Gifts for a Baptism

Reflection for Epiphany Sunday – celebrating the gifts of the wise ones and the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John

By the time the wise ones got to Bethlehem—or was it Nazareth by then? —the baby who, this time last year was gurgling angelically in the manger and waving his little toes, had discovered how to open the knife drawer.

By now he’s able to reach the shelf with the Sabbath candles and the precious Torah scroll; he’s be having great fun with the wood-shavings in Joseph’s carpenter’s shed, and trying to taste the nails and bang things with a hammer.

Whoever they were and wherever they came from, the Magi wouldn’t have gathered romantically around the manger, with picturesquely mooing cows and lullaby-baaing sheep. The precious gifts would probably have been abandoned in favour of the packaging. And any sweet-smelling hay would be composting with the Middle Eastern version of dirty nappies and wet wipes.

And Mary, no longer with beautiful blue draperies and Madonna smile, was probably preparing meals for Joseph and her step-sons, keeping an eye on the toddler Jesus, negotiating kitchen space with a disapproving mother-in-law and trying to ignore the gossip still circulating in his extended family. (Joseph might have married her and named the child, but they still referred to Jesus as the son of Mary.)

And yet—wise ones sought him. 

Epiphany- For Those Who Have Far to Travel —Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace via TheWiseOnes. Image The Wise Ones
The Wise Ones—Jan Richardson

When preparing this service, not sure how today’s themes could be interwoven, I was pleased to find this hymn whose words were written around 450 CE, linking Jesus’ birth, the magi’s visit, his baptism in the Jordan, the miracle at Cana and the season of Epiphany. [The Star Proclaims the King Is Here by Coelius Sedulius, c.450. Translated by John M. Neale, 1818-1866.]

And still, around the world, we picture the homely stable and the exotic kings, the exhausted young mother and the noble stepfather, giving and taking meaning and reinterpreting the stories in our ways, for our times and places.

Perhaps the early artists got the spirit right, with their crowded nativity scenes: Magi and shepherds and family and neighbours, patrons and village gossips, merchants and royalty, creatures great and small, human and animal, all gathering in wonder at the miracle and promise of the new-born.

The season of Epiphany in the liturgical calendar is designated “ordinary time”.

After a month-long build-up in Advent, all anticipation and preparation, we spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrating Jesus’ birth and then it’s pretty much all over.

On the first Sunday in the New Year we celebrate the visit of the mysterious wise ones from the East, and by the 12th of January or thereabouts, we’re skipping ahead some 30 years to celebrate Jesus’ baptism, as an adult, by his cousin the famous preacher, teacher and somewhat eccentric prophet, John.

We understand that Jesus, as a baby, was “dedicated” at the synagogue, the back story of his being recognised by ancient Simeon and Anna keeps us on track with how special he was; and at age 12 the boy genius engages in discussion with the temple scholars for days until his parents realise he’s not with the extended family travelling home from Passover in Jerusalem. We can imagine some rather unholy words when they find him, and the profuse apologies to the temple scholars and rabbis for their precious — precocious? —son’s behaviour.

Wise guy in the Temple

And then we lose track of the boy and the teenage Jesus—and perhaps it’s just as well, because not too many holy ones could stand up to scrutiny through the years of wilfulness and silences and experimenting with the dregs from old wine skins; claiming he’s with his cousin, when in fact he’s out with his gang, his home boys, following the Roman soldiers, chasing the neighbours’ chickens and taunting the billy goat; leaving the sheepfold gate open; we miss the door slamming and “You just don’t understand!” and the “Anyway you’re not my real father”…

And suddenly here he is, the carpenter’s son, being a hackhem, a wise guy, in temple; reading and preaching as if he knows better than the rabbis who’ve interpreted Torah for years, for decades! Partying in Cana and somehow producing more wine when the embarrassed hosts of the wedding can’t find the supplies they’ve been stocking up on since the betrothal.

Seems he’s been hanging out with some rather unsavoury people, too—tax collectors and girls who’re no better than they should be (just like his mother, some would say); going off with the fishers or hanging around the religious zealots; insisting they’re just people, even the Samaritans—and he didn’t meet them in our village! —and taking risks among lepers and the moon-struck and demon-possessed.

First it was foreigners with their camels and gold and exotic spices when he was small; and next he’s bringing home lame ducks and lost causes, and expecting them all to be welcomed; to be treated normally, like family from another village perhaps—not special guests, just ordinary, he says. Oy vey!

And now, he’s way up north with his cousin John, clever John, oh yes, arriving in almost as miraculous a way—conceived by a mother well past child-bearing age, just like Abraham and Sarah, and his father struck dumb.

In the temple, yet. And him a priest, what will they think of your son, the radical, the wilderness man, with his fasting and praying and preaching and baptising. And yet they come to him from miles around, wanting to hear his theories; he can pull a crowd, my Yochanan, but he should keep out of politics, nu? He shouldn’t upset the rulers or call attention to himself.

The Baptism of Christ in a Taranaki Stream - Michael Smither
Michael Smither – The Baptism of Christ in a Taranaki Stream

Journeys and gifts

We skip so quickly from the birth of Jesus to the ordinary, from Advent to Lent & Passiontide, often forgetting we’re still in the season of “revelation” or “manifestation”, of sudden appearances and wonder and the sharing of gifts of the spirit, of wisdom and healing and hospitality, and star-led journeys.

The birth, epiphany and baptism stories all feature people travelling significant distances to find meaning, to acknowledge someone special, and to give or receive extraordinary gifts:

  • Mary and Joseph with their trusty if fictitious donkey, travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and the precious gift of a baby whose story would impact millions of lives for over two thousand years;
  • Wise ones travelling from afar to worship—literally, to bow and show respect—to a special little one, guided by heavenly bodies, bringing gifts with spiritual and royal significance;
  • Jesus’ journey to the Jordan River for baptism, and the gift of the dove-shaped spirit, and the mysterious Voice of God expressing approval.

And all this leads, through twists and turns as stories and celebrations and symbols do, to our giving gifts at a child’s christening or baptism, and at Christmas, and in annual celebration of each other’s miraculous birth—and in our gathering to tell and retell the stories of our faith.

What gifts can we continue to share this season? What journeys are still to be made?

May the love we share at Christmas and the wonder of Epiphany stay and inspire us, so we can recognise in every human being, a precious God-child and Gift.

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