Baptism of our Lord, Year A, 2015
St. Thomas’, Whitemarsh
I often joke that Mark is the comic book version of the Gospel. It’s the oldest and the shortest of the four Gospels, and it seems to move from action to action without spending much time on the nitty-gritty details. You see, when Jesus doesn’t come back right away after his resurrection and the people who knew Jesus begin to grow old and die, Mark realizes that he needs to write down what happened so that no one will forget Jesus’ story.
There’s a sense of urgency in this Gospel, as if Mark is on a deadline and therefore has to stick just to the main points. And, apparently, Mark does not consider the birth narrative to be one of the main points in Jesus’ life. We find ourselves today at the beginning of Mark's gospel account. Note that he doesn't begin with the baby, the shepherds, the angels, or the wise men, but goes straight to John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus.
Why does Mark leave out the miraculous beginning of Jesus’ life? Perhaps because Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his ministry. Once he steps out of the water he is propelled into a life of teaching, preaching, praying, healing, and wandering.
When a writer chooses not to elaborate much, it’s important to notice the few details that are given. After Jesus is baptized, we read that the heavens are “torn apart” (Mark 1:10). The Greek word for torn apart is only mentioned twice in Mark: to describe the sky at Jesus’ baptism, and to describe the curtain in the temple at the moment of Jesus’ death (Mark 15:38). The Jews at that time believe that above the sky is a level of water and then above that is heaven (Genesis 1:2, 6-8). The sky and the water above it separate us physically from God. So when the sky is torn open, the spirit comes down like a dove, and a voice is heard from heaven, it means that God is literally breaking into the world.
A similar thing happens at Jesus’ death with the temple curtain being torn apart. Behind the curtain is where the Ark of the Covenant is stored, the symbol of God’s love and presence with God’s chosen people. The Ark has been with them from the time they are in Exile until they come to rest in the promised land, where they build a temple around it. Only the high priest is allowed behind the curtain to see the Holy of Holies, as it’s known. But at the very moment Jesus cries out from the cross and breathes his last, the temple curtain is torn apart. God cannot be kept hidden away in the temple; God breaks into the world.
Jesus’ baptism is a time of great joy, an affirmation that Jesus is God’s Beloved Son, with whom God is “well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Jesus’ death is a time of great sadness and grief, the ultimate sign of love and sacrifice. God breaks into the world in times of great joy and in times of great sadness. And God continues to break into the world today.
When terrorists take the lives of magazine staffers in Paris and over two thousand people in Nigeria, God breaks into the world. In times of great sadness God breaks into the world. When a child is born, when we create moments of peace, when we are baptized, God breaks into the world. In times of great joy God breaks into the world.
Baptism is not just a cute ceremony to show off our children; it is the entryway into a committed life as a Christian. When we are baptized, we are adopted as God’s own children and are joined to the Body of Christ. When we are baptized, we experience the forgiveness of sins and enter into a “union with Christ in his death and resurrection” (BCP 858). When we are baptized, we promise to be followers of Christ. From that point we, like Jesus, are propelled into a life of ministry.
Baptism is a point of commission for us. It is at our baptism that we, or our godparents on our behalf, promise to pattern our lives on Christ’s teachings. We promise to regularly gather together to and celebrate the Eucharist and pray together. We promise to resist evil and when we fail at that to come before God and ask forgiveness. We promise to spread God’s word, to respect every single human being, to love our neighbors, and to work for justice and peace.
Icon of Jesus' baptism found here
Jesus' Baptism by He Qi
"And the curtain of the temple was torn in two...Mark 15:38"
Watercolor by Kirsten Malcolm Berry, found here