CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Baptism: Power Redefined
Beginning Sunday, January 17, CAMINANDO WITH JESUS will arrive via email at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings. If you need to access it earlier for worship-planning purposes, CAMINANDO WITH JESUS will continue to post on the diocesan website at 10 a.m. on Wednesday mornings.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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.”
- Mark 1:4-11
Happy 2021! It’s a new calendar year, and we all know what that means: it’s time for New Years’ Resolutions. Whether or not we keep them—I certainly don’t always keep them— these resolutions are bold statements about what we want the future to look like. When we embark upon a new beginning, our initial intentions and actions set the tone for what lies ahead, proclaiming to ourselves and to others: here’s who and how I want to be in the world from here on out.
This is, I think, effectively what Jesus does in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ birth or early years. We first encounter Jesus as he begins his public life, and he does so with a radical act that will set the tone for the rest of his ministry: “In those days,” Mark writes, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” It isn’t that baptism itself was unusual—ritual immersion for the cleansing of impurities was commonplace among first-century Jews. It’s that Jesus, as God incarnate, didn’t need it. In offering himself to John for baptism anyway, Jesus acts out his own incarnation, submitting divinity to humanity. This is a fitting first moment in a ministry that redefines power, that places the bottom at the top and the margins at the center, that finally subverts death itself. It’s a moment that is so profound that even the material of creation responds: “Just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” In a sort of physical mirror of Jesus’ transgressive actions, the heavens are ripped open and the boundary between the divine and human realms is breached. And it’s a moment that marks the beginning of something new not only for Jesus, but also for us.
Our baptism recalls Jesus’ and symbolizes our own irreversible entanglement in the subversive realities of his life. When we are baptized, we—or whoever presents us for baptism—proclaim that the opening between the divine and human realms never closed. We commit to living our lives in that gap, renouncing the powers and value systems of the world. We acknowledge our place among God’s people, a community that, in its ideal form, embodies Jesus’ ministry of radical love and acceptance. We pledge to care for others as much as we care for ourselves. And we surrender control of our own life and death, daring to believe that we—“sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever”—will ultimately descend with Jesus into the waters of death and rise with him in resurrection.
So, even if we don’t end up keeping those New Year’s resolutions, Jesus’ new beginning is and will always be ours, as well. And that is something worth celebrating.
Karen Connor McGugan is a member of Nativity, Raleigh.
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