YEAR B: EPIPHANY 1 (BAPTISM OF JESUS)
(Sunday between January 7 and January 13
Today’s reading tantalisingly gives us only the start of the story of creation in Genesis 1. We hear only of the beginning and day 1 of creation. The reading has been selected to fit with the other readings for this week when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. The Gospel passage is Mark 1:4-11, in which we hear of John the Baptist and his baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. The third reading is Acts 19:1-7 telling of Paul baptizing some Christians in Ephesus. We are invited to read the beginning of Genesis in this context. Our focus in Genesis 1 is on the description of chaos before God commences the act of creation. It is described in watery terms - ‘the deep’ and ‘waters’. This not only makes the link with the waters of baptism but specifies creation in Genesis 1 as a matter of bringing order to a watery chaos. The baptisms of Jesus by John, and of new Christians in the name of Jesus, are thereby connected back to creation itself. Baptism into the community of Jesus is a fulfilment of God’s intent in creation itself.
It is significant that the disorder out of which God brings order in creation is described in terms of deep waters (Gen 1:2). The sea held nameless terrors for the ancients, who had no way of plumbing its depths, and who might venture into the waves in craft much less stable than modern shipping. We should also note that such sea travel was hardly experienced in ancient Israel, which was not generally known for its maritime adventures, having no real port of any significance. The deep sea, therefore, was full of untamed peril. It was the preserve of evil, of monsters, and of a kind of hell where all humankind was vulnerable and the wicked might be punished. Through this theological description of creation, which draws heavily on the mythic language of creation in the ancient Near East, the priestly writer responsible for Gen 1:1-2:3 asserts God’s control, not only of heaven and earth, but of the deep, of evil itself. Nothing stands against the sovereignty of this God who brings order out of chaos. This is a God who overcomes evil to bring order, stability and peace to the earth and its inhabitants. In the myth of Noah and the flood (Genesis 6–9) the wickedness of humanity is a catalyst to the return of the chaos of the deep. The symbolism is the same.
The words in Genesis which represent the disorder before creation (tohu wabohu) are translated ‘formless void’ in the NRSV (v. 1; cf. REB ‘a vast waste’; NIV ‘formless and empty’; NAB ‘formless wasteland’). These words describe a total ‘nothingness’, where no form of any sort exists, and where the fundamental elements necessary for life, such as light, are absent. As such, the earth was without order and without creative or redemptive purpose. The spirit of God sweeps over the waters, like a wind. The word is ruach, meaning air in motion or wind, but in this case it is the creative breath of God. From this creative breath come the first words of creation: ‘Let there be light’. God’s breath is the spirit of life, and light is its first manifestation.
The light is considered good by God (v. 4). It may seem strange that light is created here in day 1 while the sun and moon are only referred to on day 4. Two things can be noted about this seeming contradiction. First, there is a correspondence within the days in this creation account. Days 1 and 4 (vv. 3-5 and 14-19 respectively) correspond with light, day and night brought into existence and named on those days. Days 2 and 5 (waters, air and sea creatures) and days 3 and 6 (land/sea and vegetation, animals and humans) also correspond. The presentation of creation in Genesis 1 is thus not simply set out in a logical order that reflects creation itself, especially our modern view of the way things came to be. It is a poetic presentation. Language in such contexts is not always logical or literal in meaning. Rather, it is used to evoke feeling or express truths that may even defy logic. The presentation in Gen 1:1-2:3 is itself an expression of the order and pattern that reflects the subject matter at hand.
Secondly, the light mentioned in Gen. 1:3 does not just refer to that light which has its origin in the sun and stars, as we might explain it. Light is also a quality of the gods in the ancient world. Isa 60:1-3 reflects this belief. In v. 1 the poetic parallelism aligns ‘light’ with ‘the glory of the Lord’. It goes on to speak of the Lord’s coming to his people in exile in terms of the sun rising over the earth. Thus, the light spoken of in Gen 1:3, which comes into being at an ‘illogical’ time well before the sun and moon appear, is a supernatural light emanating from the Lord. Just as light is life giving, so all that is necessary for life and for the maintenance and fulfilment of creation comes to us from God.
This emphasis on light recalls the theme of the feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the shining forth of God in Jesus Christ. Epiphany was celebrated on January 6. What is celebrated in the baptism of Jesus, and by implication in the baptism of each and every one of us, is something far greater than the incorporation of one individual into a community. It is that but it is more. It shares in the coming of the Lord to his creation, and proclaims that coming. It is part of God’s granting of life to all creation as he brings creation to fulfilment.
The Gospel of Mark for the day extends this symbolism in the description of the coming of Jesus the Christ into the chaos of the world. He has come to bring life to those who have been through the waters of baptism by John (Mark 1:5). Jesus will then ‘baptize’ them with the creative spirit of God – the Holy Spirit. Into the formlessness and chaos of their lives will come redemption and the divine creative purpose. In such new life, the purpose of God for humanity grows toward its full manifestation, ‘the kingdom of God’ (v. 11).
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