Epiphany to Theophany: A reflection on this week’s Gospel (Mt 3:13-17)

One of the things I really love about scripture is it many historical and contextual layers. Often there are things going on in the text that today’s readers are likely to miss, at least without further study. Despite this, one can take profundity from any of these layers that can make a real impact on lives. In a more humorous and contemporary understanding one might say of scripture that, like Shrek, it has layers like an onion. All parts of the bulb are still the onion and still have the distinctive odour. Likewise scripture remains scripture at every depth. Nonetheless, this week’s gospel of Jesus’ baptism is a great example of this. I will explore just a few of these layers.   

 

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The first words spoken are from John the Baptist, “I need to be baptized by you.” These words on their own may for some create a discord already. For those reading it at the time it was written the discord has a deeper resonance. The context was that those who are baptized become subordinate to those who baptized them. This didn’t sit well with some early Christians because if Jesus was really God them he was not subordinate to anyone. While this was not articulated then, there was an understanding that it was so. A discord then lies: if his baptism could be omitted from the text (because of its implied subordination) why wasn’t it? And yes, some things have been omitted or redacted out of scripture.

The baptism of Jesus was likely a well known, though uncomfortable, fact: a public act which had to be dealt with. (You do know there wasn’t someone following Jesus around and writing everything he said or did, right?) Some speculate that the words of John were added as a way to deal with this: John recognizing his unworthiness and transferring the subordination to himself. While the transfer exists what’s to say it didn’t happen in this way? It would have been a matter for John, Jesus and the disciples to address then too.

Jesus replies, “Leave it like this for time being.” Implied here is an undisclosed future time, after the baptism, when the correcting transfer will take place. At the crucifixion? At the death of John the Baptist? Whenever it is, it will occur. In doing “all that righteous demands” Jesus in his earthly manifestation begins to fulfill his mission; a mission proclaimed from creation and a beginning confirmed by the Holy Spirit and the Father.

There is a technical term used when the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are revealed simultaneously in scripture: Theophany. With a similar root word to Epiphany, which means ‘to show forth’ or ‘to reveal’, theophany is God’s self revelation. There is one other, perhaps two, where thephanies occur. Most scholars agree that the Transfiguration is a theophany and some also include the crucifixion. Here at the baptism, the Son comes out of the water, the Spirit of God descend on him, and a voice in heard from heaven. The presence of the other two in such an explicit form confirms the divinity of the Jesus. Epiphany is God revealing more of himself; theophany is his self revelation.  

More could be said about the act of Jesus’ baptism being the sacramentalising of baptism given that at the time it was symbolic; More could be said about the symbol of water being cleansing and quenching; more could be said about the breaking of the surface of the water from the submersion in the Jordan as a sign of rebirth. But I’ll finish dwelling on the thought of God’s explicit self revelation. Here he is in his fullness, publicly declaring his presence. Do we do the same? Do we declare God? He publicly confirms humanity (and we as adopted sons and daughters); do we publicly confirm him? Do we reveal God? 

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