“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2).
It’s early in the year, so it’s possible that we haven’t yet forgotten the New Year’s resolutions we made just a couple of weeks ago. Greeting the new year with an intention to be a new person, or at least a better version of ourselves, is a longstanding custom that continues to expand: witness the commitment to a January without added sugar, or one without alcohol (I’ve heard about both just this past week). With the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, it seems, we look to turn the page and begin a new chapter for ourselves.
The custom of the New Year’s resolution is a reminder to us that human beings naturally look for new beginnings. We look for something more. This may be rooted in our sense that something’s wrong with us or the world; that something is askew and in need of fixing. Or we can put it positively and say that we believe in the future and its possibilities for growth and change. In either case, we look for new beginnings.
Our first reading today takes us all the way back to the beginning itself, to the creation of heaven and earth and human life, as told in the first chapter of Genesis. God begins by stirring things up with a mighty wind. Light comes out of the darkness, life out of the deep. That which was a formless void and chaos becomes something, an artifact created by God. Before that, there was nothing: not just in a technical or scientific sense, of vacuum or what have you, but in the sense that nothing existed, nothing had been made or fashioned, before this creative moment.
A new beginning references what came before. Starting over, as in a new beginning, assumes that there was something before, and a connection with the past. The Genesis story makes God the prime mover, the originator of all things. So, when we talk about a new beginning, or about turning the page and starting a new chapter, we are looking back over the shoulder at what God has done in the past, in that unparalleled moment of creation, and seeking a way forward.
Our Gospel reading today takes its own backward glance at the story of creation. Jesus’ baptism by John has many resonances, one of which is that story. In both, new life comes out of water, out of the deep (as it says in Genesis). In the creation story, the wind moves over the face of the deep. In the original, “wind” and “spirit” are equivalent translations, as “spirit” is the breath that the living God sends forth. Jesus, John says, will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the wind that comes from God. When Jesus is baptized, he sees the Spirit descending like a dove: once again, the breath of God stirring up the water of life, and stirring up new hope for the world.
The sacrament of Baptism, as we practice it in the church, is a new beginning; one that connects us to the first creation and the gift of life. Just as God made something on the first day, so by baptism in the name of Jesus Christ we ourselves are made into something, into the children of God. As St. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). We are reborn through baptism, “born again” or “born from above,” as it says in the Gospel of John (Jo. 3:3), and given a new life.
Holy Baptism renews the blessing first given in creation. The priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” (“God’s Grandeur”): a meditation on the blessing of creation that lies within each one of us. Hopkins’ poem actually ends with the image of the Holy Ghost brooding like a dove over the “bent world”: a reminder that no matter what the power of sin, the Holy Spirit has the capacity to renew us.
I’ve loved Hopkins’ poem for many years, but when I read it this week, I saw it with new eyes, especially his image of the “bent world”: a world wounded and twisted in on itself. We don’t really need to look much further than the events of disruption and displacement that took place on Wednesday in Washington for convincing that’s something’s “bent;” something’s seriously wrong. If ever there was an argument for the need for renewal and rebirth in our national life, for beginning a new chapter, this is it. Remember, as the poet said, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
The baptism that John offered was one of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins: this foregrounds the call to us to live into the reality of our baptism by leading a new life. We believe in new beginnings, new possibilities; we have hope in a world renewed and reborn, and ourselves along with it. Remember: we’re looking for something more, to become something more ourselves through the grace of God. For this new creation, we will need the Spirit of God to hover over our “bent world,” to stir up the void that is within us, and bring forth new life.