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.

Celebrating our Baptism

baptism_of_christ_by_tiffany (2)Luke stresses the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus much more than the three other evangelists. Most strikingly, Luke does not specifically say that John himself baptized Jesus. Luke describes John’s ministry and then says Herod added to all his other crimes by putting John in prison. (Lk. 3: 19–20) Then Luke puts Jesus front and center by saying the he was baptized “when all the people were baptized.” (Lk. 3:21)

The Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the “bodily form of a dove” and the voice from Heaven proclaiming Jesus to be God’s son, “the beloved,” (Lk. 3: 21–22) could not be a greater contrast to John’s closing words that the one who is “more powerful” was going to bring a winnowing fork to baptize by burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” John’s water baptism was a rite of purification and he expected the one who was coming to bring fire to do a more powerful job of purifying. But instead Jesus’ first act of preaching was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk. 4: 16–19) Quite a different approach than John’s! Jesus was going for transformation, not purification.

We celebrate our own baptism on this day as we follow Jesus to the river Jordan, see the dove for ourselves and listen to the voice from Heaven proclaim us sons and daughters of God. Our baptism, too, is a call to spread God’s love and favor to others. We are used to living in a culture built on wrath and disfavor, where we bind and oppress captives rather than free them. The call of baptism is a constant call to leave this culture of wrath to journey towards a culture of love and the freeing of captives.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel’s return from exile gives us powerful images for our own return from exile through baptism. Isaiah grounds this call in creation, linking baptism with God’s calling us into being. The journey is arduous, as Jesus’ journey in the desert was an arduous testing by Satan. We will pass through waters and rivers but God will be with us and they will not overwhelm us. We will walk through fire but the flame will not consume us. (Is. 43: 2) As with the Flood from which Noah was delivered and the waters of the Red Sea through which the Israelites fled from Egypt, we can see the waters and the fire as images of the wrathful culture that is trying to pull us back. In his exuberance, Isaiah himself stumbles by suggesting that other nations are given in ransom for the freeing and gathering of Israel. Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, is the first step of bearing the sins of all people so that he will be a ransom for everybody, Egypt, Ethiopia, and even Babylon, included.

Each of us receives a unique call to play our part in the baptismal journey. Can we hear the voice from Heaven declaring God’s love for us and moving us in the direction we are each to go to perform our part of the journey?

Beloved Children of God

Baptism_of_ChristAt his baptism, Jesus heard a voice from Heaven saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3: 22) These words ring out in Psalm 2, addressed to the king, the Messiah, who is being singled out from the nations that are raging together and rising up against the Lord and his anointed. Similar words are spoken to the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 42:1. Throughout these songs of the Suffering Servant, he is being called out of a violent society to become instead the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the Psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, the Suffering Servant does not retaliate against the violence inflicted on him. Jesus begins his mission, then, with a powerful acclaim of unconditional love from his Heavenly Father, a sense of unconditional love he will offer to all who will listen.

As the inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging with each other, in Jesus we too are drawn out of this inundation of rage. But we are not freed from being the target of these raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath any more than Jesus was. Rather, in baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering but also overwhelmed by the Servant’s vindication by God.

When Jesus was called out by his heavenly Father, Jesus experienced his father as “Abba.” This is the Aramaic word a child would use to address his or her father. This word even appears in Romans 8: 15 when Paul says that it is by the Holy Spirit that we cry out: “Abba, Father!” In Isaiah 43: 1, the prophet says that Israel has been called by name, that we belong to Yahweh. This suggests that as Jesus was called the son of the heavenly Abba, we, by extension, are also called children of the same heavenly Abba. In this way, Jesus makes himself the brother of every one of us as we share the same Abba.

God So Loved the World

NicodemusRight after Jesus had turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple and driven out the sacrificial animals, Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin approaches Jesus by night. In the strange dialog that follows, we see Jesus reaching out to a member of the establishment that he has just challenged, but we also see this same establishment figure stammering as he tries to understand Jesus and fails. This is a time for stammering as it is a time of transition. Jesus has just ended the sacrificial age with his actions in the temple. The question is: What is the new age going to be?

Nicodemus is confounded when Jesus tells him that he cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Spirit. The water and the Spirit both suggest baptism. The Greek word baptizmo means to be overwhelmed and just as Jesus was overwhelmed by both water and Spirit in the river Jordan in the account in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus wishes for Nicodemus and all of us to be overwhelmed by both. In this dialogue, however, Nicodemus is overwhelmed with puzzlement and perhaps, so are we. Jesus then compounds Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness, a mysterious event recorded in Numbers. The bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis driven by a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of violence as Jesus is himself. It seems that being born “from above” entails being born from the raised up cross, which is the entry into a new way of living, what John calls “eternal life” several times in his Gospel. After all, St. Paul said that “we were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

This is the context of the famous words that follow in John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:17) These words echo, in a different key, the acclamation of the voice from heaven after the sky opened up declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved son in whom God is well pleased. Baptism, then, initiates us into this love of the heavenly father. If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron as John the Baptist expected, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

John goes on to assure us that God did not send the Son into the world “to condemn the world, but that in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:18) These two verses should be strong enough to prevent us from thinking that the solemn verses that follow concerning condemnation take back even a smidgeon of the proclamation of God’s love. The judgment is not God’s judgment but the self-judgment of those who “loved darkness rather than light.” If God’s very Being is light and we don’t like it, what else can God do but keep on being the light until, hopefully, we learn to like it and then love it and so turn away from the darkness in our hearts and turn to the cross that gives us a new birth from above?

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

lakeGray1“We were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  Rom. 6:4

If baptism is our initiation into Christ, our entry into the Paschal Mystery, then baptism is the underlying, ongoing dynamic of our lives in Christ. Dying and rising with Christ is something we need to do every day. The Greek word baptismo means to be overwhelmed, inundated. In baptism we are overwhelmed by and inundated with the Paschal Mystery. I will explore this mystery by looking at a few key scripture passages that give us variations on this one theme.

Jesus himself was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. For John, it was a baptism of repentance from the violent society of his time, to prepare for God’s winnowing fork in “the wrath to come.” But when Jesus comes, he does not bring a winnowing fork; he only brings himself and asks to be baptized. As he is baptized, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven says “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”

These words refer to two key verses in the Hebrew Bible that tell us what baptism is all about. These words ring out in Psalm 2, addressed to the king, the Messiah, who is being singled out from the nations that are raging together and rising up against the Lord and his anointed. The inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging with each other. In Jesus, we too are drawn out of this inundation in the sense of being freed from raging against everybody else. We are not freed from being the target of these raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath. These same words also refer to Isaiah 42:1, the first line of the first song of the Servant of Yahweh. Throughout these songs, we find that the servant has been called out of a violent society and becomes the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, the Servant does not retaliate in any way against the violence inflicted on him. In baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering but then we are overwhelmed by the Servant’s vindication by God.

John’s Gospel does not narrate the baptism of Jesus but, as in so many other instances, John shows us the underlying story in a different key. When Nicodemus approaches Jesus by night, Jesus tells him that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Holy Spirit. Jesus seems only to compound Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness. However, the bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis in the form of a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of the violence as Jesus is himself.

This is the context of the famous words that follow: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

See Part 2