How would we make it through the year without its cycle of celebrations, holidays, holy days, and commemorations? Already in prehistoric times, human beings did not just live their lives, day in, day out, but would stop once in a while to celebrate those special times: the harvest. The long night of the midsummer sun. The winter solstice. Ancient sites like Stonehenge in England clearly show us, that human beings marveled at the mystery of life, and commemorated special event, holy days, from very early on.
We still like to celebrate. Even those for whom the church calendar with its cycle of repentance and celebration, fasting and feasting, darkness and light, grief and joy has become obsolete, still like to mark the year with its special days: birthdays, anniversaries, memorial days. And of course we as Christians have all those special days and holy days we celebrate in our tradition, the most prominent ones being Christmas and Easter.
These times are just like landmarks, keeping us on track, giving us direction, and, when you think of all the joyous celebrations we have, they also give us hope. What if one day was just like the other? What if we didn’t stop once in a while and marveled at the mystery of life, and the mystery of God? Life would be rather monotonous and boring. Even the setting aside of one day a week, as we see it in the second commandment – that we should observe a Sabbath day and keep it holy – the one day a week we are not only allowed, but commanded to stop and worship and celebrate God and the life God gives – reminds us that there is so much more to life than just our basic needs and wants.
So each year in January we commemorate the Baptism of our Lord. This is not necessarily a festival high on the priority list of many Christians, however: there is something about this special event that caused the church from early on to set one day a year aside to keep the memory about it alive.
There are so many things that are connected with baptism: cleansing, refreshing, but also the drowning of the old. John the Baptist added a new dimension to this ritual that was well known in many religious traditions: repentance, a turn around, the conscious change of direction. Baptism according to John meant that people did not just wash off their sin, just to get soiled again, and to come back ever so often to have the ritual repeated. No, this baptism was radical and called for a change of heart and mind.
The Christian community soon adopted this ritual and its profound meaning, taking it just a step further: The Apostle Paul speaks about the drowning of the old Adam, our sinful nature, so that we can receive a new life in Christ. That doesn’t mean baptism keeps us immune from all temptations and bad stuff, and that baptism protects us from sin. As Martin Luther famously said, the old Adam may be drowned in baptism, but once in a while the bastard comes floating back to the surface. However, through baptism we are protected from the consequences of sin – God’s forgiveness and grace are manifest in the baptismal waters.
Jesus’ baptism has baffled many; why did Jesus need cleansing? Why did something old in Jesus to be drowned? But, if you look at the gospel story we heard today, something new starts for Jesus, indeed. He was about 30 years of age when he began his mission work, we hear; Jesus’ mission starts with his baptism. His old and rather obscure life is changed forever. God announces that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, and also sends the Spirit as a very special sign of God with him. And so all those who have been baptized in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit ever since have been drawn into that wonderful and complex relationship that God wants to have with all; and in which we are made clean, refreshed, changed and renewed, claimed and announced as God’s beloved children, and equipped with God’s Holy Spirit, which is with us, always, and is God’s continuous presence with us all. A new life in God starts for us, calling us onto new ways.
We often seem to forget about all this. It is so easy to get distracted or discouraged in life with all its ups and downs. It is so easy to forget that we are, indeed, God’s, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God. It is so easy to forget this gift which is also a call, a call to live this baptism in this world, to live as redeemed children of the light.
So often darkness or at least hopelessness and boredom seem to prevail, in our lives and in our world.
And if we forget about our own baptism, we even more so forget about someone else’s baptism. We don’t see the precious child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever, in those around us – the people in our workplaces, those we encounter as we go about our busy lives, those living in the streets, those society has given up on. But baptism and salvation are not just individual issues. It’s not about my God, my Savior – it is about God who came and still comes to redeem all the beloved children. We are one family of the baptized. We are community. And as such, we are called to look out for one another, and to care for one another. I hope we can honor that we are not the only chosen ones – and treat our brothers and sisters with the dignity they deserve as those who share in the same baptism we were baptized with – and who share in the baptism our Lord was baptized with.
So let us remember today. You are baptized. We are baptized, into community. You are God’s. We are God’s. Many other are God’s. No matter, what happens. In baptism God creates this very special bond with all, a covenant, a contract: You are my child, the beloved, and I am pleased with you, I rejoice at you. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.
God reveals this truth to us. This is the light that shines on our way, as we share in the ways through life, and as we share in the mystery of life and the mystery of God.