Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism of the Lord

The poem "Christmas Oratorio" by W. H. Auden begins:
"Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers."

But more than regretting Christmas excesses,
Auden sounds an elegiac note,
mourning the passing of Christmas
and the beginning of what he calls "the Time Being" —
the everyday life of school and work
and days unmarked by anticipation or feasting
He says:
"To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all."

The Time Being seems pale and lifeless
in comparison to the excesses of Christmas,
but not just the material excesses of food and drink,
but the spiritual excess, as Auden puts it, of:
"Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It."
This is the true excess of Christmas:
an excess of faith, hope and love
that opens our eyes to the possibility
of everyone and everything made alive by the Spirit —
a virgin become a mother,
a stable become a palace,
shepherds become courtiers,
and a feed trough become the throne of a king.
It is a time of magical transformations.

But now we return to the Time Being.
And what does the Church offer us today,
as we wrap up our celebration of the Christmas season
and carry it back to the attic
or drag it out to the curbside?
We begin our return to the Time Being —
what we in the Church call Ordinary Time —
by remembering the baptism of Jesus.
But why?
What does the baptism of Jesus
have to do with Christmas excess?
What does the baptism of Jesus
have to do with the Time Being
in which we live our daily lives?
And how does the baptism of Jesus
help us to link these two?

In Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus’s baptism,
we find many of the same elements that occur
in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
John the Baptist,
the Jordan river,
the Spirit in the form of a dove,
the Father’s voice from heaven saying,
"You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased."
But in Mark we find a small detail that is a bit different:
whereas Matthew and Luke speak
of the heavens "opening" at Jesus’ baptism,
Mark says, "On coming up out of the water
he saw the heavens being torn open
and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him."

This image of the heavens being "torn open" is striking
because the language conveys an event
that is dramatic, drastic, almost violent.
It is as if the heavens —
that boundary zone between the world of God
and the human world —
must be forced open
so that the Spirit might descend
and the Father speak.
It is as if a veil that has fallen between God and the world
is being ripped away.
This scene is echoed at the end of Mark’s Gospel,
when at the death of Jesus the curtain in the Temple,
which represents the separation of God from creatures,
is torn miraculously in two from top to bottom.

Mark is giving us a clue as to what Jesus is all about:
the veil between God and humanity being torn open
by God coming to dwell among us as a human.
This is what Advent and Christmas have been about.
This is what Lent and Good Friday and Easter will be about.
And this is what the Time Being —
our Ordinary Time —
is about.
It is really all just one mystery:
the mystery of the heavens torn open
and the grace of the Spirit raining down on us.
This is the mystery of Jesus’ baptism,
and this is the mystery that we share in through our own baptisms.

The elegiac, mournful tone of Auden’s poem
captures well how we might feel
about the passing of Christmas.
But this feast of the baptism of Jesus remind us
that the true mystery of Christmas has not passed.
Because of Jesus —
because of God dwelling in our human flesh —
the world has been changed.
Each and every time that we gather at this altar
the heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends
and God says: this is my beloved Son,
present under the appearances of bread and wine,
and present in you
who have been baptized into his death and resurrection.

So as we leave the Christmas season behind us,
we may regret the excesses of food and drink,
but let us never regret the excess of faith, hope and love
with which this season has filled us.
Let us hold in our hearts the vision of the heavens torn open
and God in our midst,
so that even the Time Being,
the Ordinary Time of our daily lives,
will reveal itself to us as the time of the world transformed.

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