By Debie Thomas
On this first Sunday after the Epiphany, we find ourselves at the water’s edge as Jesus receives John’s baptism of repentance, and experiences a moment of divine revelation. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek, “epiphaneia,” meaning “appearing” or “revealing.” During this brief liturgical season between Christmas and Lent, we’re invited to leave miraculous births and angels choirs behind, and seek the love, majesty, and power of God in seemingly mundane things. Water. Doves. Voices. Sky. In the Gospel stories we read during this season, God parts the curtain for brief, shimmering moments, allowing us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and catch glimpses of the extraordinary.
Or at least, that’s the goal. The hope. The dream. The difficulty is, I’m not quite sure what 21st century epiphanies should look like. I’ve never seen the heavens part, or heard a divine Voice thundering through the clouds. Though I’ve professed belief in a self-revealing God all my life, I have not experienced revelation in any of the ways the Epiphany stories describe.
My experience might be unique, but I doubt it. I don’t know many Christians these days who bask in signs and wonders, who complain that God talks too much, or intrudes into their lives too often. But I know plenty of believers who experience God as hidden and silent. These are faithful people who long for epiphany, who believe in its possibility and even seek it out, but don’t find it.
So I stand at the edges of this week’s Gospel reading and find myself afraid to leap. How shall I bridge the gap between an ancient Voice and a modern silence? Heaven opened. A dove descended. God spoke. Really? I want to believe this. I do.
But to accept the supernatural in Scripture is to plunge into a sea of hard questions. If God spoke audibly in the past, why doesn’t he do so now? If he does, why haven’t I heard him? Do I lack faith? Has he retreated? Changed? Left?
Or are the ancient stories of Epiphany figurative? Was the dove, in fact, just a dove, and the voice from heaven no more than a nicely timed windstorm? When we speak of epiphanies, are we really just trucking in metaphor? Perhaps God should be in scare quotes. I had a “spiritual experience.” I felt “God.” He “spoke” to me. Isn’t it embarrassing nowadays to believe in miracles?
As Luke tells the story, there’s no indication that Jesus’s baptism leads to mass wonderment, obedience, or conversion. In his version of the event, Jesus is praying (immediately after his baptism?) when heaven opens and God speaks. Does anyone else see the dove or hear the divine voice? Do the crowds fall to their knees and immediately agree that Jesus is God’s beloved Son? The Gospel doesn’t say. Perhaps a few folks experience a quick shudder of amazement or fear. Perhaps they shake their heads, wondering if they’re imagining things. Perhaps one or two of them actually see, hear, and believe. For the most part, though, the epiphany seems to be for Jesus alone. It’s intended to bless, bolster, and commission him as he begins his public ministry. Its purpose is to reiterate to Jesus who he is — to affirm his identity and vocation.
If the epiphany doesn’t immediately change the world, then neither does it immunize Jesus from future spiritual struggle. His temptation in the desert lies ahead. Gethsemane lies ahead. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” lies ahead. As all four Gospels make clear, Jesus never outgrows his need to seek God in solitude and prayer. He never stops needing nourishment from his Father. An epiphany, then, is a glimpse. A quintessential moment that comes and goes. We’re certainly right to hope for it, but it will not suffer our hoarding. We’re meant to receive it with open hands, release it back to God, and keep our hands bravely open in its aftermath.
According to Christian historian John Dominic Crossan, the baptism story was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church, but for reasons very different from our modern ones. What scandalized the Gospel writers was not the miraculous, but the mundane. Doves and voices? All well and good — but the Messiah placing himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser like John the Baptist? God’s incarnate Son receiving a baptism of repentance? Repentance for what? Wasn’t he perfect? What was he doing in that murky water, aligning himself with the great unwashed? And why did God the Father choose that sordid moment to part the clouds and call his Son beloved?
Every age, it turns out, has its signature difficulties with faith. When we’re not busy flattening miracle into mirage, we’re busy instead turning sacrament into scandal. After all, what’s most incredulous about Jesus’s baptism story? That the Holy Spirit became a bird? That Jesus threw his reputation aside to get dunked alongside hordes of sinners? Or that God looked down at the very start of his Son’s ministry and called him Beloved — well before Jesus had accomplished a thing worth praising?
Or to ask the question more pointedly: what do we find most impossible to believe for our own lives? That God appears by means so familiar, we often miss him? That our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail too often to honor? Or that we are God’s Beloved — not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because God’s very nature, inclination, and desire is to love? To embrace Epiphany is to embrace the core truth that we are deeply, deeply loved. Can we bear to embrace such mind-bending truth without flinching away in self-consciousness, cynicism, or shame?
Here’s my real problem with this liturgical season: I always, always have a choice — and most of the time, I don’t want it. I expect God’s revelations to bowl me over. I expect epiphany to come in ways that leave me choice-less, powerless, and flattened in awe. I want a divine encounter that will free me of all doubts for all time, so that I literally pulse with faith.
But no. God has not insulted humanity with so little agency; we get to choose. We have to choose. No matter how many times God shows up, we’re free to ignore him. No matter how often he calls us Beloved, we’re at liberty to retreat into self-loathing. No matter how many times we remember our baptisms, we’re free to waste our days, dredging out of the water the very sludge we first threw in. No matter how often we reaffirm our baptismal vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons, we’re still at liberty to reject each other and walk away.
The freedom in which we live, move, and have our being is so vast, so all-encompassing, and so generous, it can feel overwhelming. But this is love. It doesn’t impose. It doesn’t coerce. It doesn’t assume. It descends as quietly as a dove, and speaks in a voice so gentle, we’re free to ignore it.
I don’t know about you, but I find this maddening. How much nicer it would be if the font were self-evidently holy. But no — the font is just tap water, well water, river water. The voice that might be God might also be wind, thunder, indigestion, or delusion. Is the baby divine? Or have we misread the star? Is this the very life and body of God’s Son? Or is it a mere hunk of bread? A jug of wine?
What I mean to say is that we must participate in the enchantment — we must choose Epiphany. Choose it, and then practice it with resolute intention and diligence. The challenge is always before us: look again. Look harder. See freshly. Stand in the place that looks utterly ordinary, and regardless of how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of a surprise that is God. Listen to the ordinary, and know that it is infused with divine mystery. Epiphany is deep water — you can’t dip your toes in. You must take a deep breath and plunge in. Yes, baptism promises new life, but it always kills before it resurrects.
What reason for hope, then? What shall we hang onto in this uncertain season of light and shadow? I believe we can hang onto Jesus. He’s the one who opens the barrier, and shows us the God we long for. He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that will tell us who we are and whose we are in this sacred season. Listen. We are God’s own. God’s children. God’s pleasure. Even in the deepest, darkest water, we are the Beloved.
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