When Jesus comes to be baptised

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.

1 thought on “When Jesus comes to be baptised”

  1. I decided to comment on this hymn and the previous day’s together, so that I could compare and contrast them. Basically, I liked this one a lot more than the other. I didn’t know Stanbrook Abbey was a community of nuns.

    What I liked about this hymn was the way it stuck to facts and resisted the temptation to elaborate on them. Jesus’ baptism marked the start of his public ministry, when he stepped from the wings onto the stage. Although the voice doesn’t “commission” Jesus (it sets him no task, simply declares who he is), I think the word “anointing” is a fair summary of the Spirit’s “descending on him”, and after it he is always on the go. I liked the way verse 3 takes up the “Servant of the Lord’s” qualities in Isaiah 42:3 and brings to mind the fate of that Servant. I was a little puzzled by “serene” instead of “supreme” in v4, and wondered if it was a misprint?

    By contrast, the previous hymn by George Timms raises a lot of my hackles. I’d sooner it didn’t say his baptism was about him “shar(ing) our fallen nature’s blame” (v1: yes, he did do this, but did he do it by his BAPTISM?), nor simply cite Mt 3:15 when this verse betrays Matthew’s unease about Mark’s bald story, nor say that the voice from heaven stated his purpose (v2), nor say that the dove meant love (v3).

    I guess I am happier with verse 4 than with the others. “There seems little doubt that his baptism at the hands of John was a turning point in Jesus’ activity, and marked the point at which he stepped from the private into the public eye (as v1 of tomorrow’s hymn says). Mark’s Gospel is written in the bluntest terms: where in our translations it says “the Spirit sent him out into the desert” the Greek is nearer to “the Spirit chucked him out into the desert”: the compulsion of obedience is laid on him. I wish George Timms had written “foe” rather than “foes” at the end of the verse: it’s true there are three temptations in Matthew and Luke, but there is just the one tempter. Could he maybe have said “and so the Spirit made him go / and wrestle with his people’s foe”?

    And then, turning to our baptism in verse 5, is the main point of baptism that we are “baptized FROM SIN”? John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, but the early Christians didn’t regard John’s baptism as Christian baptism (as Acts 19:1-6 seems to make clear). Repentance is only half the story – the other side of the coin has to be faith. Alleluia that George mentions the Holy Spirit’s power, and it’s true that the Spirit’s ministry is partly to defend us from temptation – but hasn’t the Spirit a far more exciting charismatic and empowering ministry in the hearts of his people?

    And I decided to stop singing George Timms’ hymn at the end of verse 5. Linking Holy Communion and Baptism is a churchy thing to do, but it’s not a thematic New Testament thing to do. Let’s talk about one thing at once.

    I wish the Church of England had not made so much of “The baptism of Christ” as a Christian festival and regular part of the church calendar. It’s strange that baptism features so heavily in the beginning of the Gospels, and then virtually fades out. It’s strange that the baptisms of people like Nicodemus or Zacchaeus or Bartimaeus, or even of Simon Peter and most of the other apostles, are not mentioned, if baptism is so significant an event as the church nowadays seems to think. It’s strange that the only mention of baptism on Jesus’ earthly lips is about baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and that John took care to say Jesus himself avoided administering it (John 4:2). And all that before we even get onto infants (in next Monday’s hymn)! Shutting up now!

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