Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Since moving here, I’ve been intrigued by the Greek Orthodox Epiphany observances in Tarpon Springs – particularly the practice of throwing the wooden cross into the waters for the young men to find. On Epiphany, January 6th, a reporter declared, “They do this to remember Jesus’ baptism.”
“No,” I thought. “Epiphany remembers the arrival of the sages. We remember Jesus’ baptism on the first Sunday after Epiphany – today!”
The reporter’s explanation stayed with me. I had always wondered what connection there was between a cross thrown into the water and the arrival of the sages. I couldn’t think of any reasonable explanation. So, I wondered, if there is there a difference between the Western and Eastern Churches’ understanding of Epiphany?
And, the answer is, “Yes.” The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates January 6th as “an event in the life of Jesus Christ which is considered the beginning of His official dedication to His Divine Mission (the event is his baptism)…[the word Epiphany is] a combined Greek word which is derived from two Greek words meaning to show, to show forth, to shine upon.” In the Greek Orthodox tradition it is the Feast of Lights. In the Western Church we focus on the arrival of the sages as a sign of Jesus being revealed to the larger world. There is an emphasis on light – an emphasis that grows out of the story of the star.
In the Greek Orthodox tradition, it is the “Light of the World” that begins to shine forth as Jesus’ ministry starts with his baptism. The tradition of throwing the cross into the water began to make sense. The act is a reminder that Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by John. The Christ was submerged. And in his willingness to be submerged, Jesus received the gift of the Spirit – and he began to be revealed to the world through his words and his deeds.
It was last year that I came across a powerful poem that spoke of Jesus’ baptism as his “stepping into the mud.” He is revealed to the world not through some sanitized ritual of bathing – a cleansing – but through his willingness to enter into the murkiness of human life. It is the start of the story of new creation. The first story in the Bible tells of God moving over the waters – the chaotic waters that were the stuff out of which God created. Here, God immerses God’s very self in the chaos. This is no remote creation – this is re-creation from within the chaos itself. I would imagine that Isaiah’s words informed Jesus as he stepped into that muddy stream:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
He stepped into the non-mighty Jordan – into that river that was brown with silt and clay. That act, perhaps, indicated his willingness to pass through all the murky waters that would lie ahead. He was immersed in human existence – and trusted Isaiah’s words that God was and would be with him.
Modern hymn writer Thomas Troeger wrote:
What ruler wades through murky streams and bows beneath the wave,
ignoring how the world esteems the powerful and brave?
Christ gleams with water brown with clay from land the prophets trod.
Above while heaven’s clouds give way descends the dove of God.
Isaiah’s words of God’s presence take on flesh and blood in Jesus’ life. He showed his willingness to walk through the murky waters that would mark his ministry by going down into that muddy Jordan river at his baptism. He would trust God’s presence with him.
I have no idea how murky the waters are in Tarpon Springs. They obviously aren’t crystal clear since it is not always easy to find the cross. Was it a couple of years ago, or just last year, when a second cross was thrown into the waters because the first wasn’t readily found?
Anyway, it got me thinking that epiphanies aren’t always crystal clear. We sing, in our Christmas carols, about the bright star that led the sages to seek the Messiah. Yet, nobody else seemed to see it. God’s presence is blurred by the murky waters of our lives and of the world. Jesus’ baptism provided a glimpse – for him and, maybe, depending on the gospel account, for some people around him. Although, Luke’s description doesn’t indicate that anyone else witnessed the Spirit’s descent. As Jesus began his ministry, some recognized him as God’s Messiah – God’s chosen one. But, even those who recognized him as the Messiah didn’t understand what that meant. Others saw Jesus as a troublemaker, an apostate who didn’t fulfill God’s law, a political threat – and even as Satan. It was not easy to glimpse God’s presence in Jesus the Christ – even when he was here in flesh and blood.
I’m reminded of the story I shared some time ago from Nadia Bolz-Weber who wrote of the first time she was called into a trauma room while serving as a student chaplain. “Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?” she asked. “Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.”
She was to look for and claim God’s presence. She was to affirm that God was with them in the midst of the chaos – in the deep turbulent waters, the rushing, muddy rivers, and the devouring fires of life. She was to live in the sureness of God’s words to Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” And, by her presence, she proclaimed what was not readily visible – that God was with them
Jesus’ life was an epiphany of God’s presence in all that it means to be human. God is present in our joys. God is present in our sorrows. God is present when life is good. God is present when everything is difficult – when nothing goes as it should. God is in the perfect and in the imperfect. God is in the beautiful and the ugly.
Hear the last words from Thomas Troeger’s hymn:
Come bow beneath the flowing wave.
Christ stands here at your side
and raised you as from the grave
God raised the crucified.
Water, River, Spirit, Grace,
sweep over me, sweep over me!
Re-carve the depths your fingers traced in sculpting me.