The daily hymn for 14 January is “When Jesus comes to be baptised”, the second on this theme – I just didn’t get round to typing my notes until the following day. Its composition is attributed not to an individual but to a community – the Catholic nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in Yorkshire. Perhaps this is appropriate, for the words of the hymn meditate on the sacrifice (in a metaphorical sense) that Jesus made by coming forwards to be baptised in the Jordan river. He “leaves behind the years of safety and peace”, to bear the sins of humankind, and eventually to suffer death on the cross.
Anyone who becomes a nun, monk or other member of a religious community, but especially those who take lifelong vows, also has to sacrifice the comforts of their former years, and to take on responsibilities – to pray regularly, to study theology, and usually to work hard at whatever occupation keeps the community going financially, be it farming, craft work or teaching. It’s not an easy life.
But there’s another side to this religious commitment. Jesus, the hymn reminds us, was also called to preach the gospel, to bring comfort and healing. There were frustrations, of course, where he preaching was opposed or healing was not possible for lack of faith. But he must have found satisfaction when the message was received and understood, when the blind could see or the lame walk. Likewise, nuns or monks find their satisfaction in the worship of the community, in serving retreatants or other guests, and (if they are not in an enclosed order) in work with the local community.
When Simon Peter said to Jesus “Look, we have left our homes and followed you”, Jesus replied “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:28-30, NRSV). By which, of course, he meant not money, but satisfaction of a more real and lasting kind.
The last verse of the hymn is a Christian doxology (praise to the Holy Trinity). Perhaps this is because that is the form of words used at Christian baptism, but it’s widely believed that these words attributed to Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel were an addition by the community that Matthew belonged to. They cannot have been used by John at Jesus’ own baptism, because he would effectively have been saying “I baptise you in the name of the father, and yourself, and the Holy Spirit” which would make no sense. That doesn’t mean the doctrine of the Trinity is not helpful, just that we shouldn’t see it as something taught by Jesus himself.