Today we celebrate the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which is an annual feast commemorating what is surely one of the strangest and least understood events in the life of our Lord, but which is recognized as something that, in all likelihood, actually did happen, even by those scholars who are skeptical of just about everything else that the gospels record.
I’m referring, of course, to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. On the surface, it strikes us as harmlessly quaint, but confusing, since it’s hard to tell just what it might mean. To the early Christian communities, it wasn’t quaint and it was more than confusing—it was downright embarrassing. The baptisms that John was performing were intended to be tokens of repentance and forgiveness of sins. But Jesus was supposed to be the Sinless One. So…how come he got baptized? Why does the Sinless One get baptized for repentance and forgiveness?
I’m sure that a good part of the reason we have trouble wrapping our minds around this particular feast day is because we have so far failed to discern any vital connection, any living link, between Jesus’ human experience and our human experience. Maybe we haven’t really internalized the Church’s teaching that Jesus is 100% human—like us in every respect except that he never yielded to the impulse to resist God’s love.
But, for whatever reason, the fact that Jesus worked and played and laughed and cried and hungered and thirsted and felt everything else we feel—the fact that Jesus was the most “normal” person who ever existed—is either something we overlook completely, or is a bit of information we simply don’t know what to do with.
So . . . what do we have to do to establish this missing connection? How can we make the human experience of Jesus come alive and relate dynamically to the way we live these lives of ours? Let me offer this suggestion: We need to learn to think of Jesus as a trailblazer. “A trailblazer?” you ask. No, I’m not comparing Jesus to an SUV or to a basketball player from Portland! What I have in mind is an old-fashioned literal trailblazer—a person who heads off into uncharted, unknown territory, perhaps cutting the brush from his path with a jungle machete. The job of a trailblazer is to create a path that others can follow. What lies ahead is unmapped, and therefore unknown. A trailblazer finds out what’s there and maps it and reports on it. A trailblazer finds out where all the pitfalls and booby traps and wrong turns are—and he acquires this information through personal experience.
A trailblazer also serves as a guide. He creates the trail, he marks the trail, and he leads others along the trail by walking ahead of them. That way, nothing can happen to the travelers that has not already happened to the trailblazer.
Jesus is our trailblazer through the ups and downs and twists and turns and water hazards and sand traps of this life. There is not any place we can go that Jesus has not already been, blazing a trail for us. If we’re frightened, Jesus has prepared the way for us by experiencing fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. When we feel deep love for friends and family, Jesus has prepared the way for us by his relationship with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. When we’re in a mood to let loose and have a good time, Jesus has prepared the way for us at the wedding reception in Cana and any number of dinner parties at which he acquired a reputation as a bit of a party animal. When we’re hungry and thirsty, Jesus has prepared the way for us when he retreated to the wilderness for forty days following his baptism. And when the time comes for us to leave this world for the next, we will find that Jesus has prepared the way for us when he drew his final breath hanging on a cross.
For those who are connected to Christ through the waters of baptism, Jesus is our trailblazer, and this is how we come to realize the relevance of Christ’s own baptism and the feast that we celebrate today. We know his baptism to be that which makes our own baptism possible. It is in the baptism of our Lord that we are introduced to the idea that there is no aspect of our experience where God has not already been, there is no place we can go where we don’t see Jesus right ahead of us, preparing the way.
The great fourth century theologian and bishop St Hilary of Poitiers put it this way:
It was not because Christ had a need that he took a body and a name from our creation. He had no need for baptism. Rather, through him, the cleansing act was sanctified to become the waters of our immersion.In order to “prime the pump” for his total identification with the human condition, Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance for which he had no inherent need. He did it for us. His baptism prepares the way for ours. Even in the waters of the font, we find a note from God that says, “I was here.”
When we fail to make this vital connection between Jesus’ experience—including his experience of baptism—and our experience—including our experience of baptism—we are left feeling like the burden is on us to find our own way out of the misery that is the human predicament. We are left feeling like it’s up to us to make some sense out of a loved-one being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease or a huge country like Australia literally on fire, with tens of millions of animals being killed. We are left feeling like it’s all on us to make whatever arrangements we might be able to make for our own welfare, both in this world and whatever world there might be beyond this one.
But when we assume this burden, what we may not realize is that we are, in effect, firing Jesus from the most significant part of his job description. We are reducing him to being a good example, a cheerleader, and a comforter. This is all nice, but it really doesn’t do much for us.
If we’re well-taught, we understand Jesus to be a savior who gets us off the hook with God and somehow makes it possible for us to live with God in his heavenly kingdom for eternity.
Well, that’s something to get pretty excited about, but it’s kind of abstract and hard to wrap our minds around. So, it is only when we see the profound connection between Jesus’ human experience and our human experience—a connection that is made particularly evident in the event of his being plunged beneath the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist on that day in the Judean wilderness—it is only then that we can fully “get it,” only then that we can see and know that Jesus has secured for us our portion in the joys of his coming kingdom. It is then that we realize with gratitude that it’s not all on us to make sense of this life, that we are travelers on an expedition, an expedition that he is leading, blazing a trail for us to follow.