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Song of the Water

First Sunday After the Epiphany: Gen 1:1-5; Ps 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mk 1:4-11

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

January 7, 2024

O God, by the leading of a star, at the waters of the Jordan, and in the water made wine you revealed your glory in the face of Jesus, your beloved Son. Grant that we who have been made your children through baptism may show forth your glory in our lives, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.[1]

            Good morning, St. Aidan’s. Welcome to the season of Epiphany, perhaps my favorite among the seasons of the Church Year. Each season tells a particular set of stories, drawing out and inviting us into particular themes within a larger, unfolding narrative. Taking the baton from the twelve days of Christmas with their emphasis on incarnation and joy, Epiphany is a season of revelation, of the manifestation of divine glory, of following that glory with wonder and awe. As that awe-filled response further unfolds, the manifesting of that glory emerges in the living out of vocation. As I’ve shared in years past, Epiphany opens those connected themes to us in part through being differently shaped than other seasons. It is variable in length, depending on when Lent and Easter begin. It begins with the color white (or gold) and then shifts to green. It also launches with three distinct stories: the Magi visiting the Christ child in Bethlehem (on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th); the Baptism of Jesus, always heard on the first Sunday after the Epiphany (today); and (in year C next year) the Wedding at Cana when Jesus turns water into wine. These three stories are evoked in former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold’s prayer with which I began. They will show up again in the blessing at the close of our service. They invite us into a space of awe and wonder, inviting us to consider how God’s glory is unfolding in our lives, and how we might join in manifesting that glory in the world.

            Our reading from Genesis reminds us of the glorious emergence of light at the beginning of all things. From the fruitful chaos of the darkness that covered the waters of the deep, from out of the hovering of the divine breath, God called forth light. That light was glorious, and it was good. It marked the beginning of creation with water and light. We can observe those elements at work in the two stories that launch us into Epiphany: the story of the Magi and that of the Baptism of Jesus.

The Magi story from Matthew’s gospel, of which we heard a brief portion at the very beginning of our service, tells of how these Gentile seers followed a star to the place and person where God was wondrously revealing Godself: the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the holy one of God (Mt 2:1-12). The Magi had to trust their observation of Jesus’ star, ultimately thwarting the tyrannical Herod who sought to take advantage of their journey to eliminate a potential threat. Our prayer, with the Wise Ones, is to be led in such trust—as we prayed with the collect for Epiphany – “to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.”[2] Lead us to your light, O God, we pray. And even if and when our path is filled with uncertainty, even as your star may seem to shift location, help us to know that in looking to your light, we are being led to and by your very glory. The light shines in the shadows and the shadows will not overcome that light. And as we continue in our holy searching, furthermore, as your glory continues to draw us on, help us to know, O God, that the journey is re-creating us, bringing us back to and through the very waters of our creation. Open our hearts, O God, that we might manifest your glory by being made new.

The baptism of Jesus, the focus of the gospel passage appointed for today, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, draws us to these waters of our re-creation. The story of the baptism of Jesus is always the gospel on the first Sunday following the Feast of the Epiphany because, particularly in the early, eastern strains of Christianity, the baptism of Jesus is known as the Theophany. Icons of this scene abound, showing Jesus standing in the river Jordan, water being poured over his head, the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above like holy breath. Jesus in this moment is joining those chaotic waters evoked by Genesis. He has joined the waters of creation itself, entering our fray in creaturely solidarity, and hallowing it by divine presence.[3] As he comes up out of that water, our Markan version of the story tells, he sees the heavens parted (Mk 1:10).[4] If we recall the story of how the Jordan river had parted to usher the Israelites into the promised land centuries before, even as the Red Sea had parted to release them into the wilderness before that, perhaps Jesus was seeing above him a new creation of that parting.[5] Only what emerged from it was the Holy Spirit, descending upon him in the form of a dove, and a voice piercing his water-logged ears declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). This is the moment in which Jesus is revealed as God’s Son, God’s child, God’s beloved One. This brief, timeless moment calls out to us: behold. Behold God the incarnate Word (in the Gospel of John’s language) who was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Behold the Messiah whose baptismal plunging would be followed immediately by immersion in the wilderness. Behold God calling us to the journey, to the waters of our own renewal.

Several weeks ago when I was at my mom’s house, I was looking through the children’s books in her library. While my sister and I have taken a number of those to our respective homes to share with our kids (and peruse in our own right), a number remain. I came across one by Lillian and Russel Hoban – longtime favorite authors and illustrators of mine for the Frances the badger series. This book, however, featured a beaver, Charlie. Charlie was a young beaver whose growing up was being nurtured and commented upon by his parents and grandfather. The story dramatizes Charlie’s resistance to his parents’ and especially his grandfather’s hopes (and judgements) for his growing up, characterized by adult beaverly responsibility. A particular moment in the story struck me as Charlie, out from under the watchful eyes of the adults who were giving him space, making his way through a field, is drawn to a trickling sound that has grabbed his hearing and will not let him go. The sounds turned out to be a stream. “The sound of the trickling kept tickling Charlie, and he could not sit still,” the book explains. “So he took off his clothes [because in the Hoban book world, of course creatures wear clothing], and he dived into the stream and swam around inside the song the water was singing.”[6] The song the water was singing. A voice came from the water, a song that spoke to Charlie of his belovedness, his chosenness, his call. I’m reminded of the poetry of Thomas Troger that we are using as a canticle at the 8 AM:

Glory to God is the song of the stars,

music so deep that the silence is sound,

music too lyric for meter and bars,

flowing as prayer that no language has bound,

gathering out of the reaches of space

measureless praises of infinite grace:

Glory, glory, glory to God!

All of creation sings adoration.

Glory, glory, glory to God![7]

I think, too, of the language of the Eucharistic Prayer we are using for Epiphany from the Church of England: from the beginning you have created all things and all your works echo the silent music of your praise.” As he listened to that song, Charlie found that he couldn’t help but start to create. He started together branches and to weave them into place. As he built what became his own unique beaver dam, the book reports, “he listened to the song of the water, and he liked it better than he had before.” His collaboration with creation, his joining in the water’s sound, resonated in him. It called him out of himself. It wasn’t that he was now conforming to his parents’ and grandfather’s preconceived idea of what it was to be a grown-up beaver. This was his own unique becoming, his own baptismal song, we might say. He was coming into his full stature as a creature of God, uniquely beloved, manifesting divine glory, singing with his life his response to the divine song.

            And so, dear friends, that invitation comes to us. As we renew our baptismal covenant this morning, we are invited to return to the waters of our creation. We are brought once again to the elemental ground of our being, connected at the deepest level with our creatureliness, our humanity, our belovedness as members of a collective body joined and redeemed by God in Jesus Christ. From out of our creation, we are invited to connect once more with our fundamental call as Christians: to manifest God’s glory in this world, whatever place we might be in our lives; to sing the divine song in ways that we uniquely are called to do; to honor and uplift the divine song in others. As we make our way into this new year that invitation extends to us: be refreshed; know and sing your belovedness; seek and serve Christ in all creation; love the song of yourself and your beloved neighbor; step anew into your unique call to shine forth as manifestations of God’s glory in this world.

Glory, glory, glory to God! All of creation sings adoration. Glory, glory, glory to God. Amen.

[1] Frank T. Griswold, Praying Our Days: A Guide and Companion (Harrisburg, PA, 2009), 13-14.

[2] Readings and Collect for the Feast of Epiphany:

[3] Ignatius of Antioch, among other early Church theologians, makes this point about Jesus hallowing the water by his immersion in it. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians XVIII, in The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. 1 (London & Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912, 1998), 193.

[4] William Placher emphasizes that only in Mark does Jesus see the heavens “torn open” or “ripped apart” – much more dramatic language than in the other renditions of Jesus’ baptism. Placher explores a connection to Isaiah 64:1 (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”). William C. Placher, Mark: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 22.

[5] Anna Case-Winters, commenting on the Matthean version of this scene, notes the connection between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river and the crossing of the Israelites into the promised land. Matthew: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 51.

[6] Russell & Lillian Hoban, Charlie the Tramp (New York, London: Scholastic Book Services, 1966), unnumbered pages.

[7] Thomas Troger, Borrowed Light: Hymn Texts, Prayers, and Poems (Oxford University Press, 1994), 56-57.

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