Now when all the people were baptized,
and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended
upon him in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.”
This is one of those biblical images that has often captured my heart and mind. Not only have I visually imagined Jesus standing by the Jordan River, but I have also found myself repeating the words spoken by God on many occasions as I have celebrated the life of a saint whose witness in this world was shaped by their faith. It is a bold Gospel proclamation – Jesus is humbly baptized by his cousin and the skies are opened; and God speaks words that I believe we long for throughout our lifetimes – “This is my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased.”
This seemingly ordinary first century practice of baptism is transformed into an extraordinary affirmation by God. Not only does God the ‘creator’ and ‘father’ speak a word, but Jesus the living Word is also revealed to the world while the Holy Spirit descends upon him. This is the consummate trinitarian moment – all three Godheads making an interactive appearance at this pivotal moment as Jesus prepares to begin his three-year public ministry. Understood as an epiphany or a manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, this is the second of three epiphanies in the gospels, the first being the revelation to and the journey with the magi (celebrated last Sunday) and the third at the Wedding in Cana. Epiphany is a season when the Christian church celebrates and affirms the many ways [deleted that] God in Jesus is revealed. This season of discovery and revelation continues until Ash Wednesday when we pivot and begin our journey to the cross.
I have learned that many of us do not think much about this season. It is simply the season after Christmas and before Lent. But the season of Epiphany matters, as during this time we are invited – like the magi – to continue seeking out and looking for God in the midst of all the noise and sounds around and within us. Celtic Christianity refers to moments like the baptism of Jesus as a ‘thin place’ – that place where heaven and earth meet. It is that place and space where we experience God in an unexpected way, where we are made aware of the presence of the divine, or as Celtic tradition says, “a veil is lifted,” giving us a glimpse of a profound presence. For the Christian church, that manifestation is understood to be in the sacraments. But as we know, we experience God is other ways as well.
For some of us, ‘heaven meets earth’ in nature – on the oceans or in the mountains. It is no secret that I love the ocean. I easily relate to the song from Disney’s Moana – “See the line where the sky meets the sea – it calls me” – and I can assure you, it does call me. East coast or west coast, something profound happens to me when I quietly walk along the seaside. For others, ‘heaven meets the earth’ through music, relationships, worshipand spiritual disciplines, art, and life moments. Any of these spaces can create the conditions for those ‘thin places’ or epiphanies, which allow us to be touched and transformed in profound ways by God.
Given the world we live in, it is critical for us to be active seekers of God’s presence. After all we often live much of our lives in what can be referred to as ‘thick places’ – places driven by the noise of social media and newsfeeds thrust upon us from outside, not allowing us to see God’s light breaking into the darkness. We often live in thick places where fears and assumptions make us deaf to God’s voice breaking in through the heavens. It is not enough for us to skip from Christmas to Lent as if there was nothing in between. This season of Epiphany invites us to continue seeking out those ‘thin places’ where God’s light and voice breaks into the unexpected and ordinary dimensions of our beings. As we begin a new year, may we continue on this holy journey with open hearts and minds – yearning for those “thin places” where heaven and the earth meet – touching us in ways that transform our witness in this world.