The Baptism of our Lord. How intriguing, looking closely into Luke’s peculiar way of narrating this dramatic moment, so different from Matthew’s and Mark’s. We get the ferocious mood of John the Baptist more clearly. And then, almost with an Oops! in the chronological story line, Luke has John arrested before he skates back to the Baptism. Was it a booboo, an afterthought, a Dang, forgot to mention he baptized Jesus before his arrest? Doesn’t it heighten the stark reality that Jesus’ Baptism happens in the thick of intense political and religious opposition, downright belligerent and not shying away from the use of brute force?
Alexander Schmemann reminds us that Baptism isn’t this nice rite of passage, featuring lovely gowns and photos for Facebook. A line is drawn in the sand (or a massive wave is stirred up in the water), a taking of sides in a cosmic battle. Historically, and now in the full liturgy, Baptism is accompanied by exorcism: “To face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it… The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often ‘sell’ Christianity today!”
The Good News isn’t obviously good news for those out of sync with God’s kingdom. God is pleased with Jesus – and the implication is that Jesus is also pleased with his allies who mortify the powers of this world. The Jesus of Luke 3 certainly doesn’t strike us as a sweet, benevolent Mister Rogers type of guy. He is winnowing, he is a raging fire.
Luke explains that the people were “in expectation.” The Greek, proskokōntos, means to live in suspense. It was more of a desperate yearning, a fretting in the dark, than some pious awaiting of predicted fulfillment. They “questioned in their hearts.” The Greek is dialogizō, a dialogue, a conversation, batting around questions and possible answers. This is Christian formation, and even worship – not sealing off questions, but opening them up, starting a robust conversation among people and inside people’s own souls.
David Lyle Jeffrey shares a longish comment about John’s mysterious remark about “loosing the strap of his sandal.” He persuasively links this to levirate marriage, that he is implying that the bridegroom (Jesus) is coming to claim his bride (Israel); John is, as Jeffrey cleverly puts it, the “best man” at the wedding. The preacher can play with this image: Jesus’ Baptism, this odd interaction between John and Jesus, as the ramping up to a wedding commitment, full of love, drama, romance, peril, permanence.
And then we understand the trouble with Herod, who has obscenely corrupted the institution of marriage – and John’s critique of his ruining marriage is what lands him in prison. The preacher will need to take care not to lambast marriage in our culture – but it’s so clear, such an easy target, so much trivialization, so much abuse, so much infidelity and marrying for less than holy reasons. What we need is for Christ the bridegroom to come down to the riverside and reclaim us as his people, as his holy bride. “She is his new creation, by water and the word, from heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.”
Jesus’ Baptism has been painted, frescoed, sculpted and mosaiced so many times – usually near the church’s font, to indicate how our Baptism is like his, is one with him in his. But Jesus’ was peculiar in so many ways – including that a dove descended “in bodily form” (Luke’s intriguing clarification). Recently I was reading a book that pointed out how Giotto’s fresco of St. Francis preaching to the birds is paired (in the basilica in Assisi where he’s buried) with a fresco of Pentecost, which also involves a bird. Real birds, which Francis loved, a real but holy/mysterious bird at Jesus’ baptism, and the bird of the Spirit swooping down on the church at Pentecost. Can a sermon just tease out these similarities, these evocative images, without explaining or drawing some sort of take-away or moral?
In one way, we are baptized like Jesus – but in another way, we merely watch and are awed by what we could never manage. Karl Barth (in the skinny volume of Church Dogmatics, IV.4, published not long before he died) shrewdly suggested that “Jesus was not being theatrical. When Jesus was baptized, he needed to be washed of sin -- not his sin, but our sin. When faced by the sins of all others, he did not let these sins be theirs, but as the Son of His Father, ordained form all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He.”
We do a renewal of baptism on this Sunday each year – a lovely way to kick things off. I have to admit that when we did it the first time, I had much fear and trepidation, and we didn’t really know what we were doing or how to do it – but it has become a big, meaningful thing. Here are my homilies, and then moving video of people renewing their baptismal vows (including overhead shots where you see the rippling in the water), from (at the 17 minute mark) and (at the 26 minute mark).
And I’m okay with the fact that very few who come forward to dip a finger in the water and touch it to forehead or lips could articulate the meaning in any coherent, sound manner. “Meaning” happens at many levels – and in this case, it’s the tactile thing, the sensation, and the impact of moving forward with a crowd of others who can’t be sure what it means, but they all know they need something… and it’s somehow up there, at the altar, in the water.
Even the “meaning” in processing to the front. I’ve often quoted Dom Jeremy Driscoll: “Monks are always having processings. Whenever we go from one place to another, we don’t just do it helter-skelter. We process into church; we process out. We process to a meal. We process to our cells… I am glad for all this marching about. Of course, it could become too formal; we could make it over-serious, and then it would just be weird. But I experience it as an extra in my life, something in my day that I would not have were I not a monk. And so I am reminded again and again that I am not just vaguely moving through life. In my life I am inserted into the definitive procession of Christ. I am part of a huge story, a huge movement, a definitive exodus. I am going somewhere.”
Or maybe better: Martin Sheen, the great actor and devout Catholic, told Krista Tippett (in his fabulous interview with her in ) how he felt about standing in line in worship: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”