Baptism of Christ
Sunday 10 January 2021
Preacher: Canon Nigel Davies, Vicar of the Close
“You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.”
Around 1437 the Italian artist Piero della Francesca painted an image of the baptism of Christ for a small chapel in his hometown in Tuscany. His painting now hangs in London’s National Gallery. The painting shows Jesus standing in the River Jordan, while John the Baptist pours water over his head from a bowl. Three angels look on, their faces showing an appalled wonder. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a perfect dove with huge wings, hovers over Jesus. The clouds in the blue sky reflect the dove’s shape and draw our eyes towards heaven, which is itself reflected in the clear waters. Just to the right a young man takes off his robe in preparation for his own baptism. In the background are the hills and towns of Tuscany, not Galilee! A large tree almost frames the whole event, reminding us of the tree of life from the garden of Eden, as well as the tree of crucifixion. The painting would have us understand that the baptism of Christ was the moment when heaven and earth came together and Christ’s humanity and ours was united. As the River Jordan is painted at the foot of the Tuscan hills, the artist wants us to see that Jesus’ baptism is not simply an interesting biblical fact – it is also about our own lives and our own places.
Mark’s account of the baptism of Christ establishes both the identity of Jesus – he is the Son of God and his authority - he is the one who comes after John the Baptist, more powerful than he. It also locates Jesus in a particular place – Nazareth. This physical location is important, for it helps us to see that Jesus is totally human, living in a real place, breathing the air and walking the land, just as everyone else does.
Mark begins his Gospel by telling us about the preparation for Jesus Christ. He does not tell us about Mary and Joseph and the birth in Bethlehem – instead he tells us about John the Baptist and his message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All the time he is pointing to Jesus, the one who will come after him: John the Baptist was a prophet, but Jesus is the Saviour.
At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, something extraordinary happens. Mark suggests it is only Jesus who sees and hears it. As he comes up from the water, he sees the heavens torn apart. The Greek words are more striking than the English translation – rendered in Greek Jesus sees the heavens “in the process of being torn apart”. It is the same verb which is used later in Mark’s Gospel (15:38), when Jesus dies and the curtain in the Temple is ‘torn apart’. The language tells us that this moment of Jesus’ baptism is of huge cosmic significance. It changes heaven and earth. The division between the two is gone.
The voice from heaven assures Jesus of who he is and of how the Father sees him. The rest of Mark’s Gospel will tell how Jesus lived out this identity. His words and his deeds will be heard and seen by others, who will come to understand what they mean. Almost at the end Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus dies on the cross, a centurion echoes those words he heard first at his baptism: “Truly this man was God's Son!” The life of Jesus has demonstrated the truth of his baptism.
What does all this mean for us, who seek to follow the way of Jesus some two thousand years later? Just as Jesus’ baptism assured him of who he was, so our baptisms, whether as babies or adults, tell us who we are. We are children of God, purely because that’s who God says we are. That is the power of baptism. Jesus went from his Baptism to show his identity in the way he lived out his life. As God’s children, confident of God’s grace in our lives, may we demonstrate the truth of our own baptisms, revealing our identity as children of God in the manner in which we conduct our lives both as individuals and corporately in the place where we are set.