Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Baptism of Christ (10th January 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

On this first Sunday after Epiphany the Western Church celebrates the Baptism of Christ. In eastern Christian traditions it is indeed the Baptism which takes the place of the Magi as the point at which Jesus’ divinity is revealed to the world. In the Armenian Church this Theophany, or revelation of God, is indeed linked with Christ’s incarnation at Christmas and celebrated together with it. In the Baptism of Christ his divine identity as Son of God is publicly revealed. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven proclaims that he is God’s beloved Son.

The Orthodox churches solemnly bless water on this feast, often in rivers and the sea, and I once attended this ceremony in Hermannstadt (Sibiu) in Romania, at what was one of the most picturesque and also the most hazardous church ceremonies in which I have participated. On this occasion the Orthodox parishes of the city converged in procession on the central square. There a ten-foot-high stage had been erected and onto this stage climbed the archbishop, clergy, choir, mayor, garrison commander, police chief, and even the Anglican Chaplain. The service included the blessing of water, which was displayed in a large silver bowl. 

The ceremony got under way but I soon realised that all was not well with the stage. It was rocking from side to side as if we were at sea in a storm and the water in the bowl was splashing out. I looked at the locals and discovered that even the police and army officers were looking extremely apprehensive. Clearly the stage had not been secured correctly and was likely to collapse at any moment. The local photographers had gathered in front of the stage and were looking forward to taking dramatic photographs of church dignitaries and local worthies collapsing in a heap. Fortunately the stage did not collapse and we were able to complete the ceremony and climb down to the ground without mishap. It was quite an achievement to create the sense of being at sea in the middle of the European continent!

Today we heard Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Indeed Mark begins his Gospel with the appearance of John the Baptist and then John’s baptism of Jesus. He makes no mention of Christ’s birth. We rightly celebrate Christmas with enthusiasm, but it is interesting to note that only two books of the Bible, Matthew and Luke, tell the story of the Nativity, but no less than six, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and Romans tell the story of Jesus’ baptism. Clearly this beginning of his public ministry was seen as particularly significant by the earliest Christians.

We are familiar with the story of Christ’s baptism, but we might pause to wonder why he was baptised. He was sinless and so did not need to repent. He was born as the Son of God and so did not need adoption. He was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and so did not need the gift of the Spirit.

Various possible reasons spring to mind. Firstly, Jesus is obedient to God and does all that God requires. John indeed wondered why he should baptised one who was far greater than he, and not be baptised by him, but Jesus replied that he should carry out the baptism to fulfil all righteousness.

Jesus’ baptism ushers in Christian baptism, as opposed to John’s baptism for repentance. If we consider Jesus’ baptism as a model for Christian baptism, it not only washes away sins but also brings the Holy Spirit and the declaration of God’s parenthood. In our baptism services we symbolically wash away sin, welcome the Holy Spirit, and proclaim that the newly baptized is a child of God. The contrast between the two baptisms, of John and of Jesus, is well drawn in today’s New Testament reading from Acts, which describes a group of baptisms carried out by Paul in Ephesus.

Jesus the sinless identified himself with sinners, particularly in his seeking to be baptised by John, and perhaps like sinners he needed this sign of assurance. His baptism did not make him God’s Son but gave him the audible assurance that he was indeed the Son of God. His baptism did not give him the Holy Spirit but did provide the visible assurance that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. 

The Gospel accounts vary slightly in their description of the dove. In Matthew and Mark it is Jesus who sees the dove whereas Luke simply reports that the dove appeared. In John’s account the dove is seen by John the Baptist. These variations are of course not contradictory, but they may encourage us to reflect on what the descent of the dove would mean to Jesus at the outset of his ministry and what it means to us as we follow Jesus’ story in the coming weeks that lead to Holy Week and Easter. 

Mark describes how the heavens are torn apart before the Holy Spirit descends as a dove and a heavenly voice addresses Jesus as Son. At the end of the Gospel there is a similar moment when the curtain of the Temple (which set apart the Holy of Holies where God dwelt) is torn in two and a centurion recognises Jesus as Son of God. At the beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly ministry there are these dramatic signs that the barrier between heaven and earth, between God and Man, has been removed through Christ’s birth and life and death, and on each occasion Jesus is publicly hailed as God’s Son. 

The Armenian celebration of Christ’s Baptism with the blessing of water includes, as well as the immersion of a cross in the water being blessed, the solemn arrival of a dove-shaped receptacle from which oil is poured into the containers of water from which water will be given to the faithful to drink. This rather neatly symbolises our desire to imbibe the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Today we thank God that the Holy Spirit descended visibly on Jesus at the outset of his ministry and that a voice proclaimed that he was indeed God’s Son. We thank God also for our own baptism in which the Holy Spirit was poured out upon us and we were declared to be children of God. We pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to be poured out upon us, to guide and inspire us in this new year of Our Lord, Anno Domini 2021.