There are really two different perspectives through which we can reflect on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The first is to consider your own baptism and to reflect on how you have lived out your baptismal commitment. The second and perhaps more ancient tradition is to focus our attention on the original meaning of the feast. This is the perspective that I have chosen for my homily this morning.
I am sure that when you hear the word “epiphany,” your mind automatically conjures thoughts of the visit of the Magi from the East with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet if we look at the history of the Feast of the Epiphany, we will find that the Baptism of Jesus was the original celebration of the Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means manifestation. In the Baptism of Jesus we celebrate the first and the original manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God. It was only after the Western World began to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany that it took on the story of the Magi from the East because Westerners are more concerned with the celebration of the historical rather than the theological meaning of the Incarnation.
In the Eastern Church, the primary emphasis of the Feast of the Epiphany was theological; namely, the manifestation of God in the human nature of the incarnate One. Indeed, the whole life of Christ was a series of epiphanies, of which his baptism was the first and most important. The original prominence of the baptismal epiphany was never completely forgotten in the West, but it was relegated to a corner in the liturgy and in the Roman Missal; that is, to the gospel for the octave of Christmas.
When the liturgical calendar was revised after the Second Vatican Council, the revisers of the calendar could hardly have been expected to restore the baptism to its Eastern prominence by putting it on the actual day of Epiphany. The story of the Magi had become too popular in Western Christian lore for that. However, this feast still holds its prominence as the theological epiphany of Jesus as the Son of God, the Incarnate Word of God, or God in the flesh. That manifestation comes to us through the voice of the Spirit which proclaims that Jesus is the Beloved Son of God.
Each of the readings introduce us to the role of the Holy Spirit in identifying who Jesus the Messiah is. The reading from Isaiah emphasizes the fact that this Messiah has not come to sit on a throne. He has come among us to serve us. This oracle from Isaiah is the first of what have become known as the suffering servant songs. Though they were originally written about Israel itself, Jesus has stepped into the role and reveals that God is willing to suffer to save us.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us for whom this Messiah has come. While the children of Israel had dreamed of the coming of the Messiah for years, Peter proclaims in the house of Cornelius that God has sent Jesus for men and women of any nation who fear God and act uprightly. The fact that this pronouncement is made in the house of Cornelius makes the statement doubly important; for Cornelius is not only a Gentile, he is a Roman centurion, one of the hated symbols of Rome’s dominance over Israel. If God accepts Cornelius, then truly God knows no partiality.
The Gospel of St. Matthew’s account of the baptism includes one curious difference from the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke. While St. Mark and St. Luke state that the Spirit spoke to Jesus, St. Matthew’s account tells us that the Spirit addressed those who were present as John baptized Jesus. Such a statement would have invested Jesus with honor beyond that of any other human being, the kind of honor that every person of this culture would desire for him or herself. While the gifts of the Magi invest a human baby with honor, the voice of the Spirit raises that human being to the role of the Son of God who finds favor in God’s eyes. St. Matthew obviously want to emphasize that God was speaking to all of us through the Spirit. God wants all of us to listen to Jesus and to put into practice that which we hear from Jesus – to love God and neighbor.
As we gather today, we are reminded that we are called to listen to Jesus and, through him, to listen to the voice of God in our own lives. The sirens of our own culture would call us on another path, but we have received the revelation of God’s Son who lives in our midst each and every day of our lives. With Jesus as our companion, we have nothing to fear.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.