Light and darkness are major themes in the time of Epiphany. Last week’s first reading began,
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you. Isaiah 60:1-6
Light and darkness repeat thematically in the readings for this Sunday, which celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.
The first reading from Genesis 1:1-5 and the gospel of Mark 1:4-11 also feature water as a created gift of God and symbolic of the essentials of life. The entire Genesis passage reads,
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
This creation story is more than a description of what happened. It is a statement of faith that we repeat in the creeds, We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. It is a profession of faith that we make at our baptism, or that our sponsors say on our behalf. We renew this statement of faith at the Eucharist.
The Spirit of God who hovers over the waters in the Genesis account will also reappear in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism.
As with the Epiphany readings last week light and darkness also appear. (Interestingly, darkness does not symbolize the absence of God, or evil, in this passage. It seems to represent a gift of God: perhaps a time of rest and quiet.)
While we do not regard Genesis 1 as a scientific description of creation, our current understanding of the origins of the universe in the big bang is, in fact, closer to that of Genesis than skeptics previously knew.
A delightful symmetry appears between this reading from Genesis, notably the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters and the gospel of Mark:as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.
Sunday’s gospel tells us that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
There is a lot of biblical history to excavate in this simple story.
An Old Testament parallel to John’s baptism is found in Ezek 36:25-26 25 I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. John seems to have been acting in harmony with this idea of cleansing.
As we know now, another group, contemporary with Jesus and John also practiced this kind of purification. The Dead Sea scrolls describe beliefs and rituals of the Qumran community that were similar to those of John the Baptist. Members of the community thought the priests in Jerusalem had become too aristocratic. They saw water and ritual purification as an essential part of their way of life and they put great emphasis on the final judgment. (Some scholars speculate that John may have been a member of this community.)
John’s baptism of repentance refers to the belief that the end of the world was near. John called them to reject their sinful ways and receive forgiveness. But his baptism of Jesus also presents an issue. Jesus did not need to repent and be forgiven yet he underwent baptism.
For Mark the emphasis in the story is in verses in which the voice declares that Jesus is God’s beloved son in whom he is pleased. Mark wants people to know from the beginning of his gospel that Jesus is the divinely appointed Messiah. The words of divine acceptance are also found in Ps 2:7 The king says, “I will announce the Lord’s decree. He said to me: ‘You are my son! This very day I have become your father!
Also, in Isaiah 42:1-2 we find,
“Here is my servant whom I support,
my chosen one in whom I take pleasure.
I have placed my spirit on him;
he will make just decrees for the nations.
He will not cry out or shout;
he will not publicize himself in the streets.
Mark introduces Jesus as the fulfillment of a story that began in Genesis. His gospel was probably written for a Gentile-Christian community in Rome who lacked a deep knowledge of Jewish scripture. It stands on its own for this audience. Nevertheless, his story incorporates many threads and themes, but notably water and the Spirit: present at both Creation and Jesus’ baptism, as signs of the significance of both events.
- As you wake in the darkness on these cold winter mornings, pause to think of Genesis and God’s creation. It need not be a long prayer or even include words, just a recollection that this moment is a renewal of the gift of God described in Genesis: God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
- Consider the phrase, the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, and imagine what this would look like to you. If you were to teach about this phrase from Genesis to a church school class of children in grades 4 or 5 what would you say? Would you ask them questions about their experiences with wide-open bodies of water? Would you ask about the relation to their baptism?
- Put yourself on the banks of the Jordan River as you watched this disheveled preacher, standing in the water talking about repentance and splashing water on people. Perhaps your attitude is curious skepticism. How do you react to the sight of heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Do you ask for a similar baptism for yourself?