Sunday, January 07, 2018

Power Beyond Words

Cruciform baptism:  marked with the Sign of the Cross

In the Jordan

People have often had a hard time with Jesus’ baptism. That is because they start out with the notion that Jesus is fundamentally unique among human beings.  They call him “sinless” to emphasize that he is one-of-a-kind. So the problem right off the bat is to make some sense of Jesus’ doing something that was totally unnecessary, since they suppose that baptism was for sinners and therefore not for him.  Some have explained that Jesus was baptized to demonstrate how he was so humble.  Others have argued that he needed and wanted to identify with John the Baptist and the old prophetic tradition instead of getting mixed up in some of the other movements of the day, notably the legalism of the Pharisees, the revolutionary politics of the Zealots, the monastic withdrawal of the Essenes, or the reactionary reductionism of the Sadducees. 

What happens if we begin to rethink the baptism of Jesus not in terms of how it does or does not fit our ideas of who and what Jesus is, but in terms of the power of baptism itself?

Start with what baptism is on its simplest level.  It is basically a bath.  And a bath is generally for the purpose of getting clean.  But baths are more.  Baths, including showers, are often relaxing, pleasurable. Sometimes the pleasures of bathing or showering are in fact its primary feature with cleansing almost an afterthought. 

The Baptism of Christ
It is clear from the gospel accounts that John the Baptizer was administering baptism to get people ready for the coming Day of Yahweh.  His message was “the kingdom of God is at hand.” It is unlikely that John taught any highfalutin doctrine of baptism.  It was a bath that signified a need to clean up in preparation for this kingdom-at-hand.  In Luke’s gospel, John explicitly tells what religious leaders, soldiers, tax collectors, and others need to do in order to clean up their acts.  Now, did it make any difference?  We cannot say. We have no records to prove one thing or another about the effect that John’s baptism had on his early audiences.  What we do know is that he had a number of disciples.  We know that Jesus was directly affected by the baptism that he himself experienced because, in Mark’s account, it is the baptism that triggered a descent of the Spirit of God on Jesus in a singular way and that Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness to wrestle with what shape his Messiahship would take.  But you may be sure that no one imagined that John baptized largely for the fun of it.  Nor did he imagine that he was simply giving free baths to the physically dirty.  In other words, baptism was a ritual that had the potential of being life-changing.  Whether it would succeed depended upon the degree to which the baptized would actually live out what baptism promised and provided:  a new life lived with markedly changed motives.

So, long before the Church got ahold of baptism and made it its initiatory rite, the simple baptism by John was a powerful act, powerful enough to change hardened souls, powerful enough to change behavior, powerful enough to change minds, powerful enough therefore to change the world.  That is what good rituals do. If they express real longing and true feeling, they can be mind-blowing in richness.  But even if the person undergoing a ritual is unconscious; even if those leading the ritual have ulterior motives; even if participants are confused or ignorant about the symbolic action involved, rituals can still be amazingly effective, for good or ill. 

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  Years ago a parishioner of mine had a massive heart attack. His condition was grave.  He lay unconscious in ICU for weeks.  Some of his vital signs were strong, but the doctors were not giving us much encouragement that he could survive the damage that had been done. One evening I was in the hospital with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law.  We gathered around Bill’s bed. As we offered the prayers of Compline, the nighttime prayer office, all of us reached out and touched Bill.  We held his hands, rubbed his legs, caressed his forehead, massaged his feet.  We watched the monitor. Every once in awhile it looked as if Bill was responding in some way, but that could well have been wishful thinking on our part, or simple happenstance.  He was unconscious.  Yet here we were, praying, anointing, laying hands all over him.  Would we have done it even if the doctor had walked in minutes beforehand with a pronouncement that nothing more could be done for him?  Of course we would have.  Why? We believed that what we were doing had an effect well beyond what could be rationally understood, at least by the sick man himself.  Did it make any difference?  Who knows?  Bill died a few days later.  What I do know is that I am telling you this story forty years later because that ritual changed me.  I am not even sure how.  But I know that the very action of soothing a dying man made me more human, opened up some channels of sensitivity, taught me more deeply how love translates into prayer and prayer into touch. The Presence of the Holy was there.  We knew it.  We felt it.  We were one with it, just as sure as if we had been able to see the spirit of healing descend on Bill and us in dove-like form.

Susanna Annesley Wesley
It’s relatively easy to make a case for a powerful ritual in such circumstances.  A life-and-death situation suggests something of overwhelming importance.  But let’s take another example. Susanna Annesley, born in 1669, the 25th of 25 children, was married at age 19 to a priest of the Church of England.  She gave birth to 19 children.  Nine died in infancy, four of whom were twins.  A maid accidentally smothered one.  A brilliant woman, Susanna once wrote to her husband that, although she was neither a man nor a minister, she took seriously her responsibility for her children during her husband’s long absences.  She managed to devote an hour of her time to each of her children once a week. Imagine that ritual:  a personal conversation with each of her children.  Did it do any good?  Was anyone changed by the ritual? We cannot say precisely how.  But we do know that two of her children are known to all the world for the way they turned 18th century England upside down.  Their names are John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism.  I doubt that Susanna Wesley ever called what she did with her children a ritual, but that is what it was: a regular, predictable, practice of simple presence and conversation.

Simple rituals have amazing power.
You have rituals too. Some are so ordinary that you take them for granted.  They may include sitting down to a meal each day and offering thanks before you take a bite.  You may have a ritual of kissing the person you love first thing in the morning or the last thing at night.  You might have a routine that is more than a habit but yet something that sustains you, opens you, conveys to you a meaning and purpose that springs from the deepest part of your soul.  Perhaps you have a ritual that you share with your family weekly or annually. You are at a ritual this moment.  For you have taken a place in a ritual community today, one in which you share a meal, say and listen to some prayers, make ritual movements such as bowing or kneeling or stretching out your hands to receive holy things.  Do you understand what you’re doing?  Somewhat, no doubt. I can tell you fancy answers to that question myself, but at the end of the day I cannot explain the power of the Holy Eucharist.  I cannot tell you why sometimes saying words I don’t even need to read from the book will sneak up on me like a thief in the nighttime and steal my breath so that I cannot utter them without my voice cracking or my eyes brimming with tears.  Is it just an illusion?  I think not.  I can honestly say, as you probably can, that well beyond anything I can explain, I have been changed little by little, imperceptibly even to myself, so much so that I can almost no longer think about anything without summoning the phrases that have become like flesh to me: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known.”  “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.”  “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”  “That we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.” 

Who knows why Jesus was baptized, except that he was moved to identify with whatever it was that John was saying and doing?  What we do know is that he picked up John’s theme and took it way further than John was able to do before he was thrown into prison and ultimately martyred.  What we know is that long before there were stories circulating about his conception, his birth, or anything else, he stepped out of the shadows and engaged in a profound act of immersing himself in a passionate love of God that manifested in a profound love for all manner of human beings.  His baptism was just the beginning of a God-soaked life. 

And the point of that life, the point of his baptism, was not that he was categorically different from you but that he is the Way that you can become authentically the person you are created to be, just as he was authentically the person he was created to be.  You have been baptized with the same power and our vocation is nothing less than to be as passionately full of God as Jesus was.   

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Christ, based on  Mark 1:4-8.

© Frank  Gasque Dunn, 2018.


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