In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”
I once tried to read John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I lost the thread somewhere in the process, alarmingly early I might add, and ended confused. You may have been similarly vexed, or perhaps more likely, you’ve just looked it up on Wikipedia and read some of these choice old style English words: thereupon of Paradise wherein he was plac't or fitliest call'd Chaos. Let us just say, it takes a minute to get through all that.
If you persevere, you soon find Milton asking for the muse (he later calls this muse the Spirit) to aid him in turning the story of the Fall into epic poetry. He certainly needed supernatural help. Paradise Lost contains over ten thousand lines of poetry with the bulk of the work done after Milton had gone blind. As they said in the old style, “thereupon I was plac’t at rapture with his efforts, and thought him fitliest call’d Amazing.”
If an invocation for heavenly aid seems odd to you, it wasn’t for Milton. Nearly all the classic epic poems (Iliad, Dante’s Comedy) begin this way. The authors all sought assistance for that moment of epiphany when an image or idea illuminated a deeper truth and brought unity and direction to their work.
Still odd? Enroll yourself into a creative writing class. Our modern sensibilities don’t allow talk about the supernatural anymore (We’ve renamed it the subconscious. It’s easier. Since it was inside of us all along, there are fewer people to thank), but the search for epiphany remains. Most of the syllabus contains exercises to unleash the right side of your brain, find your voice, express yourself, find inner truth, and other such existential quests—in other words, gain a realization of the truth you had been seeking. The fact that this modern process for epiphany assumes the deeper truths are just slinking around in the dank basement of our souls betrays much about our culture. Milton and his predecessors thought in exactly the opposite direction. They looked up into the heavens, expecting the great truths to come from above, to be bright and brilliant realities to our shadowed and corrupted truths. For you see, on earth the brightness of the sun only shines half the day. But in heaven, the light is never occluded.
The Christian calendar marks the time after Christmas and before Lent as Epiphany. The church historically celebrates during this time the revelation of Christ’s divine character. Pause a moment: Christ, the Light of the world and the Truth, arrives from heaven, and then the church celebrates the revelations of His bright and true nature and calls it Epiphany. How classic. How very un-modern. But more, how delightful. This is not some isolated truth dropped into the imagination of a writer. This is the entirety of Truth—God Himself revealed unto the whole world. The scope of this epiphany must overwhelm us. God, through Christ, has peeled back the sky and let all who wish lift up their head and see into the center of heaven. In Epiphany we find Magi bowing down before a baby, Jesus transfigured into His heavenly glory, and Jesus’ baptism with all persons of the Trinity present and euphoric. All three episodes direct us to a deep truth outside of ourselves that gives order and direction.
This is of course a wonderful way to begin the New Year. We like to dig down inside ourselves and resolve toward more discipline, and greater weight loss, and more effort. We know that there is something wrong inside of us and if we can just sharpen our spades and go a little deeper we might unearth a little light. But the light we are seeking comes down from above. How we might change by gazing on Him!
All those who were coming out to John the Baptist to be baptized were much like us at the New Year. They realized that something wasn’t adding up. They came to John to have their souls cleaned and begin again. So it is surprising that Jesus would come for this baptism. He had no need to be cleansed from sin. But behold His humility. He associates with us in a process that He does not need, in a river that He has made, and beneath a lesser man. And quite suddenly, the heavens open. The Spirit descends like a dove and The Father announces His pleasure with the Son.
And we see, for the first time, the Trinity and its eternal self-giving love. The Son shows the humility and love that brought Him to earth. The Father announces His deep love and pleasure in the Son. The Spirit encourages and conveys the love between Them. Also, the wonder of God’s redemption is revealed. The last time that a dove and water came together, God was cleansing the world with a wrathful flood. Then He protected His people with a boat. But now He Himself goes beneath the sin-filled water. He takes the wrathful flood onto Himself, so that the Spirit might descend on our hearts and we might hear from God His good pleasure in us.
It is a truth so bright, that even while staring at it, it’s hard to comprehend. The love of the Godhead bursts from its heavenly confines and deigns to incorporate us. It is an epiphany that might well order your year and bring a new orientation.