Last Sunday, the Church in the United States celebrated the great solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus.
We learned that an Epiphany is an extraordinary revelation, and the revelation of the Epiphany continued the revelation of Christmas- that is the one, true and eternal God was born into this world as we were all born into the world. God, in Jesus Christ, accepts a human nature and lives a real, human life. This revelation, which we Christians call the Incarnation, is the central and most important truth of the Church’s faith- it is what we believe about God and what we believe about the Lord Jesus.
God is not just an idea or a feeling or a vague cosmic force. God reveals himself in Jesus Christ to be a living, divine person who offers us a relationship with him. Jesus Christ is not just a prophet, philosopher or guru. Jesus Christ is God become man.
We also learned last week some of the details of the story of Christ’s epiphany, particularly about the Magi who were led to the Child Jesus by a heavenly portent that is described in the Gospel for last Sunday as a star. The Magi were masters of mystical arts and esoteric teachings. The popular imagination presents the Magi as being 3 kings, but they really were not kings, and the Gospel doesn’t tell us how many came to see the Lord Jesus.
We also learned last week that there were two kings in the story of Christ’s Epiphany- one is God become king- Christ himself, and the other is worldly king by the name of Herod, who was, at least, in a worldly sense, one of the greatest kings in the history of the Israelites.
Herod was born around the year 74 BC and died in the early years of the Christ Child’s life. Though successful in worldly matters, such as politics, economics, and possessed of wealth and power that brought him any pleasure he wanted and the honor of powerful and influential people, Herod was a brutal and murderous fiend. He plotted to kill the Christ Child, and having failed in his plot, murdered the innocent children of Bethlehem.
Such was the world into which God allowed himself to be born! It was also one of the reasons God came into our world as our Christ- to deal with men and women like Herod and create a means by which they would always be challenged, subverted and ultimately defeated.
I bring up Herod today because though he died was Christ was just a child, the shadow of his life is cast throughout the Gospels. And this is important to remember today, on this the day the Church commemorates the Baptism of the Lord.
Please let me explain.
Like Christ’s Holy Birth and his Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord Jesus is a mysterious event. The Baptism that the Lord Jesus receives is NOT the Baptism of the Church. Instead, Christ is participating in a purification ritual that would have been familiar to Israelites of his time, but is likely unfamiliar to us. The Baptism of John, which Christ permits himself to receive, gestures towards the ritual washing which faithful Israelites would undergo so as to enter into the temple precincts so they could participate in the worship of God.
Why the Lord Jesus receives the Baptism of John is as mysterious as why John is baptizing people at all.
The Gospel of Luke identifies John as a temple priest who has evidently gone rogue. Rather than fulfilling his role as an Israelite priest he is off in the wilderness telling people not to go to the temple and warning them that something has gone so wrong with that temple, that God himself was coming to set things right.
Remember, the temple of Jerusalem was the center of Israelite culture, indeed the Israelites considered the temple to be the center of the world. The temple was not just a civic monument, but also the house of God on earth. The fate of the Israelites, indeed the whole world, was bound to the temple and the worship that was offered there.
John’s Baptism, is meant to prepare the people for the day when God arrives to set whatever had gone wrong with the temple. John was offering a ritual washing so that when God came and cleaned up his house (the temple) the people would be ready to worship him.
All of John’s concerns about the temple and the mysterious Baptism he offers are also where the shadow of old king Herod is cast.
Herod had rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem on such a magnificent scale that it was considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world. He had done this, not so much to honor God, but to insure his legacy, and as a kind of propaganda, that he and his dynasty were the long awaited successors to the mightiest kings of the Israelites, David and Solomon.
John the priest would have none of this. He knew Herod was a fraud and that his temple was corrupted by the influence of his dynasty, and also knew that God was coming to kick Herod’s family out and clean up the temple and priesthood that Herod had corrupted with this wealth and power.
And then John sees the Lord Jesus and understands that he (the Lord Jesus) is the one who is the means by which God will deal with the temple and priesthood that Herod had corrupted.
This is the great revelation of Christ’s Baptism- he is God come to set things right, in particular, to expose a king like Herod as being a fraud, and to bring about the kind of temple and priesthood that God wants for his people.
Jesus Christ is God, and therefore the true king. In Christ the Lord, God becomes the king. But more than this, Christ the Lord, who is God, has as his mission to set right the temple and the priesthood so that people can worship God as he wants to be worshipped.
This is what Christ’s Baptism is signaling to us, gesturing toward. Removed centuries from all this history, it might be hard for us to see, but it is what today’s commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord is about. It is another great revelation that is manifesting to us, as we saw at Christmas and at Epiphany, that Christ the Lord is God, but that God has come into the world with a mission and as he accomplishes his mission, the people will receive from him, the true king, a new temple and a new kind of worship.
And Christians… This is precisely what we are participating in today- the temple of Christ and the worship that God wants. This is what the worship of the Church called the Mass is- temple worship, Christ’s temple worship. Here in the Mass, you enter into Christ’s sanctuary and Christ your king presents himself as your priest and makes of his own body and blood the sacrifice by which he shares his divine life with you.
This is what the Mass is and also why the Mass is the worship God wants, because in the Mass, God in Christ acts to give you his divine life, and he does so in the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist.
What John the Baptist longed for and did not live long enough himself to receive, is now given to you- you have in Jesus Christ your king, you have access to his temple, and you can offer him the worship through which you do not simply remember who the Lord Jesus is, but through which you receive his very life and adore his very presence.
The Mass becomes boring and even oppressive when we forget what it is- it is not just an expression of culture or faith based entertainment that we create out of our own ideas or feelings or skills. The Mass is Christ’s temple and the worship he wants- it is the means by which he shares his life with us and we share our own lives with him.
The revelation of Christmas and Epiphany is that God has become man- he has accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. Both events compel us to think back to an event that changed the world centuries ago. The revelation of the Baptism of the Lord compels us to think back to that event centuries ago when God revealed himself in such an extraordinary way, but then insists that we not only remember what God in Christ did in the past, but what it is doing right now, right here in his temple- in this very Mass!
God in Christ has come into this world, yes, and in his Mass he reveals to us that he is still here!