Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Russian icon of the Baptism of Christ

    The first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is now widely observed as The Baptism of the Lord. It commemorates one of the relatively few events that  are recorded in all four Gospels. The Gospel for this year is Luke, the shortest of the four accounts – ‘when Jesus had also been baptized’ is all it says about the event itself – and it combines two seemingly very different ideas, a ferocious warning about ‘unquenchable fire’ with the appearance of a dove, traditionally the symbol of peace. 

    In a justly celebrated poem, T S Eliot powerfully connects the two.

    The dove descending breaks the air 
    With flame of incandescent terror
    Of which the tongues declare
    Baptism Jean-Michel Basquiat
    The one discharge from sin and error.
    The only hope, or else despair
     Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
     To be redeemed from fire by fire.

    Who then devised the torment? Love.
    Love is the unfamiliar Name
    Behind the hands that wove

    The intolerable shirt of flame

    Which human power cannot remove.
     We only live, only suspire
    Consumed by either fire or fire.

    Eliot here gives expression to the choice with which Christianity confronts us. We can live by our own lights and struggle through the existential problems that ‘human power cannot remove’, or we can transcend them by letting the love of God in Christ consume us. In line with an ancient practice, baptisms are commonly celebrated on this Sunday. This is not just a matter of happily fitting the Gospel of the day. If Jesus is the perfect unity of humanity and holiness, our own lives become holy to the degree that they are lived in him. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are initiated into that life.

    Jean-Michel Basquiat began as an obscure graffiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed painter by the 1980s. He died of a drug overdose at the age of 27.

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