|The Baptism of Jesus, Russian, 1780.|
Last Sunday was New Year’s Day, a day in which the old year is gone, and we turn to hopes and promises for the year to come. Two years, the old and the new, touch for an instant, and then one recedes into the hazy shades of memory even as the other flickers to life and begins to wax bright. What’s done is done. A new year lies before us. Even if we think we know what may happen in that year, it remains true that there will be blessings we cannot possibly foresee. And so, it’s a time of hopefulness. The days imperceptibly lengthen, and for that we are grateful, even if winter has only just begun.
This year, New Year’s Day coincided with the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. We heard the story of how Jesus was brought by his parents to be circumcised and named in the Temple, according to the traditions of his ancestors going back to Abraham. In this scene, the baby is taken by his parents, named and claimed, the first-born son, given the name of Jesus: “God saves.”
The giving of the name is an important landmark: it is the accepting of the child as a member of the family. Even today, we still believe that the meaning of a name given to a child has power. Why else do expectant parents spend hours poring over baby name websites and books, if they’re old school? Certainly, the sound of the name is important, but the meaning carries weight, as well. When Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple, they were naming and claiming the child as a member of their household.
And then we come to this week’s gospel. In a mere blink of the eye, we see Jesus now this Sunday, a grown man approaching his kinsman John, asking to be baptized. John is scandalized by the request, yet Jesus insists. Down into the water he goes, and when he comes up, he is once again claimed and named, but this time by his Heavenly Father as the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus and alights upon him. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is revealed as God, what our Orthodox brothers and sisters call “theophany.” He is Jesus. And he is the Son of God. Both at the same time.
These two names reflect the two natures, the human and divine, that are themselves made manifest to us through two signs: the water and the Spirit. By these same two signs we ourselves have been baptized, named and claimed as beloved children of God as well. Hearing the story of Jesus’s baptism, I am drawn to marvel at the miracle of that grace which calls us and claims us, too, as beloved children of God. Just as Jesus did, we go down into the waters of baptism and then come up a new person, with a new, wonderful name: Christian. Christ-bearer. One who has been called to carry Christ and his light into the world, rejoicing. Come what will, we are named and claimed as children of Light, before which the darkness flees.
“Love comes down at Christmas,” the old carol proclaims. Love comes down at Christmas, and claims and names us as his own.
(This was first published on Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on January 4, 2017.)