So. We arrive at the Baptism of Christ. We leave behind angels and dreams, shepherds and wise men, stable and census, and with the Baptism of Christ we arrive at history in the life of Jesus. We can be sure, I suggest, of two things: that John the Baptist existed; and that Jesus came and was baptized by him.
The existence and mission of the Baptist is attested not just by the gospels, but also by the Jewish historian Josephus. And Jesus’s baptism is recorded in the gospel according to Mark and that of Matthew; Luke briefly mentions it, and though John manages to get away without any explicit statement, he does relate the build-up and the aftermath.
In the accounts in Mark and Matthew, after his baptism Jesus sees the heavens open and the Spirit descend on him. In Luke the vision becomes an event seen by all; in the fourth gospel the Baptist himself has this vision as a witness to Jesus as Messiah.
Presumably Jesus had heard report of the Baptist and, perhaps with others, travelled out to see and hear him. And having seen and heard he was immersed in the water, just like many of the others who saw and heard. The synoptic gospels tell us this was a moment of great spiritual significance for Jesus. With the vision of the descent of the Spirit, perhaps it is at this point that Jesus decides to abandon his former life as a carpenter in Nazareth. Presumably he becomes a disciple of the Baptist, retreating into the wilderness for reflection and self-examination, and joining John in baptizing in the river Jordan.
And then John is arrested and is incarcerated in Herod’s prison and will soon meet his death at Herod’s whim. He was not the first person to fall victim to the wrath of a tyrant, and nor was he the last. A roll call of victims and prisoners of conscience would number in the tens of millions in the twentieth century alone. The list of current news stories at Amnesty International includes not just all the usual suspects — our own proud western democracies are not always beyond reproach either. The image at the top of this piece shows a detail of the ‘prisoners of conscience’ window at the east end of Salisbury Cathedral, where every day prayers are said for those held around the world. Let us too hold these people in our prayers and work for their freedom and the improvement of their lot. Let the oppressed go free.
Jesus meanwhile ‘withdraws’ (Matthew 4.12) to Galilee — very probably it was no longer safe for anyone linked to the Baptist to be in Herod’s territory. Luke tells us that Jesus’s first public act on his return to Galilee is to read in the synagogue at Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
If this is historical, then is it too much to see it as an expectation by Jesus that in this year of the Lord’s favour the captive Baptist will be released — and that this is happening now? Not surprising that his message was not received favourably and he was driven out.
But with the arrest and decrease of the Baptist, it is time for Jesus to increase and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, the imminence of the kingdom of God. A kingdom based not on austerity or retreat to the wilderness but on justice for the oppressed and life in all its fullness. Here we are invited to sit and feast, accepted and welcomed into fellowship with the divine. In the subsequent ministry of Jesus baptism does not seem to be a prerequisite to ritual purity and to acceptance into the society of the ritually pure. Instead Jesus tells people their sins are already forgiven, and he accepts them without further ritual into society with him, sitting at table together and breaking bread.
Is it any wonder that it was these remarkable meals of Jesus that his followers continued — and that they continued to recognize his presence at the breaking of the bread? In this ritual we sit and eat at God’s table, and we break bread with our fellows, forgiving them the wrongs they have done us and receiving their forgiveness for the wrongs we have done them; and as we break bread together we recognize still the presence of Jesus, the incarnate Word.
And this begins with the baptism of Christ: the year of the Lord’s favour is now.
Simon Kershaw is one of the founders of Thinking Anglicans