Heavens torn open

This blog is being written on 6 January – the Feast of the Epiphany. Tonight the church that I am linked to in the Diocese in Europe – Holy Trinity Geneva – will be celebrating Epiphany. We will be reading the account of the visit of the three wise men to Jesus told in Matthew 2.1-12. However as I am aware, especially from my years living in the Middle East, in the Orthodox Christian world the focus at ‘Epiphany’ is on the baptism of Christ. Indeed one of the joys of working at the World Council of Churches was that at Epiphany, or as near to it as possible, one’s office would be ‘sprinkled’ with water by one of our Orthodox colleagues. What both the visit of the Magi and the baptism of Christ (which Western Christianity tends to mark on the Sunday following the Epiphany) have in common is that they are moments when the divine and human meet in a special way,  and when earth and heaven touch each other.  The reflections below (which are drawn from a meditation I offered at the diocesan service at the end of November) explore the Common Worship lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Mark 1.4-11, which does tell of Jesus’ baptism.

The picture immediately above was drawn to my attention by a friend. We are not aware of its provenance (though I expect it comes from historical Europe), but I find it fascinating that it links together the themes of the wise men and the baptism (though in this case of the magi themselves). I would be very grateful to hear if anyone knows more details about it.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship



One of the most powerful and dramatic sentences in the Gospel of Mark comes when, at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus breathes out his last breath. It is at that moment, we are told in Mark 15.37, that the veil of the Temple is torn in two from top to bottom. The Greek verb translated as ‘torn’ is a form of the verb ‘schizo’ – from which we get our English scissors.

But it is not always realised that this use of the word ‘schizo’ near the end of the Gospel, echoes its use here at the beginning, when during Jesus’ baptism he, Jesus, sees the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending upon him. It is a wonderful image of the skies being ‘scissored’ open. My mother used to have a pair of what were called ‘pinking’ scissors, and my mental picture of the scene is of such pinking scissors cutting a dramatic line across the sky to enable God and creation, heaven and earth, God and humanity to interweave with each other.

The repeated use of this word ‘torn’ ‘schizo’ is not accidental. It is fundamental to Mark’s interpretation of the life and work of Jesus. The Gospel is telling us that in the ministry and death of Jesus the ancient and fundamental separation between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane has been definitively overcome. This is made transparently obvious by what happens at Jesus’ death, but in reality, for those who have eyes to see, and certainly in Jesus’ own understanding, this has been enacted in his ministry from its very beginning.

The picture of the original creation portrayed in Genesis 1 is a story of separation and division. The verb ‘divide’ appears several times in its telling. I have wondered whether by beginning his Gospel with Genesis’ word ‘beginning’ Mark is deliberately reminding us of this but then will shortly affirm that with the Advent of Jesus, a new creation will be inaugurated in the waters of his baptism, a creation which speaks instead of divisions being overcome.

What do these heavens torn open mean for us today and the life of the church? Certainly I believe that the picture raises questions about the way that Christian tradition has all too easily divided the sacred from the secular, often to the disregard of the latter. For the open heavens which signal the start of Jesus’ public ministry affirm that God refuses to be kept apart from the whole of human life, in all its murkiness as well as its joys. It is telling that the tearing of the skies coincides with the moment of Jesus’ baptism as he is immersed in the dark waters of the river. This has been called Jesus’ ‘solidarity dip’ – when he signals his willingness to share the pain and the problems of humanity. I am fascinated by Orthodox icons of the baptism.

The deep dark centre surrounded by heights on either side, is curiously but deliberately reminiscent of those icons of the resurrection which focus on figures rising up out of the depths of Hades.. Being baptised, for Jesus himself as well as for us, is being baptised into the death of Christ. ‘Can you be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with…?’ is a challenge that later in this Gospel Jesus will throw at the brothers James and John.

The moment of this solidarity dip with humanity of course is also the time when the voice speaking out of those opened heavens, affirms Jesus, ‘You are my beloved Son’. Whatever else may be meant by the title ‘Son of God’ which the Gospel of Mark uses to describe Jesus at crucial points in his ministry and passion, it certainly affirms the reality that in this man the normal boundaries between the divine and human have been broken down, the word has become incarnate in flesh, and that in him the material is uniquely sacramental of the spiritual. What however does the epithet ‘beloved’ add to the title of ‘Son’?  When Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries heard of a ‘beloved son’ their thoughts would almost certainly turn to Isaac, the son of Abraham, the one who was so nearly sacrificed to death. So when Jesus is addressed in this way, his destiny as the one who will need to travel even farther along the road of suffering than Isaac was required to do is surely being spelled out. It is often noted that the Gospel of Mark is dominated by the story of Jesus’ passion, which, I believe, with the title ‘beloved son’ actually extends its reach to these first few verses of the Gospel.

Life can feel so much easier and more secure when it is separated into neat and tidy segments, when good can keep its safe distance from evil, when the holy preserves itself from the profane. But from the instant of opened heavens and immersion in deep waters, that was not the path which Jesus chose. The Episcopalian theologian Tom Troeger, one of whose wonderful hymns describes God as a ‘spendthrift lover’, was almost shattered by the senseless murder of a friend. Eventually he reflected:

‘Then in the silence of my heart I see as never before that incarnation means a refusal to keep a safe distance between heaven and earth, between eternal good and mortal evil. If we are to be godly people we will have to follow the pattern of the incarnation, risking all for love, refusing to keep our distance from the brutality of this world.’

Compared with what we are told by Matthew and Luke, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation will very brief (Mark 1.12-13) , but it says all that needs to be said. ‘Immediately’ – we hear that urgent word again – the Spirit ‘drove out’ – an extraordinary choice of verb, since it is elsewhere used in this Gospel of demons – Jesus into the wilderness, not as a place of refuge and withdrawal, but as a place where good could recklessly risk all to confront the challenge of evil. That is the straight path that Jesus went straightway into the wilderness to walk. It will be the beginning of the journey that he will take throughout the rest of the Gospel.

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