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First Sunday after the Epiphany

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Luke 3:15-17,21-22 Back in 1988, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to visit the Holy Land with a tour organised specifically for US Episcopal, that is Anglican, priests like myself from all over the United States. Part of the tour included a visit to the beautiful Anglican Cathedral of Saint George in Jerusalem, located near the so-called Garden Tomb. At some point during the tour of Saint George’s, the guide led us to the church’s baptistry. Now, given the nineteenth-century origins of the Cathedral, I expected a rather ornate and elaborate font on a pedestal as is common in many churches of the period in England, the United States, and elsewhere. So, I was a bit surprised to find instead an actual stone or marble pool, or sizeable basin, built into the floor near the entrance of the church. It was in fact not unlike the pools one might find in many of the lovely old medicinal baths located right here in Budapest, about the size of a large jacuzzi, though of course without the water-jets; big enough to accommodate several people. Apparently, the Bishop at the time of construction was a great admirer of Orthodox Church traditions and rituals, including Baptism by immersion -- by dunking if you will -- and so had the baptistry at Saint George’s built accordingly. To the best of my knowledge, the baptistry is still used to this day. During the tour, I could visualise in my mind’s eye the persons to be baptized, as well as the priest, discreetly donning their bathing costumes during the Baptismal service and descending into the pool of water with as much High-Church dignity as they could muster. But it also reminded me that Baptism by immersion is in fact the Anglican norm, as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, though nowadays kept more in the breach than the observance. In Baptism, in other words, our old selves are submerged in a kind of watery grave, only to arise from the waters a moment later a new person in Christ. In any case, Our Lord of course, as we see in today’s account from the Gospel of Luke, was baptised in neither cathedral pool nor fancy font but rather in the Jordan River. And the officiant was not a nineteenth-century High-Church Anglican bishop but rather a somewhat eccentric itinerant preacher who has become known to us as John the Baptist, meaning of course in today’s English, John the Baptizer. And, whilst most scholars agree that the Baptism of the Lord belongs to the authentic, or historical, record of the life of Jesus, we of course do not know the details of what happened at his Baptism, although it is tempting to speculate.

What led Jesus to John and Baptism at the Jordan in the first place, we might want to know. Did John actually submerge him under the flowing waters of the River...? With our contemporary mindset, we may also wonder at Jesus’ need for Baptism in the first place, and for repentance, since he was certainly without sin. Nor does Luke tell us of Jesus’ own reaction to his Baptism and the voice from heaven declaring him. “the Beloved.” The scholars of course remind us that our Lord’s Baptism marked the beginning of his open or public ministry of teaching and healing. It is what the scholars call a theophany: an event making clear that this Jesus is in fact also the Son of God. In John’s own words, “one who is more powerful than I is coming.” And Christ is of course that person: the Son of God come into this world. And his powerful ministry to come would bring redemption and salvation to us and all humankind. So perhaps it is fair to say that in a certain sense our Lord’s Baptism has more to do with us than with him. At our Lord’s Baptism, we are also blessed and affirmed by the Father and thus immersed in grace and divine love. In our Baptism, in turn, we come to share in the Father’s pleasure with his Son. We too become in a sense the Father’s Beloved, the daughters and sons of heaven. We too are sealed in a loving Covenant, and we continue the work our Lord himself inaugurated at the Jordan. Most of us of course, having been baptized as infants, remember neither the water, the ritual, the prayers, nor the people, of our baptismal day. I was baptised, about a month after my birth, in February 1948, at Saint Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Muskegon, Michigan, a parish which catered at the time for Polish immigrant families but which is now known for its Hispanic outreach. I of course do not remember my Baptism, but I well remember my first sharing in the Holy Eucharist there, a rite which Roman Catholics call their First Holy Communion. In a sense, recalling our Baptism and the other sacramental milestones of our lives always takes us back to our spiritual roots. Indeed, some saints suggest that devout Christians ought sooner to celebrate the anniversary of their Baptism than that of their birth. But whether our flesh is now still pink and full and rosy, like that of a child, or withered and worn with age, it is always fresh – still wet – with the water of our Baptism. In the Holy Spirit, we are still immersed in spiritual waters which never grow cold or stagnant. Baptism itself of course has always been one of the two, or seven if you prefer, great sacraments of our faith, a ritual which is practiced – quite remarkably when you think about it – by Christians of virtually every stripe from Eastern Orthodox, to Roman Catholic, to fundamentalist Pentecostal and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is the Sacrament which brings us together and makes us one as no other; brother and sister to one another in Christ. So whether our Baptism took place at the font of a small town church in the American Midwest, at the pool in Saint George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, or along the banks of the Jordan itself, the Covenant of our Baptism remains the same. Yet to remain powerful it must be renewed and refreshed each day, and by each of us, in prayer and service; much as our Lord lived out his Baptismal Covenant in prayer, service, and sacrifice. This is perhaps particularly important to remember during difficult times such as these when the world around us seems somehow hopelessly sullied by disease and powerful forces very nearly beyond our control.

But it is in times such as these that we come to know more fully the purifying power of the Holy Spirit of which John speaks. It is just in times such as these that we must recall the hope for us and for the world which Baptism represents, a hope which seals us forever in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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