Epiphany: "Christ's Baptism"

The Revd Brutus Green

Back in 1994 when I was a fresh-faced, innocent slip-of-a-boy, I headed off on a hockey tour to Zagreb, which happened to be involved at the time in the Croatian war of Independence. My comrades were a crew of Swansea rogues only too happy to escape wives and jobs for a week of sport and lager. The hockey was serious, but the drinking was more serious and the singing most serious of all, eclipsing Tom Jones and Max Boyce with a hearty ribaldry I dare not speak of here. The city sported German-style beer mugs, that probably made me look like a hobbit, “it comes in litres”; and weighing less than a half-full matchbox, before the end of the evening I began to feel tired and emotional. Blessed with a homing instinct when trouble nears, I left my companions and, having arrived by tram, got on the nearest tram and promptly fell asleep. I awoke to the guttural sound of yelled Croatian and lights being turned off. Exiting the tram, the cold sliver of fear had a marvellously sobering effect. I had no identification, very little money, no credit card - I was still a minor - no phone, no map and I didn’t know the name or address of where I was staying. The night sky was punctuated occasionally with gun shots; only two weeks later Zagreb was hit by a rocket attack including cluster bombs deliberately targeted at civilian areas. I began walking simply because when you are terrified doing anything is better than doing nothing.

At these moments the mind can achieve a wonderful clarity. Hindsight, as they say, is always 20-20. The errors of the immediate past become immediately obvious, ridiculous even. The force of “If only” becomes so strong, so truly felt deep in your stomach, that it seems impossible that you can’t travel forty minutes back in time. When you are in jeopardy you know exactly what matters to you; the closer you feel you are to the end, the clearer and more pressing your basic needs become.

On this theme I read an article the other day on the top regrets of the dying. You’ll be surprised. It’s not: I wish I’d had more money, not I wish I’d spent more time drinking alone nor I wish I’d made it to be vicar of St John’s, Hyde Park. Not even I wish I’d gone private. The top five regrets are these:

    I wish I hadn’t followed the expectations of other people.
    I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
    I wish I’d expressed my feelings more.
    I wish I’d stayed in touch with friends.
    I wish I’d let myself be happier.

It’s worth thinking about. Especially if this morning you woke up feeling miserable or very, very sick.

Well, this morning we are celebrating baptism, Christ’s and Emily’s. And baptism is a life and death situation. We naturally think baptisms are about life; not least because of the superfluity of lively gamboling toddlers that run between your legs at coffee. For the Early Church, though, death-bed baptisms were far more common, to avoid the worry of post-plunge sinning. Infant baptism came in largely as a response to high rates of child mortality, so even then it was concerned with dispatching as much as hatching. And while we often associate peaceful waters with life and refreshment the biblical symbolism is more ambiguous. As the psalm goes: ‘Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.’ And what are the stories usually recounted in the blessing of the water? How Noah escaped the flood sent to kill every living creature, how the Hebrews escaped through the Red sea before it crashed down upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Scripture tell us that in baptism ‘we are buried with Christ in his death’. In today’s prayer sin is ‘drowned in the waters of judgement’. And the Gospel tells us that Christ’s ‘winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor’ gathering the wheat, burning the chaff. The water of baptism has this ambivalence - it is a liminal moment, the situation of life and death.

In my twenties I went rock climbing with my older, much taller brother. He was ahead of me stretching easily between handholds on a cliff not far from where we grew up. My wingspan, however, with my rather stubby arms is probably about a foot shorter than his so eighty metres directly above the crashing sea I found myself spread-eagled like a starfish, panicking because even falling off a cliff pales into insignificance compared to not keeping up with your brother. And then I looked in front of me and right in front of my nose there was a great big spider.  It’s at this point that you start bargaining with God, making promises you’d rather not keep, fervently believing in miracles for however long it takes to get out of the wretched situation.

This would be a good moment for a baptism. The point at which you trust tentatively or desperately. It is about facing the reality of life and death and taking a side. The poets remind us that ‘Thou made Death; and lo, thy foot/ is on the skull which thou hast made’, that ‘at [our] back[s] [we] always hear/ Time's winged chariot hurrying near’. Baptism is an acknowledgement that we are powerless and ignorant before death, except for the promised love of God. Baptism is not then just some pretty thoughts about everlasting life. It is baptism into the death, as well as the resurrection of Christ. In baptism we receive the sign of the cross. Acknowledging our mortality in this moment can lead us beyond it. Baptism means taking death seriously, which also means taking life seriously.

But what of Christ’s baptism? It’s a bit of a funny one and the Gospels that include it seem almost embarrassed by it. After all, for the evangelists, Christ is sinless and so can hardly be repenting, let alone turning to Christ. And yet this is the first revelation of the adult Jesus as the Son of God, which he does with humility by submitting before the call of God’s last prophet. But it’s also an example for us to follow and to participate in, sharing in Christ’s baptism as we hope to share in his resurrection. For this reason many churches have an additional liturgy today where the whole congregation renews its baptismal vows. Appropriately we have Emily’s baptism, who will lead us in the same liturgy.

As an aside, when I was 6 my mother introduced me to pop music by way of Chris de Burgh. I loved Chris de Burgh. I used to sing his songs out the window of the car when we went everywhere - regardless of whether Dad had the tape playing on the stereo. Dad didn’t much approve of Chris de Burgh. I listened to him every day until I was 10 when I discovered Queen and Iron Maiden. But I happened to think of him the other day and I downloaded an album and discovered I still knew all the words. All the words to every song. The mind is very keen when you’re young. And this should be a lesson to every parent - what you expose to the unformed consciousness takes root in ways that can last a lifetime. Every time I get on a plane I say the Lord’s Prayer. Superstition, yes, but it does comfort me and, in a way, it’s my way of reminding myself of my baptism. Because the thought is not about the plane landing safely, it’s more that if the thing does come down, I want to make pretty sure I’ve said my prayers. Just imagine if all I could remember were the lyrics of Chris de Burgh.

In the end, questions about death are equally questions about life. If you understand your beginning, that will make sense of your end; as T. S. Eliot has written over his resting place “in my end is my beginning”.  This is the essential message of today’s Old Testament reading: that God has created us, he has formed us, we are redeemed. In baptism we were given our Christian name, the acknowledgement that God has already called us: ‘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.’ Baptism here is a sort of rehearsal of death and the idea is that if you can go through death once, you need not be afraid of it the second time. Baptism is both death and life, an end and a beginning.

In Zagreb within ten minutes I came upon a different bar and by some angelic assistance it so happened that some of my teammates were carousing outside, not having noticed that I’d disappeared. The feeling of relief in such situations is overwhelming, like moving from the shadow of death into abundant life. Baptism, our baptism, whether today or 90 years ago, is the promise, the assurance we sometimes cannot believe, that we will be found, that we will reach the mountain top. It is our end and our beginning, our beginning and our end.