On Taking the Lowest Place

Jesus’ parable of the important seats is easy to understand. It’s one of the first parables I learned as a young child in Sunday school. It could easily have come from any of the sitcoms I watched at that age. I can imagine Jackie Gleason barging into a dining hall and rushing for the best seat at the table, followed by his spluttering rage when he’s told he has to sit over in a corner.

In this parable, Jesus shows a profound awareness of social contagion, a phenomenon analyzed with much insight by René Girard. What Girard articulates is our human tendency to receive desires from other people. In the case of the banquet, the more some people want the best places, the more other people will want the best places just because other people want them. If some people think some places are the best and rush for those, then other people will desire those places because other people want them.

One way to get some perspective on this parable is to reflect on the kind of person who rushes for the best seat and the kind of person who holds back. The kind of person who holds back is apt to be more kind than the other, or at least not so unkind. The thing is, reaching the best seat can be a kind of pyrrhic victory. One might have the prestige of being a CEO, the president of the United States, or the center of a social set, but if such a one treats people badly, that person will not be liked or respected on a personal level, even if there is respect for the position. It’s a way of saying one might gain the world and lose one’s soul. One has lost one’s soul to the social contagion that blunts concern for the well-being of other people. In fact, although this parable doesn’t speak of darker alternatives, it is easy to imagine the rush for the highest place resulting in a violent free-for-all. This is what Girard says is likely to have happened at the dawn of humanity, and the free-for-all resulted in everybody converging on a victim. It isn’t easy to escape the power of this social contagion but if one takes notice of Jesus, then one sees an alternative.

To begin with, Jesus is not giving us a social strategy for getting the best place by being laid back. Jesus would have us realize that grabbing one of the best places at a dinner party or pushing for social dominance over others is not where our priority should be. Rather than trying to get the highest place, one should be content with the place one happens to have and do the best one can in that place while attending to the needs of others, which is the best way to be given a higher place due to one’s accomplishment. But there is more.

Jesus didn’t just take a middling place; he took the lowest place. His preaching ministry, for all the acclaim it received from many people, gained the opprobrium of those who thought they had the highest places and wanted to keep them. These people sentenced him to a criminal’s death, death on a cross. That was the lowest place there was in the Roman world at the time. But then Jesus was raised from the dead by his heavenly Abba and raised to his Abbas’s right hand in Heaven which is about as far up as one can go. Such is the Christological level of this parable. Who would have thought that a sitcom scenario could outline the story of our redemption?

For more on René Girard, see Violence and the Kingdom of God, Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim, and Living Together with our Shared Desires.

The Work of a Slave

When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Likewise, when he passed the bread and the wine, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Both acts were to be remembered and done in memory of Jesus. And both are to this day, although the footwashing is not anywhere near as common as the eating and drinking of the bread and wine.

What is it about the footwashing that has put it into a very low second place? Logistics may have something to do with it but a look at its meaning, the sign that Jesus is giving us, probably has a lot more to do with our not even talking about it all that much. In the Greco-Roman world, it was slaves who washed the feet of their masters and their masters’ guests. That Jesus would do the work of a slave must have been shocking at the time and still is, if we consider the implication that imitating Jesus’ act is not confined to literally washing the feet of others but entails acting as a slave to others. Fundamentally, being a slave means to be in the hands of another person. If we are supposed to put ourselves into the hands of others like this, what does this say about trying to enslave another human being? Jesus himself was about to put himself into the hands of others with the result that he would be crucified. If the disciples still remembered the anointing of the feet of Jesus by Mary of Bethany six days ago, that too would have added to their discomfort. This discomfort extends to the parallel versions of this story

The woman ( or women) in the Gospel stories poured out her very substance (the expense of the perfume or oil) in devotion to Jesus. Likewise, Jesus poured out his very self to his disciples in washing their feet just as he was about to pour out his life for all people to put an end to the violence that includes the enslaving of other people. In those Gospel stories, the women were commended as examples of discipleship. If Jesus thought these women were such good examples, it makes sense that Jesus was humble enough to learn from them and do for his disciples what the women had done for him. There is no indication in any variant of the story that the disciples were reconciled to what the women had done. Did Peter take umbrage at Jesus for washing his feet because he associated it with the women as much as he associated it with slavery?

With the bread and wine, Jesus again poured himself into the two elements just as he poured out his life on the cross. So it is that the footwashing and the Eucharist both mean the same thing. We have put up with the Eucharist more than the footwashing because we have been able to sidestep this meaning by arguing about the metaphysics of Jesus’ presence. But the real presence of Jesus is his pouring himself into the hands of others and through them, the hands of his heavenly Abba. Paul knew this very well but we also conveniently forget that the context of his recalling the Last Supper is to upbraid the Corinthians for violating its meaning through denigrating the weaker and poorer members of the assembly.

Jesus rebuked Peter for refusing to have his feet washed, warning him that he would have no share in him. (Jn. 13: 8) This warning converts Peter so powerfully that he goes overboard and asks to be washed all over. He has allowed Jesus to be a slave to him so that he could be a slave to Jesus and all people. This conversion did not prevent him from denying Jesus three times but it allowed him to hear the cock crow and then to affirm his love to the Resurrected Jesus three times. This is what both the footwashing and the Eucharist are all about.

On Saving a Fig Tree

Both Matthew and Mark have brief stories of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit even though it is not the season for figs. The story is puzzling and some people think Jesus is just throwing a childish tantrum.

Fig trees, like vines, have much resonance throughout the Bible and the Gospels are almost certainly referring to some of the verses about them. In 1 Kings 4: 21 it says: “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.” Micah prophesies that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4: 4) In contrast to these images of well-being, Jeremiah complains that “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” (Jer, 8: 13) The fig tree appears to stand for Israel as a whole in these instances and they make Jesus’ curse of the fig tree understandable as a prophetic warning that Israel is on the verge of becoming irremediably fruitless.

In Luke, Jesus refers to two recent disasters:: Pilate’s mingling the blood of some Galileans with his sacrifices, and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. (Lk. 13: 1–5) He scotches the blame game where we assume the victims deserve what they got, but warns the crowd that all will perish in an equally horrible way if they do not repent. Paul refers to a series of disasters at least as ghastly in First Corinthians: the Israelites fell, were destroyed by serpents, or destroyed by the Destroyer on account of sinful behavior. In both examples, there is a mixture of natural causes and human causes, both of which show Israel suffering disaster for failing to bear fruit, like the barren fig tree.

The small parable in Luke (Lk. 13: 6–9) gives us a different take on the fruitless fig tree. The owner is losing patience after three years without fruit and demands that the tree be cut down, but the gardener pleads for one more chance. The gardener will make an extra effort and see if that makes the tree bear some fruit. One wonders if this gardener will ever stop pleading for one more year, year after year. This is in dramatic contrast to the threatening words of imminent disaster the precede the parable.

Jesus’s cursing the fig tree for not bearing fruit and Jesus’ parable seem to work at cross purposes. Is there a resolution to this tension? The Old Testament reading adds weight to the gentler position in Luke. Yahweh, speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, promises to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to a land where they will find, among other things, fig trees, as Moses’s sermon in Deuteronomy promises. (Ex, 3: 8; Deut. 8: 8) Hosea spoke of Israel as “like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season.” (Hos. 9: 10) This initial commitment suggests that God will not give up on Israel easily, and probably not at all, no matter how barren the tree. We can ask ourselves: Are we like the owner who has given up on the fig tree that is human culture today, or are we like the gardener who will keep on trying when we fail to bear fruit year after year?

In his first Epistle, Peter says that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree. (1 Pet. 2: 24). Could this tree be the withered fig tree? In the parable in Luke, the gardener says he will put manure around the barren tree. Manure is considered a waste product, but farmers know that it brings fertility. Is Jesus, the stone rejected by the builders, (Ps. 118: 22; Lk. 20: 17) himself the manure that makes the withered tree bear fruit again as Gil Bailie and Paul Nuechterlein suggest? Are we willing to give of ourselves for the sake of others who seem to be as barren as the fig tree?

As Jesus Grew

Church window at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, PA

The story of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (Lk. 2: 41–41) is unique in the New Testament in that, being the only story about Jesus as an adolescent, it is also the only text that gives us insight into Jesus as a developing person. The infancy narratives show Jesus as a vulnerable baby and stories of Jesus as an adult, thirty years of age, show a pretty steady portrait of Jesus although a few stories hint at some change in Jesus’ perspective, such as the story of the Canaanite woman. (Lk. 18: 1–9). The big turning point in Jesus’ life was the baptism when the heaven’s opened. This was clearly a powerful experience that oriented him for the rest of his life and solidified his identity. It is well-known that early adolescence is a time of transition and a growing sense of identity, and Luke shows us the beginnings of the identity that was firmed up by his baptism.

The biggest transition for an adolescent is to move from parental care and authority to a growing independence in calling the shots for one’s own life. This is a transition that both parents and children have to navigate. That Jesus’ parents assumed that their son had rejoined the caravan for the return trip from Jerusalem (a poor assumption) suggests that they were indeed letting go and giving their son some responsibility for himself. If Jesus had been younger, they would have made sure the boy was with them before the caravan left. As for Jesus, it is obvious that he made an independent decision on his own initiative. This independent choice led to a new dependence beyond his family as Jesus felt drawn to the temple and took advantage of the opportunity to learn and sharpen his own growing insights in conversation with the elders. Although Jesus would, as an adult, have an adversarial relationship with many of the same people, at this time in his life, Jesus asked questions, listened carefully, and weighed the answers for what they could teach him. As often happens with adolescents, Jesus seemed to assume that his parents would know where he would be, another poor assumption..

That Jesus was drawn to the temple and to conversation with the elders indicates that he had a growing sense of a vocation deeply involved with the religious tradition of his people and the time to begin preparing for it had come. When his parents found him, he showed himself to be firm in this growing sense of vocation when he said: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2: 49) Like many adolescents, Jesus failed to make himself understood to his parents. Not wishing to be a rebellious adolescent, Jesus returned to Nazareth and “was obedient to them.” (Lk. 2: 51)

The insights into adolescent psychology are pretty good for a writer who had no opportunity to take a course in developmental psychology, but that is not the point of the story. What is important, and something we should ponder, is that Jesus, as truly and fully human as well as divine, developed as a human being as every human being develops. As with everything else human, Jesus leads us through his own human experience in our own navigating of transitions in life.

The Rock From Which We Are Hewn

KatrinaCrossAbraham1It is significant that Jesus had wandered over to Caesarea Philippi, deep in imperial territory, before asking his disciples who they thought he was. After they repeated a few rumors going round, Jesus asked who they thought he was. Simon Peter piped up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16: 16) Jesus’ commendation showed that Peter had caught on to something important: it was not Caesar, whose neighborhood they were hanging out in, but Jesus, who was the real, true Lord. But what kind of Lord was Jesus?

When Jesus called Simon “Peter,” meaning rock, to honor his correct answer, perhaps Jesus was reminding Simon of the words of Isaiah: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” (Is. 51: 1–2) Simon Peter, like all Jews, was hewn from the rock of Abraham, the one called to leave his own idolatrous country for a land God would show him where he would make out of Abraham a great people. If Peter is a rock like Abraham, then Peter, too, will leave the idolatrous imperial culture surrounding him and will allow God to make yet another great, new people out of him and the other disciples. What kind of people? What kind of culture?

In writing to the Romans, Paul admonishes them to follow Abraham out of the idolatrous empire in which they live: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12: 2) And what does this transformed people with renewed minds look like? Paul has just told the Romans that such people present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [their] spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12: 1) The imperial culture is all about using power to make sacrifices of others for the sake of the Empire. The culture of Christ is all about making a sacrifice of self as did Jesus, so as to make all of our lives an act of self-sacrificial worship. Although emperors always think more highly of themselves than they should, Paul warns us not to think more highly of ourselves than we should, “but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Rom. 12: 3) Paul then goes on the enumerate the measures of faith as a distribution of gifts of the Holy Spirit so that each of us makes our bodies living sacrifices of worship in various ways, making up the Body of Christ.

Being transformed by the renewal of our minds entails a radical makeover. It’s not just a matter of changing one’s mind about what book to read next. Paul is writing about a radical turnaround in one’s attitude to power. The first step is to be very vigilant about the power we happen to have in relation to other people and how we use it. Even if some of us have rather little power we need to be acutely aware of how we use what little we have. Do we try to get an upper hand against other people one way or another rather than looking for ways we can lay down our selves in service to them?

It turns out that Peter himself hasn’t caught on to the kind of ruler Jesus is. When Jesus talks about laying down his life, Peter resists and is rebuked by Jesus. This turn of events should caution us about the difficulties of the makeover that is being asked of us. Like Peter, we are likely to revert to imperial thinking just as quickly as Peter did. This is not surprising since the default reflex movement is to act like an immovable rock if we are threatened. Yet Jesus says he is going to do the opposite of that. Which is to say, the rock we stand on in the culture of Jesus is the rock of being vulnerable to the forces of Empire. Whether we are going to take the way of vulnerability, the way of giving ourselves for the sake of others, even when such gifts of self are not appreciated or are even actively scorned is a question that presents itself to us day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. We can easily get tired of asking this basic question so constantly, but if we persevere even when we are weary, we will eventually find that God makes a living but vulnerable rock not only out of Peter but out of each one of us.

The Still Small Voice of the Good Shepherd

lambsThe Good Shepherd is a reassuring image. The shepherd is in charge and the sheep follow the shepherd’s guidance. When thieves and robbers and wolves come to threaten the sheep, the shepherd deals with them in no uncertain terms. Jesus’ claim to be the gate, the way in and out of the fold, gives us another reassuring image: some of us are in and certain other people are out, just the way it should be.

But in my reflections on John 10 from a year ago, I noted that the Good Shepherd is the Lamb of God who lays down his life for the sheep. With this realization, the hierarchical picture breaks down. The Good Shepherd is not above the sheep but is one of the sheep. Whereas even the most compassionate and conscientious shepherds end up eating or sacrificing the sheep, Jesus shares the fate of the sheep by becoming the Paschal Lamb in place of the sheep.

The Lamb of God is also an odd gate. Rather than keeping the lambs inside, he leads the lambs in and out with so much movement that the idea of there being a gated sheepfold ceases to make sense. Rather than keeping the bandits and robbers away, Jesus lays down his life for the flock when the bandits attack. If Jesus is the gate, than his willingness to lay down his life is the way in to this abundant pasture for all who would join his flock.

In an essay on the Eucharistic Christ, James Alison explores these paradoxes with great insight. After taking us through stages where we fixate on the bad shepherds and feel righteous about identifying and hating them, Alison takes us to a stage where the fixations fall away:

There is no definitive inside and outside for the Good Shepherd, there are places of shelter and of feeding, different places to which the door gives access, and which presuppose movement, non-fixity, and confidence in being neither in nor out. It is assumed that the best feeding place might not be one that seems to be “in,” yet the good shepherd is able to make that place available to his sheep.

The mixup that Alison envisages reaches the point where we are all sheep and all wolves, not in a negative sense where each of us supposedly good people find the wolf within, but rather a recreation of abundant life where nobody needs to be a sheep who is devoured or sacrificed or a wolf who does the devouring and sacrificing. This is where our baptism into the death of Jesus leads us further into the abundant life of Jesus.

It is in the space of this abundant life that we hear the true voice of the Good Shepherd as the Lamb of God, which Alison suggests is the still small voice that Elijah heard in the wilderness. When we hear this still small voice, the strident voices of bandits are drowned out and our own voices can take on the same stillness that others need to hear.

A Season for Sacrifice

crossRedVeil1Lent is the season when we think of making sacrifices, usually small ones, like giving up a pleasure or two. This Lent, we have been called upon to make many large sacrifices because of the COVID-19 virus. The social distancing needed to slow the spread of the disease entails giving up many very good things that we take for granted. I can’t even go out and get a haircut when I need one. The disappointments through canceled events are many. For me, it’s a concert I was looking forward to and, more disappointing, a speaking engagement where I was going to present a paper I had worked on for many hours. I’m sure many others have had greater disappointments than that. It must be hard, for example for children not to be able to play freely with their friends and to be separated from grandparents. One of the greatest renunciations for committed Christians is, ironically, Church. Usually, going to Church is something one increases during Lent, but the social distancing called for right now has worshipers staying home and making do with online services. I would think this would make worship a self-emptying process as the familiar sacred space and the people one is usually with would not be there except on a computer screen.

We do not necessarily choose to give up these things. When concerts are cancelled, for example, one doesn’t have the option of going. Bishops around the country ordered the cancellation of in-person services before most state governors had issued executive orders. The only choice is to be a reasonably good sport about it. Or not. We may grieve the things we lose during this time, but we can take comfort in the assurance that these renunciations are saving lives, maybe even one’s own. Thinking of others in this way lightens the load that comes of focusing on our own losses. Greater than the sacrifices of social distancing are the sacrifices of those who are risking their health and possibly their lives to serve others during this time. Medical workers top the list. True, these people entered these professions expecting to make sacrifices for others, even if not in so intense a fashion. But people stocking shelves in grocery stores or working elsewhere in the food chain are also risking themselves and these are not jobs one normally expects to be so risky. Then there are those who lay down their lives. One example I’ve heard of is a priest in Bergamo. His parishioners had bought a lung ventilator for him, but he gave it to a younger man who was dying. Not even his body was recovered in the midst of the mass burials.

In such times of stress, there are some who opportunistically seek to profit instead. The selling of needed medical equipment for many times their wealth is a tragic example of this. There is also talk about sacrificing human lives to save the economy, a notion that makes The Economy loom like a deity requiring sacrifices. I don’t mean to minimize the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus and the need for careful balancing of economic peril with that of the disease. I am calling for a deep concern for the lives of all people. In all this, there is the fundamental choice of whether we will make sacrifices of ourselves as needed or will prefer to sacrifice other people. This is a fundamental choice we face all the time, but the current crisis adds urgency to it.

The Great Sacrifice of Jesus who died on the cross makes it quite clear that God is in the business of self-sacrifice and is certainly not a deity that requires sacrifices of others. And yet, as our model, self-sacrifice is what is asked of us because of what Jesus did for us and continues to for us all the time. During this season, we are reminded of those who made a sacrifice of Jesus, oblivious of the sacrifice Jesus was making for us and even for them, if they could accept it. The love that motivates Jesus is awesome, beyond our comprehension. If we even begin to tap in to this love, we come to see for ourselves that it is the way, not to glory, but the way of glory.

On Washing our Eyes at Siloam

purpleFlower1

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (Jn. 9: 39)

This is one of the harder of the hard sayings of Jesus. It suggests that if we can see, we really can’t and if we can’t see, then actually we can. In the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9, the blind man sees pretty well in many ways even while he is still blind whereas the “Jews” prove to be blind as to what is really happening right before their eyes. The overt irony throughout the narrative makes it clear that physical sight is symbolic of the ability to see at other levels. We say “I see” all the time to indicate that we have understood something.

The trouble is that most of us think we can see very well at this figurative level. That is, we think our worldviews are correct, or at least mostly so. Jesus’ admonition should make us stop and think about that. If we are sure that we see, we are actually being pretty sure about ourselves, which gives us a pretty good chance, amounting to a certainty, that what we think we see is wrong, at least in important respects. So how can we truly see?

I think we are helped by the famous admonition from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt. 7: 1–3) Jesus makes it quite clear that judging other people automatically blinds us severely. This fits exactly with the story of the blind man in John. The assumption on the part of the disciples that either the blind man or his parents had sinned makes them blind on account of the judgmental attitude. The “Jews” are highly judgmental of the blind man for letting himself be healed on the Sabbath and all the more judgmental when the formerly blind man doesn’t see things their way when they explain the matter to him.

The problem now is that I am getting a bit judgmental about “the Jews.” Jesus has exposed their blindness and since I can see that, I assume I can see. But if I can see what “the Jews” don’t see, then there is the possibility, I mean likelihood, that I am becoming blind. I am seeing the speck in the eyes of “the Jews” and not seeing the log in my own. This blindness is quite serious when I reflect on the centuries of persecution of the Jewish people with stories like this present one being a pretext for that.

If we really want to see, we have to really understand that judgmentalism is our favorite blood sport and it really can be bloody in a literal sense. If I see a speck in somebody’s eye, that speck is probably there, but seeing the speck should be fair warning of the log in my own eye. We need to take Jesus’ advice and go to Siloam to wash the log out of our own eyes. If we do that, we will be much less judgmental and a lot gentler about helping other people with the specks in their eyes.

 

See also: Seeing with more than the Eyes and Sight and Vision Recreated.

The Beloved Son on the Mountain

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aAt the end of Epiphany, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord to prepare for Lent. The vision of the glorified Christ is supposed to cheer us up for the grim days of penance and the grimmer days of following Jesus through his Passion. The Transfiguration also prepares us for Easter as it gives us a foretaste of the glorified body of the risen Lord.

The climax of the Transfiguration is the bright cloud overshadowing the disciples and the heavenly voice saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt. 17: 5) These same words were said to Jesus at the time of his baptism. These words of encouragement from Psalm 2 strengthened Jesus for his immediate trial in the desert when he was tempted. This time, they strengthen Jesus before his final trial at the time of his Passion. The royal psalm also has much of the same foreshadowing as the “kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed.” (Ps. 2: 2) This is exactly what happened to Jesus.

When the disciples heard the voice from the bright cloud, they “were overcome with fear.” What were they afraid of? Was it just the power of a voice from Heaven? That could account for the fear. But maybe there is more to it. The disciples had been following Jesus for some time but they often failed to understand him, not least when Jesus predicted his imminent suffering and death. Were these predictions giving the disciples second thoughts about Jesus? If so, the heavenly affirmation of Jesus would have been frightening if it was Jesus’ willingness to suffer that made Jesus the beloved Son with whom God was well pleased. Worse, this could mean that being willing to follow Jesus through the same suffering and death was the way for them to be sons with whom God was well pleased. The glory revealed on the mountain was a powerful encouragement, but the kind of encouragement that must have left the disciples shaken, as it should leave us shaken.

Lenten penances are small potatoes compared to the willingness to suffer if the kings and rulers and all other people should rage together and rise against the Lord and those who follow the Lord’s anointed. May the glory of the Lord’s Resurrection strengthen us with the deep life that casts out fear so that we can bring peace into the world of strife and rage.

On Entering Jesus’ Baptism

HolyWater1When we dip our fingers in a holy water stoup as a reminder of our baptism, how much do we really remember? Do we stop to think that the water is as explosive as the bread we receive at the Eucharist?

John baptizing people with water at the River Jordan seems idyllic if we overlook John’s warnings to flee the wrath to come and the axe poised to chop down the tree of our lives; all this to prepare the way for the one who comes to baptize with fire to burn away the chaff. The baptism of Jesus seems much gentler in that Jesus did not need to be cleansed of sins and vices like the rest of us and so didn’t need to be saved from a wrathful response from God. But this peaceful event becomes dramatic when a voice from Heaven declares Jesus to be God’s son with whom God is well pleased. Whatever Jesus is going to baptize people with, it won’t be fire burning up the chaff.

At the end of his life, the baptism with which Jesus is baptized turns out to be his suffering and death on a cross. This makes it clear that we did not need to be baptized to ward off the wrath of God, but to ward off human wrath. What we needed was to be delivered from the wrath in our own hearts that led us to join the persecutors of Jesus. This is what Paul was getting at in his epistles, when he wrote of baptism as a passage through the death of Jesus into Jesus’ resurrection. The passage of baptism, then, is a passage into death to our own wrath, then unto the flood of the wrath of other humans which was inflicted on Jesus, and ending in a new resurrected life without wrath.

The acclamation of Jesus’ heavenly Abba becomes all the more significant in retrospect as it gave Jesus the loving encouragement to go through his own baptism. When we follow Jesus in our baptism, we also begin with the encouragement of the voice from Heaven that we are beloved of God. Far from being driven to flee God’s wrath, we are invited by love to enter the cleansing water so as to participate in God’s affirming love, a love that will sustain us when we struggle with our own wrath and suffer the wrath of others.

That’s a lot to think about when we dip our fingers into a holy water stoup.