Saturday, January 07, 2012


Every year it seems a bit strange to leave Jesus in the crib one week and come back the next and have him be a full grown man going on his own to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Except for one story about the adolescent Jesus in Luke’s gospel, we have only legends and silence between his infancy and his ministry. Sometimes I think it is a kindness that we know nothing for sure about Jesus’ childhood and youth, because I suspect he would be presented as such a sterling example of goodness that we would not believe him to be a real human being. Or, if a tale or two had sneaked into the tradition about some mischief he got into, it would totally confound all those who have an idealized image of Jesus as thoroughly special. Better that we are left wondering, or at least spared the disappointment of having Jesus spoiled for us.

To Mark, writing his gospel before many questions about Jesus had gelled into full-scale controversies about his nature and identity, none of these matters seems to have been important, if they occurred to him at all. He has no birth narratives with shepherds or angels or wise men. For him, Joseph gets no mention, not even a biographical footnote. And Mary, far from being the Blessed Mother that she becomes in the three later gospels, is thoroughly dumbfounded by Jesus’ behavior and joins his other siblings in seeking to get him to leave off his preaching and come home, fearing perhaps for his safety, probably embarrassed or perhaps anxious from the rumors that Jesus was out of his mind (Mark 3:19b-17; 31-34; 6:3-5). Mark is definitely interested in showing us that Jesus is the Son of God, but that means something quite different to him than it generally means today, and even something different from what it would mean a decade or two after he wrote his gospel. The story of how Jesus was baptized and what happened to him then was of great importance to Mark, because for him the baptism was clearly the beginning of Jesus’ special status. The baptism was public enough, one supposes. But, unlike the account in Matthew’s gospel, all that happened—heavens opening, dove descending, voice speaking—were for Jesus’ eyes and ears only, not for the crowds. These elements of apocalyptic symbolism were enough to confirm Jesus’ sense of his own identity, from which he never wavers in Mark’s gospel, not even in his dereliction on the cross. From the moment of his coming out of the water, Jesus was a Holy Spirit-filled person. And that Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness on what you and I might call a search to unpack the meaning of it all.

But let’s not get ahead of our story! We were just noting that all of this happens, as it were, out of the blue—no tidy series of steps carefully bringing Jesus to the Jordan and to baptism, so far as we know. Yet we do know more than that. We know that Jesus, like any young Palestinian Jew of his time, had several options. One was, of course, to be totally submissive to the tradition of his time and society, dutifully bowing to received wisdom, essentially questioning nothing. (That is always a human option.) We know that, smart as he turned out to be as theologian and thinker, he could certainly have identified with the Pharisees, for example, the group most interested in applying the Torah, the Jewish Law, to life with unrelenting rigor. He had the talent to be a scribe, and no doubt could have made a name for himself (if for no one else) by becoming a religious lawyer. Moreover, since he was to give clear evidence of interest in communal life, it is entirely possible that he toyed with the idea of joining the Essenes, a religious community with a monastery not too far from the place where John likely did his baptizing. With the Essenes he would have had the chance to parse and ponder what we now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which they produced. Or with his passion for justice and compassion for the downtrodden, Jesus might well have become a Zealot, one of that band that wanted to foment rebellion against the Romans. Off to the hills he might have gone to join the political revolutionaries.

But none of these roads did he follow. Instead, he walked the dusty trail from Galilee down the river valley towards Jericho. He had either heard of John the Baptizer or he discovered him along the journey. Was Jesus searching for something? We can only imagine, we cannot know. But what we do know is what he found and what he identified with. He found someone out of the heart of the old prophetic tradition, straight off the pages of the Prophet Isaiah: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, makes his paths straight.’” We know that he heard and identified with a call to repentance. And the story is that this John kept telling people that one was coming who was more powerful than he, and who by comparison was infinitely more worthy, one who would baptize multitudes with something way beyond the power of ordinary water—the very Spirit of God. One wonders. Did Jesus hear that statement, standing among the crowds? Did John’s words fall on him like a burden, pierce him to the quick, excite him, inspire him, galvanize his young vision for ushering in the Reign of God on earth? Was he already primed to believe he had a vocation? Did he, searching for a moment of clarity, hear what John was saying and immediately know that it was he who would be the one to baptize with Holy Spirit?

The Church has long had a habit of making up stories about Jesus, stories that fill in the gaps between the pages of scripture. And Christians have generally had the habit of believing those stories. One of the strongest and most long-lasting of those stories is that Jesus never had a moment’s doubt about anything. If you are one who believes that story, you probably have little interest in even imagining that he ever had to search for a thing, and certainly not a vocation, an identity. But there is some chance, perhaps even a large chance, that you are one who for whatever reason finds it perfectly plausible that Jesus was so uniquely powerful that existing scripts—Pharisee, scribe, conventional rabbi, Essene, Zealot—did not suit him or interest him. Perhaps you are willing to entertain the notion that he was a mold-breaker, or that God it was who broke the mold out of which Jesus was formed so that there was not nor could there ever be another quite like him. In that case, maybe you find yourself imagining that it was a restlessness that led him to leave his Nazareth home and make his way miles down the country to join a movement that dared to believe in things like radical forgiveness, utter dedication to the Reign of God, and the availability of healing and feeding for all comers. Perhaps something is going on in your own life, a dissatisfaction with things as they are, maybe even an anger at the conventions that people live by, which they use to pass as moral and upright. Maybe something is stirring in you that finds your own Nazareth far too confining, something that has made you strike out to make a difference in the world, maybe even by finding and living in the Commonwealth of God. Perhaps you see in Jesus a kindred spirit, a mentor too authentic to settle for half-truths and easy answers, and maybe you want to lurk in the shadows long enough to see if he might be the One to follow.

If that sounds like you, then the way to the Jordan is this way—right straight to the water of baptism. If you have never been baptized maybe you want to consider it. If you have been baptized, maybe you want to reconnect with your baptism. If you have been living your life faithfully, perhaps you want simply to say Yes again. In any of those cases, it is possible—not guaranteed, but possible—that you will be plunged into a totally new kind of life, one in which you will feel, even as the water is running out of your ears, the heavens split open, and an indescribable peace settling upon you, dovelike, as your Yes is answered by a Yes: “You are my child, my beloved.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

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