They are the words of John the Baptist at the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan. The story marks the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It has usually been interpreted to signal the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry - itself a kind of epiphany. Yet in the Christian understanding, it is an Epiphany at once of the Trinity and also of the essential divinity of Christ revealed in and through his humanity. Pretty powerful ideas are revealed to us and in ways that engage us in terms of different ways of knowing.
First, there is the witness of John to the coming of Jesus as one greater than himself, one who will baptize not with water, he says, but with the Holy Spirit. In other words, one who is God with God and in God and God with us. John bears witness to one who is greater than himself who comes with a sense of purpose that belongs to a greater good for our humanity. Secondly, there is the witness of God himself to himself, we might say, God as Trinity. We behold the figure of Christ in his humanity in the water; we see the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove; we hear the voice of the Father who declares that “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Powerful images.
The doctrine of the Trinity is the great and essential teaching of the Christian Faith. It is about the mystery of God in Himself which underlies all the ways of God’s engagement with our humanity; God for us, as it were. Without the first there is always the danger of collapsing God into the world or into the vain imaginations of our hearts and minds. What does this mystery mean? It suggests the mutual indwelling and interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This idea of being in and with another deepens the mystery of ourselves as individuals. In other words, it challenges the contemporary notion of the completely independent self, the autonomous individual, alone in oneself as utterly disconnected from the world and even from oneself. As if we were perfect and complete. As if we were God.
God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the baptism of Jesus is a powerful epiphany about God himself. But that Jesus is baptized in Jordan for us speaks about his humanity and what he seeks for us. Christ identifies with us, undergoes baptism for us, even as baptism will become the sacramental form of our incorporation into the life of God. God in his own eternal self-relation is not an aloneness but the communion of divine love. Each of the persons of the Trinity exists in and with each other. In terms of the engagement with our humanity in creation and redemption, all three act inseparably albeit through their distinctive personal qualities. It is the idea of unity and difference held in a perfect balance in God himself. But it also points to a different vision of our humanity: not as isolated individuals but as individuals who are called to live for God and with God and for and with one another. We are called to communion with God.
This does not negate our individuality. To the contrary, it affirms it and upholds it. We are made “partakers of the divine nature”, as Peter will put it. That does not mean that we supplant God. Nor does it mean that we are denatured, becoming other than human. It has to do with the deeper truth of our humanity as made adequate to God by our incorporation into what God reveals and makes known about himself and his will for us. Epiphany makes known the idea that grace - what comes from God to us - does not destroy nature but perfects it.
The baptism of Christ belongs to the teaching of Epiphany about our humanity. It complements other religions and philosophies that understand our humanity in terms of our interrelation and connection with one another, the idea that our lives are inescapably bound up with one another. The question is in what way and for what end? To use and manipulate one another? To reduce one another and ourselves to mere things?
To be simply what we want or think we want to be? No. Instead, the story of Christ’s baptism offers a way of thinking about ourselves as persons in communion with one another. “Our life and death are with one another”, as one of the Desert Fathers puts it. Here is an epiphany, a making known of great truths, that launches us into lives of service and sacrifice. Knowing and loving go together like heart and mind, like soul and body but only through our being opened out to one who is greater than us.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy