Growing up in Northwest Ohio, there wasn’t much of a horizon. When you tried to look for where the sky touched the earth it was mostly just buildings or trees in the way. But I’ve been some places where the sky and the earth meet in some pretty spectacular ways. Once, I was part of a crew filming a kid’s program in Alaska and watched the sunrise over a bay as dolphins leaped and eagles soared.
For our honeymoon, David and I went to the Grand Canyon and were delighted to watch the sunset over the canyon. And the sunsets I’ve experienced on my drives in for our Lenten worship services have been quite incredible in their own right. It is these meetings of the sun and the earth that come to mind when I imagine our text today, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him.”
One of the words I have heard used to describe God’s incarnation in Christ is “condescension.” Since this primarily carries a negative connotation I initially balked at that word being used, but then I just couldn’t get it out of my head. And one of the ways the Holy Spirit shows up in my life is in those little earworms of phrases that echo through my consciousness as I seek to connect with scripture. In Christ, God is condescending to us. The divine descends to dwell in the ordinariness of human skin. The heavens touch the earth in the person of Christ..
There is a term used in Celtic spirituality and throughout the history of Irish tradition called a “thin place.” It describes “a place in time where the space between heaven and earth grows thin and the Sacred and the secular seem to meet.”
There are places around the world that are distinctly referred to as thin places, where many others have identified feeling God’s presence. There’s even a travel company called “Thin Places Mystical Tours,” that will take you to various locations in Ireland and Scotland. Iona in Scotland is one such place, and certainly the wailing wall in Jerusalem and the mosque in Mecca. I’ve heard people refer to their beloved childhood summer camp in this way. Maybe for you it’s been a family vacation spot or beloved treehouse growing up where you did all your best thinking.
Thin places can be used to describe both a physical space and a particular date and time. In Greek, the word “kairos” is used for this sort of time, God’s time, the fullness of time, that often has little to do with clocks or calendars.
If ever there were a thin place, Jesus’ birth and baptism stand out as prime examples. In the liturgical calendar we’ve just left the thin place that is the nativity with a newborn Jesus of Nazareth swaddled, being kept warm by a host of earthly animals and attended by a host of heavenly angels. Divinity made incarnate in humanity.
This week our text takes us to the waters of the Jordan, and that baby has grown into a man. In the waters of baptism, Christ condescends to John, insisting that it is right that John be the one to baptize Jesus. Humanity extends it’s blessing in John, while the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove and “alights” on him.
When I hear the part about “ the Spirit of God… alighting on [Jesus]” I think of a line in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is telling Mary that he’ll lasso the moon for her and that she “can swallow it… and the moonbeams would shoot out of [her] fingers and your toes and the ends of [her] hair.” I wonder if this is how Jesus looked, light radiating out in beams.
To me, Jesus’ baptism scene strikes me as an invitation, not to any place or time in particular, but an invitation to seek out divine incarnation. To look for the places that God “alights.” To see if that thinness the Celts speak about is closer than you may have previously thought possible.
New York Times Travel Journalist, Eric Weiner wrote about his search for “thin places” in a piece entitled, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer.” He frames his search saying, “The question, of course, is which places? And how do we get there? You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectations. Nothing gets in the way of a genuine experience more than expectations, which explains why so many ‘spiritual journeys’ disappoint. And don’t count on guidebooks — or even friends — to pinpoint your thin places. To some extent, thinness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to put it another way: One person’s thin place is another’s thick one.”
Episcopal Pastor and Christian Educator, Debie Thomas writes of how difficult it can be to find that thin-ness, even and especially where others have said they have experienced God in space, but also in action through the sacraments of baptism and communion..
She writes, “How much nicer it would be if the font were self-evidently holy. But no — the font is just tap water, river water, chlorine. The thin place is a neighborhood, a forest, a hilltop. The voice that might be God might also be wind, thunder, indigestion, or delusion. Is the baby divine? Or have we misread the star? Is this the body and blood of God’s Son? Or is it a mere hunk of bread? A jug of wine?
What I mean to say is that there is no magic — we practice Epiphany. The challenge is always before us. Look again. Look harder. See freshly. Stand in the place that might possibly be thin, and regardless of how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of surprise. Epiphany is deep water — you can’t stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge.”
On this day of celebration Jesus’s baptism, may we ever be on the lookout for how heaven is meeting the earth. Even with us, even right here, even right now. Thanks be to God. Amen.