Hymns and Lessons for Baptism of Our Lord (Cycle A)

This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. And there are some very interesting things I want to point out to you about both the texts and the hymns. (Subscribers to my blog will need to click on the title to be able to see and hear the YouTube versions of these hymns.)

The Processional Hymn is “When Christ’s Appearing Was Made Known.” This hymn incorporates all the major “epiphanies” of Epiphany: the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord, and the miracle at The Wedding at Cana. When Christ’s Appearing Was Made Known is the perfect hymn with which to begin both worship and the Season of Epiphany: When Christ’s appearing was made known, King Herod trembled for his throne; But He who offers heav’nly birth seeks not the kingdoms of this earth. // The eastern sages saw from far and followed on His guiding star; By light their way to light they trod, and by their gifts confessed their God. // Within the Jordan’s sacred flood the heav’nly Lamb in meekness stood, that He, of whom no sin was known, might cleanse His people from their own. // And oh, what miracle divine, when water reddened into wine! He spoke the Word, and forth it flowed in streams that nature ne’er bestowed. // For this His glad epiphany, all glory unto Jesus be; whom with the Father we adore, and Holy Ghost forevermore. (In this beautiful version, the words are in German, but you can follow along with the English printed here.)

In the Prayer of the Day, we pray: “Father in Heaven, at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River You proclaimed Him Your beloved Son and anointed Him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized in His name faithful in their calling as Your children and inheritors with Him of everlasting life; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

And then we come to the texts! These texts are Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Romans 6:1-11 and Matthew 3:13-17; two of which are judged to be important enough to be used as lessons for Baptism of Our Lord in every one of the years in the Three Year Lectionary. It is HIGHLY unusual for the Church to do this. What that means is that the Church thinks each of these lessons is VERY important. So we should pay close attention to what these lessons say. These two lessons are Psalm 29 and Romans 6:1-11.

Psalm 29 has all sorts of “resonances” with very important stories in the Bible. When Psalm 29 sings about how the voice of the Lord is “over the waters”, our first thought could be: “How well this psalm ties in with today’s Gospel where we hear God speaking as Jesus is being baptized in the Jordan!” And that’s true, but Psalm 29 also makes us think of all the other places where the voice of God has been heard “over the waters.” God spoke over the waters of chaos at the beginning of time and created the entire universe, “all that is, both seen and unseen”. God spoke in judgment “over the waters” of the Flood. God spoke “over the waters” of the Red Sea and the children of Israel crossed over on dry land. For God to be speaking “over the waters of the Jordan” as Jesus is being baptized, puts Christ’s baptism (and our own) in the same category of action as the Creation, the Flood, and the Crossing of the Red Sea. These are “watershed events”! Think about this! Christ’s baptism and your own  are the same type of event as Creation itself, the Flood, the Deliverance at the Red Sea. (You were baptized for a different reason than Christ was baptized, but that’s another story — probably the point of this week’s sermon.)

Plus, something else to meditate upon is that Psalm 29 begins with a call to the angels, inviting them to give God glory and worship. Psalm 29 closes with a blessing from God to mortals. In other words, Psalm 29 begins by calling the mighty heavenly beings to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” But it ends with God Himself coming to US in blessing. This is something else that is HUGE to contemplate.

The second text that the Church assigns to Baptism of Our Lord every year is Romans 6:1-11. In Chapter 5 of Romans, Paul has been teaching about grace. Not only can sin never exceed the grace provided by God, sin loses its threat when compared to the abundant grace of God. This brings us to Romans 6:1-11 — St. Paul asks, “so then, since sin makes grace appear more abundant, why not continue in sin?” The name for this false doctrine is “antinomianism” — it is the claim that Christians are freed from the moral law by virtue of the grace that is set forth in the Gospel. Paul argues that a believer who willingly continues in sin is denying his or her own baptismal identity with Christ. (Talk about a text we need to hear every single year!)

The Isaiah lesson (Isaiah 42:1-9) points out to us that what we hoped for in Advent has begun to be revealed in Epiphany: God has given the Messiah He promised who would be a light to all nations and a liberator of all who sit in darkness. (Here’s that whole “light” theme that we’ve got going in Epiphany.)

Because we are in the Year of Matthew, (Cycle A of the Three Year Lectionary) the Gospel for this Sunday is Matthew’s version of what happened on the day our Lord was baptized. (Matthew 3:13-17) It is fascinating to me to note that each of the Gospels begins the story of Jesus’ ministry with the story of what happened the day He was baptized. While each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tells the story of what happened on that day, The Gospel according to St. John emphasizes how John the Baptist understands the nature of his own role in light of Jesus’ Baptism. (But that bring us to next week’s Gospel reading.) The texts for this week give you an enormous amount to contemplate as you prepare for worship.

The Hymn of the Day is When Jesus Came to Jordan. Initially, this hymn seems like a simple retelling of the Gospel of Matthew’s version of what happened on the day of Jesus’ baptism.

“When Jesus came to Jordan to be baptized by John, He did not come for pardon but as the Sinless One. He came to share repentance with all who mourn their sins, to speak the vital sentence with which good news begins. // He came to share temptation, our utmost woe and loss, for us and our salvation to die upon the cross. So when the dove descended on Him, the Son of man, the hidden years had ended, the age of grace began. // Come, Holy Spirit, aid us to keep the vows we make; this very day invade us, and every bondage break. Come give our lives direction, the gift we covet most: to share the Resurrection that leads to Pentecost.”  A simple retelling.

But ordinarily, when we Lutherans sing the tune to this hymn, we are singing different lyrics. The tune to which we are singing When Jesus Came to Jordan is King’s Lynn, the tune to which we sing the much loved “O God of Earth and Altar.” This gets resonances going in our heads: We are singing the words our eyes are seeing, but hearing the echoes of the other beloved hymn: “O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry; our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die … from sale and profanation of honor and the sword, from sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!” And here God is, in the Baptism of our Lord, acting to deliver us. I think it is so cool when the hymns we sing get these resonances going. It adds such depth to our worship. And that is never accidental: the Church has intended to get those resonances going in the heads and hearts of worshipers. (This is Liturgy doing what Liturgy does.) Suddenly, When Jesus Came to Jordan is more than a simple retelling of what happened that day.

The Distribution Hymn is a favorite hymn for a lot of people: Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart.  
The words of this hymn are amazing: “Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; wean it from earth, through all its pulses move; stoop to my weakness, strength to me impart, and make me love You as I ought to love. // I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies, no sudden rending of the veil of clay, no angel visitant, no op’ning skies; but take the dimness of my soul away. // Have You not bid me love You, God and King: All, all Your own, soul heart, and strength, and mind? I see Your cross; there teach my heart to cling. Oh, let me seek You and, oh, let me find! // Teach me to love You as Your angels love, One holy passion filling all my frame: the baptism of the heav’n descended dove, My heart an altar, and Your love the flame.” No wonder so many people tell me this is one of their favorite hymns.

The Recessional Hymn is From God the Father, Virgin Born, and this is the hymn to which I really wanted to call your attention! This one is a Latin Office Hymn from the 11th century.

You may be wondering, “What is an Office Hymn?” It is a hymn sung during The Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours.

The Liturgy of the Hours began during the earliest days of the Christian Church when Christians would gather several times a day to pray the psalms and read scripture. After a while, there came to be seven of these set times of prayer during the day, and each of them even had a name — Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, Non, Vespers, Compline. Most of us think that it is only monks and nuns in religious communities who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and in fact their lives are structured around these times of prayer. However, the lay practice of setting aside time to pray every morning and evening has its roots in the ancient Liturgy of the Hours, and you will find on the internet that many “regular lay people” are practicing the spiritual discipline of praying the Hours.

Of these seven times of prayer, three were long (the “Major Hours” — Matins, Lauds and Vespers) and four were short (the “Minor Hours”). An office hymn has been part of the liturgy of each of the Major Hours since the days of St. Ambrose during the fourth century.  In fact, Ambrose is credited with beginning the practice of singing hymns in his cathedral and the earliest surviving Latin office hymns are attributed to him. Now there’s a WHOLE lot more I could tell you about these ancient office hymns and The Liturgy of the Hours — and if you are interested in learning more, Dr. Tavella is going to be starting a group that will meet monthly and will focus on the Hours. (You can find out more about this group in the narthex, where you can also sign up if you are interested.) For that matter, you could check out a REALLY interesting website at  How to pray the Liturgy of the Hours  (http://divineoffice.org/liturgy-of-the-hours/how-to-pray-the-liturgy-of-the-hours/)

But what fascinates me about this particular hymn is its profound theology and the way it lifts up so many of the Epiphany themes.  Plus, I really love singing along with some of those generations of Christians who lived long ago; I just love to know I’m joining my voice with those of “the great cloud of witnesses” who lived before our time, who surround us now, and who love the same God we do: “From God the Father, virgin-born to us the only Son came down; by death the font to consecrate, the faithful to regenerate. // Beginning from His home on high, in human flesh He came to die; creation by His death restored, and shed new joys of life abroad. // Glide on, O glorious Sun, and bring the gift of healing on Your wing; to ev’ry dull and clouded sense the clearness of Your light dispense. // Abide with us, O Lord, we pray; the gloom of darkness chase away; Your work of healing, Lord, begin, and take away the stain of sin. // Lord, once You came to earth’s domain and, we believe, shall come again; Be with us on the battlefield, from ev’ry harm Your people shield. // To You, O Lord, all glory be for this Your blest epiphany; To God whom all His hosts adore, and Holy Spirit evermore.

May your Epiphany Season be glorious!

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