishes a bridge between heaven and earth, making intercession to God for us. In Christ we too are called to this work of “yielding between” heaven and earth, to bring before God all human yearning for God to act, for wrongs to be righted, for the suffering and oppressed to be set free, to hold the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’.
For Jesus his ultimate intercession was made on the cross as he surrendered to the cruel and unjust death that set us free from the fear of sin and death. We may not be called to such an extreme intercession but we all have to accept the tension of living in a world that falls far short of what God desires for it. We have to live in that mysterious place where we know the depths of God’s love for us even as we face suffering – our own or that of others.
The intercession of Christ, and our own intercession, transforms the murky depths of the human heart into the ‘Springing waters, clear, life giving’ that we will sing about at Lauds. The waters of baptism become ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ [John 4:14] and the Spirit that descended like a dove on Jesus is given to us too, blessing and empowering us as much loved children of God.
Mother Anne - 13th January 2024
1 “Old Age: Journey into Simplicity” by Helen M. Luke