When Jesus came to Jordan to be baptized by John,
He did not come for pardon, but as his Father’s Son.
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. F. Pratt Green (1903-2000)
When I was walking through the south-west of England on my 2016 pilgrimage to Brittany, one of many churches I was able to visit was a Roman Catholic church on the outskirts of the town of St Austell in Cornwall; the church was open- for a chess tournament I seem to remember -and I was given a guided tour of the rather lovely twentieth century building. However, to my great surprise, the church had a full immersion-type baptistry as is usually seen in Baptist churches.
Of course, practices as regards baptism vary considerably across the different Christian denominations; in Catholic, and many other more traditional churches, it’s mainly babies and infants who are ‘christened’ by sprinkling with water, and the church in question did also have the more usual font for this purpose. However, there was also a beautiful baptistry which was lined with blue- green tiles on which were depicted fish, as if swimming in the water. A lovely stone sculpture of Christ being baptised by John the Baptist had also been placed at the top of the steps leading down into the pool.
It was explained to me that, some years before, the priest in charge of the church had been particularly keen to make provision for full immersion baptism and had had this very remarkable baptism pool installed; for me, it remains one of the most interesting and striking things I have seen in all the thousands of miles I have walked and the now countless number of churches I’ve visited.
In this season of Epiphany, a word of Greek origin meaning an appearing or manifestation, the Bible readings used in churches often dwell on the revealing of Jesus to the world. The Saviour is being made manifest; first to the Magi as they journey from the east to find the Christ child in Bethlehem and then to the elderly Simeon and Anna in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the infant Jesus is taken by his parents for dedication according to Jewish law. The readings then continue with accounts of the baptism of Jesus, then aged about thirty, by his cousin John the Baptist, an event recorded in all four of the gospels.
F. Pratt Green’s hymn When Jesus came to Jordan to be baptized by John (of which I have included only the first two verses) speaks of how the age of grace has begun; Jesus’ baptism marks the end of the hidden years of his early life and his manifestation, in the first instance to all those gathered with him at the Jordan that day, and thence to all the peoples of the earth.
The age of grace continues into our own times.
On my pilgrimage to Brittany I was privileged, as I always am, to visit all sorts of interesting churches, as I did at St Augustine’s Church, with its beautiful baptistry, on that day in St Austell. However, what is really most memorable to me are those whom I meet, sometimes in person but often in the evidence they leave for me, and perhaps others, to find; it’s as if I catch a glimpse, or just a snapshot, of the age of grace as written of in F. Pratt Green’s hymn.
I see just a little of this age of grace in so many ways, but above all in people listening to God and hearing his call, in using their creativity to express their worship and love, in mission in what might seem challenging circumstances, in reaching out in service to those in need.
Just to give you some examples, and these are all taken from my pilgrimage to Brittany that year, I had the privilege of praying with a group of quite elderly ladies who met each week to pray for the local Street Pastors and, in the same area of Somerset, I came across prayers in churches for the nuclear power station at nearby Hinkley Point, the only time I have ever come across prayers for such a place.
I visited parish churches in Brittany, Catholic of course, with extraordinary areas set aside for prayer-one even had a water feature in it that you could turn on. And in one of the two ancient cathedrals on my route whilst in that area of France, Welsh hymns were being played over the sound system for everyone to hear! Also in Brittany, and worshipping one Sunday morning at an evangelical Protestant church, I heard the testimony of an elderly man who had walked with the Lord over 70 years; I was even kindly invited to the funeral of a much-loved parish priest who had died whilst celebrating mass.
I lost count of the number of churches I saw offering the Alpha course and, on my way home in the west of England, I met a famous sculptor whose then recently completed work can be found in the cathedral at St Albans near London.
Of course, I got these opportunities, and many more, because of what I am so blessed to be able to do; however I would want us all to be encouraged that the age of grace is still continuing. We can see it, even in just a small way, in our own lives and in our churches and communities and beyond. The salvation and good news that God offers us is irrepressible, whether it’s being revealed to the crowds as Jesus is baptised by John, or now, in circumstances that may seem so very different, in our own times. In this new year and at this time of Epiphany, and, above all, in this continuing age of grace, may we all look for the revealing and manifestation of God’s working in His people.