Mark 1:4–11 (NRSV)
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism of Jesus
(Mt 3:13–17; Lk 3:21–22; Jn 1:29–34)
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
We have encountered this passage many times. As we approached Christmas we looked at this very same passage, looking at John. Today we approach it in a different manner. Before we look at it with anticipation, today we look at it through the incarnation. Before we look at it through the eyes of an unknown today it is a mystery revealed.
This week as I have sat reflecting on this passage pretty much every day. There are things here that just boggle my mind. Like heaven opened and God the Father spoke in an actual voice yet Jesus spent three years building his ministry. I guess even a couple millennia ago people had trouble accepting news.
As we move from Christmas into Epiphany we move from the marvel of the incarnation to the participation in the revealed mystery of Christ, God with us. We come from the astonishment that he actually came and we begin to gain knowledge of why.
Today we begin with baptism. The concept of baptism is extremely deep. It is layered in various meaning from various religious and secular aspects. The thing that struck me the most was that nearly every near eastern religion had some form of baptism. The Jewish faith had a couple of rites that resembled what we see John performing. The first is the ritualistic bathing the faithful does before they enter worship. They enter the waters to remove everything that is unclean from their bodies so that they may enter into the sanctuary of God. But this was not the only form of baptism that was practiced. From the times of exile when Israel was a people without a nation and a faith without a temple, they needed to figure out a manner in which they could live their faith even though they did not have a temple to visit
During this period of exile, we find the roots of contemporary Jewish and Christian faiths. These people that have faith even without a temple for their God intrigued many Gentiles from the various lands of diaspora. These God-Fearing Gentiles would often wish to join the community of believers and before they could they would be Baptized to represent the waters of the red sea or the flood. And after that the males would be circumcised.
But what was the reason for this baptism. The root of this word is found in the textile industry. The original meaning comes from the immersion of cloth to be dyed. So, the image created by this religious right represents the change of an individual. The person went into the waters one way and emerges changed.
Consider this image. I am sure that most of us at one point in time, most likely in our young adult life, made a tie dye t-shirt. I think it has become a rite of passage or an iconic image of American youth to the world. I say this because we were asked to show the student in Ukraine how to make them while I was there teaching American English. With a tie dye shirt, we take a white shirt, you wad and twist areas and tie them off with a rubber band, and then you immerse this shirt in the water containing the dye. After the appointed time the shirt is removed and in tied leaving a unique design. The shirt was once plain and now it is different. It was once considered underwear and now it has a new use a new life. What changed? It was immersed and changed. The shirt is still a shirt but our perception of it has changed, it was plain but now it is unique and colorful.
This gives us a glimpse into the mystery of the incarnate Christ. The entire community knew him as Jesus. Well actually if we want to be more accurate his name would have been closer to Joshua. To everyone in his home town he was not Jesus, he was Josh. He was the son of the local handy-man Joseph. He was just Josh, but he went to the Jordon and something changed.
Jesus did not change, he was and always will be who he is. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was born of the virgin Mary. He was and always will be the son of God. But when he was immersed in the water something changed in the perception of who he was. Of course, it helps when a voice from heaven says, “hey you are my son.”
At that moment Jesus was revealed. What was once seen as common was now seen as something different, something special.
John the Baptist said that he was not the messiah, he was not the one they were waiting for, but there was another that would be greater than him. John immersed people in water, just water. If you only dip a shirt in water what happens? The shirt gets wet. You can tie it up dip it and let it soak all you want, all you will get is a wet shirt. John tells us that the one to come will not baptize with water, but the holy spirit and fire.
This difference is significant. When things are placed in fire they change. Fire takes the iron ore rocks and changes it into something pure. Fire adds carbon to the iron to make steel. The fire makes the metal pure and strong. It changes not only or perception but the reality.
This is the difference between the baptism of John and Christ. John’s baptism may wash, it may reveal what is already there but it cannot bring full complete change. The baptism that Jesus provides changes. It purifies and it strengthens. It takes the unique qualities we each have and empowers them.
Jesus before he was immersed, before he participated in this religious rite of baptism he was Josh, after he was seen for his true self, Jesus the son of God. When we become followers and disciples of Christ, the old passes away and something new is made. We resemble what we were before but something else is seen. What was once common is now unique and beautiful. We were once a plain white t-shirt, now we are tie dyed. Each trial and struggle we face adds a new and unique design that through the baptism of the spirit makes something truly remarkable.
The incarnate life makes us new. People see us as we are but they also see more. We were once plain but a mysterious immersion transforms us, it reveals our true selves as we were created to be. Men and women in communion with God and all creation. Restored and redeemed. Refined and purified so that we can become light bearers and ambassador of God with us.
As you enter into a time of reflection, silent and holy expectancy consider your baptism. Have you been immersed? Have you been immersed in the water of John, or have you been plunged beneath the life changing spirit? Have you been soaked or have you been dyed? Have you been rinsed or purified? And if you have what mystery is being revealed through you?