We begin Ordinary Time by reading from the beginning of John’s Gospel. The scene opens with John the Baptist at the Jordan. The Jewish authorities had sent emissaries from Jerusalem to ask him a very direct question: “Who are you.” He had no hesitation in telling them that he was not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. By quoting Isaiah he told them that he was the herald of the Lord who was already among them.
The next day, John was again baptizing. Surrounded by his disciples he stopped what he was doing and pointed at a man. His eyes wide, his heart racing, he proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Then he testified. “I saw the spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.”
Unlike the report of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, here, there is no drama. God’s voice isn’t heard speaking. Instead, John attests that he has personally seen the Spirit come to rest on Jesus. The remainder of the chapter clarifies what the evangelist is teaching us.
The following day, John is again at the Jordan. Two of his disciples are beside him. Again, Jesus walks by. Again, John points to him, “There is the Lamb of God.” The disciples leave John, and begin following Jesus who turns to them asking, “What are you looking for?” “Where do you live?” they ask. “Come and see,” he invites them.
The evangelist is laying out the dynamic of the Christian life for us. One person of faith who can see beyond the obvious, points to Jesus, not only the man, but the Lamb of God. This simple account is meant to fan our faith. Each of us is called to contemplate the mystery of the Lamb of God to internalize it. Each of us is called to testify – to point him out. From that moment on, the Spirit will guide all who can hear, and the journey will have begun.
We begin our reflection on the baptism of the Lord by reading Isaiah’s poetic description of the Messiah. “I, the Lord, formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” Through this image of the Messiah, Isaiah casts the light of hope on the world’s suffering, poor and oppressed.
Then, we move on to the testimony Peter gave to Cornelius and his household. It’s so simple we may overlook its importance. His testimony is a short creed. “You know… what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Peter is taking Isaiah’s description of the Messiah and placing it into the ordinary course of life. Jesus moved through the society of his day lifting suffering by doing good and healing. The Holy Spirit was with him as he ministered and God’s power flowed from him.
The Gospel reading gives us Matthew’s account of the event. It begins with a wonderful dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus had come from Galilee with the specific purpose of going through the ritual bathing that John had initiated. He asked people to convert – to turn their hearts to God and confess their sins. Submerging themselves into the Jordan, the penitents symbolically washed away their sins. They were then ready to step into the new, Messianic Time.
John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. He protested saying that Jesus should baptize him! Jesus told him to “allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was telling John that he wasn’t detaching himself from the world, no matter how dark and sinful it was. His mission was to purify and heal the world from within. Saint Paul put it this way in his second letter to the Christians in Corinth. “Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Matthew then shares with us the powerful event that occurred within Jesus as he came up out of the water. “The heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.” As he emerged he was overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit and anointed by the Father. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus went into the water wrapped in the world’s darkness; he emerged anointed and strengthened for his mission to bring God’s healing light to the world. With this event, Matthew begins his Gospel, the Good News that God’s loves each and every one of us good and bad alike. The world’s healing has begun through Jesus. His ministry will continue through us, his disciples. Matthew reminds us of this event in the last sentences of his Gospel.
“Go then, to all peoples everywhere, and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
It’s an interesting fact that the Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated much longer than Christmas. Epiphany was solidly in place on the Christian calendar by the end of the 3 rd century whereas Christmas took a while longer to evolve. It wasn’t universally celebrated until the 8th century.
It was the Eastern Church that gave the Feast of the Epiphany its Greek name. It means manifestation – God appearing among us. The star in Matthew’s story of the Magi is the central image of the feast. It led the wise men to Bethlehem, the birthplace of the King of the Jews, our redeemer and Lord. From the very beginning, this story has been the spiritual icon of humankind’s journey to discover God.
It’s also interesting to see how the Eastern Church has integrated Matthew’s star into its daily liturgy. Above the paten, called the diskos, the dish that holds the squares of bread used for the Eucharist, a cross-shaped dome is placed, the asterisk, from which hangs the Magi’s star. It’s a tiny beacon guiding the worshipper to the Christ now, the bread of life.
The Church gifts us with this wonderful Feast of the Epiphany as a spiritual map. It reminds us that each of us is on the same journey as the Magi. Every day of our lives we take another step in that journey.
The story of their journey reminds us, that in the course of our personal and communal journeys, there will be some days when we may feel sure-footed and the mysterious star of our longing is clear and bright. We feel sure that we’re getting closer to our journey’s end. Hope and joy strengthens us for the next day.
The journey of the Magi also reminds us that days may come when every step is a drudgery, our feet may be like lead, and the path may seem to grow steeper with every step. Sometimes, the star may even disappear from our sight. Patiently, or sometimes despondent, we pause and wait for the dark clouds to disappear.
The Feast of the Epiphany is our yearly reminder that, in mystery, we reach the goal of our journey whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. What may seem like a simple march to the altar is, symbolically, the lifetime of our journey. We, too, follow the star; it’s the light of our faith beaming its light on our extended hands. Amen, we say, as we receive the bread of life. What strength we receive from that small bit of bread enough strength to, once again, step onto the path of the Magi’s journey.