Baptism of the Lord
Mark’s characteristically spare account of Jesus’ baptism tells us little about the encounter between Jesus and John. We don’t learn if Jesus joined the riverside queue waiting to be dunked or suddenly presents himself to a wading John, but we get some sense that Jesus’ arrival is both anticipated and in need of explanation. Why does he undergo baptism of repentance?
Have we’ve heard the story too often to grasp its strangeness? Jesus, like us in all things but sin (see Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15), joins the sinners’ ritual of publicly displaying need of forgiveness.
Even picturing the flesh and blood Jesus in line at a riverbank revival doesn’t quite get it right, especially after the Coen brothers rendered the repentant as white-robed, beatific near-angels in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Catholics might imagine their distress at spotting Jesus in line for the confessional, though that presumes some familiarity with a Catholic sacrament now very much underused in North America.)
Imagine instead an Alcoholics Anonymous speaker’s meeting where Jesus steps to the podium and you realize he’s about to say, “Hello. I’m Jesus, and I’m an alcoholic.” I’d want to stop him or at the very least shout, “But you’re not!”
I suspect that, like many who call themselves Christian, I’ve grown more comfortable with a cross on Golgotha than a baptism in the Jordan. It’s easier to accept a Messiah who takes on my sin than one who presents himself as guilty and seeks forgiveness.
Yet Gregory Nanzianzen famously wrote, in defense and celebration of the Incarnation, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” Jesus, we believe, did not sin, though we are repeatedly reassured in the New Testament that he takes away our sin (e.g. John 1:29). But what other part of our humanity is not assumed in the Incarnation? Must we insist, as modern Docetists, that Jesus didn’t know our shame, our self-loathing, our inner dread? If Gregory is correct, then to deny the Incarnate Lord these is to reject the full extent of Christ’s healing power.
Jesus stands before John to expose and assume all our hidden darkness and heal it – not only our sin but every single guilt gem – whether betrayal, excess, deception, or violence – we carry in memory’s pockets and retrieve at times to start another round of self-flagellation. He frees us from the hopeless project of trying to claim a better past.
Late in Dante’s Purgatorio, the second part of The Divine Comedy, Dante stands in the Earthly Paradise and is told to wash in two streams found there. The first is Lethe, river of forgetfulness, which pre-Christian ancients said flowed through Hades. But Dante presents Lethe as that part of our journey to God where even the memories of our sin and shame are cleaned away. Dante is then led to Eunoe, a river unknown to the ancients, whose waters strengthen the memories of all the good in one’s life. Human good itself requires a certain healing.
So we hear today:
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This is where we are being led by the Incarnate Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit: to a place where we, too, are named beloved sons and daughters of God.
(Image credit: Fritz Eichenberg, “Jesus of the Breadline.”)