In the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

It is striking that the Church calendar, after the great Feast of Christmas, plunges rather rapidly after Low Sunday into two particularly fascinating episodes.

First the story of the Epiphany and secondly the  Baptism of Christ.

Both are deeply intriguing as soon as we pause to probe beyond the superficial familiarity that will otherwise beguile us.

Consider the Epiphany, most of us have a charmingly precise idea of what that original episode comprised: namely, three wise men understood to be Kings, who had travelled on camels from somewhere out in the East, seemingly alone yet guided by a star, bringing with them gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

All very picturesque and the subject of any number of familiar paintings that have recently adorned our mantlepieces as Christmas cards.

Let us pass over such niceties as to whether there were in fact only three of them (The Syriac church has always held there were `12) and whether they were really kings (both points upon which the Bible tells us absolutely nothing just as it does of their further history).

But then there is a sentence that we regularly read without any special attention when in fact it is deeply curious, namely: When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him”?

It is actually an interesting puzzle as to WHY both Herod and then “all of Jerusalem with him” were frightened.  After all, why would anyone be worried by some eccentric itinerant figures from the East wandering by claiming to be following a star? Do they not sound redolent of the 1960’s and the West Coast where one is given to understand that some people follow the guidance of rocks and crystals quite regularly and so why not stars?

Yet in fact, the answer to the puzzles of the Epiphany lie in just

  • Who these wise men really were, and
  • Where they came from

While for us,  there is too the most important question of all, namely

  • why did the Wise Men come?

I would suggest that those mysterious Wise Men came from the area now called Kurdistan, within a wider area then known as Parthia.

Which is to say that they were drawn from a people known from ancient times as the Medes among whom the magi were a seemingly hereditary priesthood viewed as having extraordinary and esoteric religious knowledge and that had most likely strong Sumerian influences. Later it took a more Persian form that relates to the religion we now call Zoroastrianism, which itself evolved from its somewhat dualist beginnings into the monotheistic faith that it is today (also known as Parsi-ism in India

No less a figure than Herodotus (cf. The Histories I, ci) provides a principle source here and for identifying oneiromancy (not astrology we may note)  or the interpretation of dreams as one of their central gifts.[1]

And as for why a few Wise Men from Parthia would frighten Herod and all Jerusalem with him, you have only to recall the recent history of those times to answer this question.

It was not long before the birth of Christ that with Parthian assistance, Jewish sovereignty had been restored, leaving Jerusalem  fortified with a Jewish garrison.

It was only after that  and after fleeing to Rome, that Herod had obtained from the  Emperor Augustus the title  “King of the Jews” and – even more important– the resources needed to return. Even then,  it was not for three years, and after a five month siege of Jerusalem by Roman troops, that Herod was actually able to occupy his own capital.

Thus,  Herod had only just ascended to a precarious throne of a rebellious buffer state which situated between contending empires: Rome on one side and Parthia on the other. So, in that context it was indeed very understandable that Herod feared  that his own subjects might conspire to bring the Parthians in again to their aid against him.[2]

And while he feared for his throne, everyone else feared for their safety in the event of another siege.

All this dispels much of the twee cosiness of the picturesque Epiphany, that seems so familiar to us

Nonetheless the key question remains of WHY the wise came – and that was because, where others merely looked, they SAW who the infant Jesus really was – Son of God and redeemer of the world…..

So what then of today’s Gospel?

Well that develops that same last point – in being all about the manifestation and recognition of who Jesus really was – spelled out according to St Luke quite explicitly in propositional form (and via a voice from heaven)

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. ”

But that disclosure comes within a very interesting context – namely the Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist.

If last week we were still with the infant Jesus – this week  we have proceeded with break-neck speed right on to something that happened years later – namely his Baptism

But again, we need go beyond the familiar imagery and all those paintings of this scene that come to our mind

A deceptively simple question is again central

Why did Jesus need to be baptised by John ? 

Early followers of Christ evidenced some perplexity about these questions. For one thing, the baptism of Christ by John could be taken to suggest that Jesus was somehow subordinate to John the Baptist.

Then again,  if we think of this in the light of the theology of Baptism later developed by the church  and thus of baptism as about specific and profound ontological change,  as in

  • imparting the grace of forgiveness of sins, and as
  • marking our initiation into the Church,

this theology is not applicable either.

— How could this apply to Jesus Christ who never committed any sins and thus needed no forgiveness ?  Clearly it could not !

But remember now that Gospel line again:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Here there is a clear echo with the Book of Isaiah, which states: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased” (Isaiah 42:7). 

This illustrates what Christians had come to believe,  namely,  that the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah ultimately refers to Jesus Christ. 

It is Jesus who will be thus, the definitive “covenant of the people” and “light for all nations.”  Who will “open the eyes of the blind” and “and release the prisoners, and release those who live in darkness.”  

 

Thus the readings today help us to understand something that goes back all the way to the Wise Men and those who followed Christ during his lifetime

 

Namely the belief in the incarnation – and why it was that Christ came. Since by virtue of being uniquely both fully human and divine, it was he alone who could

— by offering his own life for us— atone for our sins, and make redemption available to all who believe.

 

But what about John the Baptist specifically in all this?

 

Here, just as with the Wise Men – the background,  or “back story” as they say now, is all important

 

For Luke – as we see unfolded throughout the Gospel,

John the Baptist is himself a fulfilment of prophecy and his arrival marks a new manifestation of prophecy, an exciting sign of renewed divine activity.

While his birth is significantly less miraculous than the virgin birth ascribed to Jesus, it is nonetheless in line with the birth of Isaac to the elderly Sarah. or of Samuel to Hannah.

Thus is it indicated that he is sent by God, to prepare the way for Jesus.

But what is the theological meaning of John’s particular kind of baptism?

Luke follows Mark exactly in stating that John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3; cf. Acts 19:4). And here epentance, or transformation in the sense of the word metanoia is meant

  • changing one’s entire outlook and disposition,
  • actively turning to God, rejecting evil and
  • embracing righteousness.

And in the Gospels John’s baptism is thus crucially an act of preparation for the coming of the Lord and for divine judgment.

The Jewish historian Josephus connects this baptism with forgiveness, seeing the action as meet, right and appropriate but not of itself purificatory – rather it expresses appropriately a spiritual reality separately effected[3].

There is thus nothing here working ex opere operato in the manner of a sacrament

Such inner cleansing, inner conversion of life, would appropriately be followed by ritual cleansing of the body, which no doubt was also felt to seal and symbolize the inner event.

This can be held to cohere with the prophetic tradition that asks for justice and mercy before sacrifice, and with the thinking expressed at Qumran about the relationship between inner commitment and “entering the water” as preparation for the community meals (Manual of Discipline). Josephus—and perhaps indeed John—had had very probably spent some time in his youth with the Essene movement, in the desert at Qumran.[4]

All of this coheres with what is made so very clear in St John’s Gospel, namely that John the Baptist’s commission is that of a witness and a revealer of a greater truth coming from another.

Remember those words from the Prologue (we heard in the Service of Lessons and Carols):

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (John 1:6-7)

Or as John the Baptist puts it himself in that Gospel, when facing interrogation by emissaries of the religio-political authorities in Jerusalem:

Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

For it is there that you have the challenge for each of us: To recognise fully who Jesus Christ was and is – in the manner of the Wise Men and now to take our commission into this world and strive

To make straight the way of the Lord !                   AMEN.


[1] The term deriving from the Greek words όνειρο, dream, and μαντεία manteia, prophecy and covering a form of divination based upon dreams – which in more recent times was revived in modern culture by such figures as Carl Jung.

[2] Then there are the further factors to keep in mind that by  the time of the birth of Christ, Herod may have been close to his final illness. Augustus was also aging, and Rome, since the retirement of Tiberius, was without an experienced military commander. While away to the north Pro-Parthian Armenia was fomenting revolt against Rome (which was to be successfully accomplished within two years.)

[3] “Indeed, it seemed to John that even this washing would not be acceptable as a pardon for sins, but only as a purification for the body, unless the soul had previously been cleansed through upright conduct.” (Ant 18.5.2, transl. J. Fitzmayer, in The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible Commentary Vol. 28: New York 1979,  p.451.

[4] A movement that seems to have started the whole tradition that has come down to Judaism to this day in the guise of the ritual rites of purification associated with the Mikvah.

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