Our Baptism, Jesus' Baptism
There is a significant event on the church calendar that comes up in early January. It's a little confusing, in the church, thinking about cycles that start with calendars. Christ the King Sunday, back before Thanksgiving was the end of the last liturgical year--Liturgical New Year's Eve, sorta. We've been starting the new liturgical year with Advent since then. It feels like something new really got started at Christmas time--New Baby Jesus feels like the beginning of something and is far more celebratory--like our secular New Year's Eve celebrations--than Christ the King Sunday was. After Christmas, the secular calendar rolls over and we have January 1st and New Year's Day. We may have thought about wise men at Christmas, but they really don't come in the story--or the calendar--until later, January 6th, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Then, almost camouflaged in all those New Yearses comes the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord.
It both makes sense and doesn't make sense that baptism would be associated with the beginning of a cycle, with a new year. Baptism is all about newness--newness of life, starting over with a newly cleansed life of repentance, being given refreshing, life giving water, being renewed. Jesus begins his earthly ministry by being baptized. Still, we in the Reformed tradition don't ever RE-baptize. God's grace, and Christ's mercy are sufficient to be given to us once. It's not like a bath that we need to take every Saturday. We are forgiven and we don't need to be re-forgiven. It's living water that we drink once, and then never thirst again. So Baptism is something to think about perpetually for the rest of our life--for the rest of eternity, even. But Baptism is not necessarily a New Year EVERY year.
Baptism is also about community. When we baptize someone, whether infants or grown, we are claiming God's covenant with God's people for that person. They become part of "us." To me, water is a great symbol of this incorporation of someone into us. A drop of water seems to be its own thing, but when it is part of a larger body of water--whether in a bowl, pitcher, font, or in a natural body of water like a creek, river, lake, or ocean--that separateness is replaced by a profound unity with the rest of the water. When someone is baptized and becomes part of the body of Christ, a single drop of love in the universe joins in profound unity with God, who is love itself and includes all who love.
Baptism can be a type of anointing--several types of anointing, in fact. We can do baptism in many ways. Presbyterians are allowed to dunk just like some other denominations, but I've seen more commonly, pouring or sprinkling water on the head of the person being baptized. This image calls to mind the pouring of oil onto the head of someone who is to be king, like Samuel did to Saul, and then later David. It shows that the person anointed is set apart for a purpose; it also shows the favor of the person doing the anointing. When Samuel anoints someone to be king, it is a symbol of God's favor on that person. Similarly, when we are baptized, it is a claim by the church that the person being baptized is favored by God. That's you, by the way. From whenever you were baptized, whether last year or 80 years ago, we, God's covenant people, have claimed that you are favored by God.
To some extent, this is backwards. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River; we do not so much join Christ's body in our baptism as Christ joined us in his baptism. In Greek, Christ means "anointed." In Hebrew, Messiah means "anointed." Jesus was baptized and anointed (whether by pouring or dunking) with water by John in the Jordan River and joined himself to us, proclaiming himself symbolically to be fully human. Does this water baptism make him the Christ, the long-expected Messiah? Look what happens next: "suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'" THERE's the anointing. God anointed God's own Son directly, without the intermediary of a prophet or church. God anointed God's own Son with the Holy Spirit instead of water or oil. God's own voice directly declared God's favor on God's anointed. This is the important part about Jesus' baptism that makes Jesus the Christ.
Of course, the thing that makes Jesus favored is not that he's anointed; he's anointed because he's favored. He's favored because he is doing what God wants--joining himself to God's people, to humanity. He is favored because he will fulfill God's plan, he will become "obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." The Directory for Worship in our denomination's constitution says that "Through the baptism of his suffering and death, Jesus set us free from the power of sin forever." Jesus was baptized by water, joining himself to us; Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit, receiving the favor of God. Jesus was baptized by suffering and death, accomplishing reconciliation between us and God so that we can receive God's favor and join ourselves to Christ. Ultimately, though the thing that makes Jesus the Christ and the things that make Jesus favored all collapse into the same thing. Jesus was God's Son, the beloved.
We also are beloved. and marked by our baptism. Because of Jesus' anointing, we are cleansed, anointed, favored, and incorporated into Christ's body. As we start a new year, we don't so much get re-baptized--we don't restart our Christian life; the annual celebration of Baptism of the Lord doesn't put a new baptism on us. Even so, we can turn that around. WE can baptize the new year with our Christian life. We can live into this new year enjoying God's favor and being anointed with the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the community of love which is connected to the Love which is God, the love with which God loved the beloved Son, the love which is the Holy Spirit of our anointing.