+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Mark’s gospel is the shortest of all the gospels, and its literary style is hurried and urgent. Matthew and Luke also have accounts of Jesus’ baptism, and John’s gospel implies it without actually spelling it out. Matthew and Luke include details of Jesus’ baptism that are not mentioned by Mark, whose account is characteristically concise. And because of the brevity of the account, the concluding verse of this story has a greater impact than in the other gospel accounts: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.
Last Saturday I went out on my own for a walk that turned out to be a little wilder than I had in mind. I walked up through the woods and over Remenham Hill, dropping down into Aston, with the intention of walking back into Henley along the Thames path. I knew the path was flooded, but I had wellies on, so I didn’t expect it to be a problem. But when I got to Aston I discovered that the flood waters had come most of the way up Ferry Lane.
I managed to wade my way through that easily enough, and was relieved to see dry land at the end, by the jetty, although the jetty itself was completely covered. But then I looked over to my left to where the Thames path should be, and all I could see was river.
Knowing that section of the river bank pretty well, noting that the floodwater was completely still, and trusting in my wellies, I decided to push on. I had a good idea of where the path was supposed to be, but I was also very conscious of how steeply the bank slopes down to the river – the bank which was now underwater, and therefore not visible. I knew that although the path was for the most part only under a foot or so of water, just a short distance to my right the water was five or six feet deep. In the fading light of a winter afternoon it wasn’t easy to see exactly where the ground beneath the water fell away. So I kept to the left, and the worst consequence that befell me was the overtopping of my wellies. After some slightly nervous moments I emerged from the floodwaters somewhere near Hambleden Lock, and triumphantly squelched my way back to Henley, stopping at intervals to pour out the water from my boots.
The association of water with religious rituals must I am sure be something universal. Christians have baptism and holy water, Jews and Muslims have rituals of washing, Hindus have the River Ganges. There are holy wells and springs all over Britain with Christian associations, but with origins that very likely go back to some forgotten pagan cult.
It’s not hard to understand why this is so. We think of the essential life-giving properties of water. Life cannot exist without it. We need it to drink, we need it to grow crops and sustain livestock, we need it for hygiene, we need it for transport.
But it is also deeply destructive. My encounter with the flooded Thames had its nervous moments, and if I had inadvertently veered off the path I could have ended up neck deep in very cold water, a baptism I really didn’t fancy. But as encounters with the raw power of water go it was pretty tame. It is hard for us to imagine the terror of sailors on a raging sea in ancient times, or of nomadic pastoralists enduring the cataclysmic winter storms that break on the mountain regions of the middle east. Ancient people knew both the essential life-giving properties of water, and its brutal destructive force, they understood its connection with life and with death, and so they associated it with the divine.
As in today’s psalm:
The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
We find a similar idea in our reading from Genesis, describing the primal floodwaters of the dawn of creation. The Hebrew word for wind and spirit is the same, and so translators have to choose: the wind or the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.
The modern worldview accepts a very stark distinction between the material and the spiritual. I think it probably has something to do with Plato, who distinguished between a perfect world of ideas on the one hand, and an imperfect realm of matter on the other. With the Renaissance, the rise of modern science, the Protestant reformation and the Enlightenment, there was a progressive de-mythologization and de-sacralisation of the created world. Not only Will o’the Wisp and the fairies were banished from the marshes and the gardens, but God Himself was pushed out of His own creation. Nature became a mere resource for human exploitation, and this has landed us in rather a mess. But this is not a biblical way of understanding the world: in the Bible, God is at work in and through the natural world, and spiritual benefits come through material things. The ultimate example of this of course is the Incarnation itself: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
And so it should come as no surprise that it is through the material element of water that this great Epiphany occurs, and Jesus is revealed as the Beloved Son. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, the Word of God through whom all things were created entered creation, the life that is the light of all people became a human being, and His identity is revealed through the great life-giving element of water.
And it should also come as no surprise to us that in the great sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion we receive the greatest spiritual blessings through elements of the material world.
The waters of baptism are both destructive and life-giving: we die and are buried with Christ, sin is drowned in the baptismal waters, and yet we share in His resurrection life, our life is bound up with His.
And more than that, the words spoken to Jesus over the waters of the river Jordan are spoken to us also: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. What comfort we can draw from these words in these difficult days. We are God’s sons and daughters, we have been baptised into the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we share in His life. And in the power of the Holy Spirit working through the gifts of God’s creation in the sacraments, we will grow more and more into that true identity which has been conferred on us by God’s grace.
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.