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?

Sight and Vision Recreated

sideAltarsIcons1When I last posted a blog post on the story of Jesus healing a man born blind (Jn. 9), I suggested in passing that Jesus’ daubing the man’s eyes with mud mixed with his spittle and asking him to wash it at Siloam recalled the creation of the first human out of clay in Genesis 2. This time around, I noticed that this detail is repeated three times to give it a strong emphasis. First when John narrates the action, second, when his neighbors ask him how it is that he can see, and third, when the Pharisees question the man. This is three times in the span of nine verses. Then, after confirming with the man’s parents that he had indeed been born blind, the Pharisees ask him again how he regained his sight. The man offers to tell his story yet again but the Pharisees cut him off. Even so, we have been reminded once again of what Jesus has done. That’s a lot of emphasis.

This thrice and almost four-times repeated telling alerts us to the importance of the link between this miracle and creation, thus making it an act of re-creation. The obvious symbolism of blindness and sight suggest that Jesus is re-creating something more than eyesight for the man born blind. What blindness is Jesus healing? According the French think René Girard, humanity has been blind since its birth by what he calls the “scapegoat mechanism.” That is, since the dawn of humanity social tensions have been solved through suddenly uniting against a victim. Girard also says that this scapegoat mechanism only worked for early societies because people were blind to what they were doing. Girard then argues that it is the Gospels that have definitively revealed the truth of the scapegoat mechanism. (For an introduction to Girard’s thought see Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

This story indeed thrusts us right in the middle of the scapegoat mechanism and the blindness it causes. We can see the ever-increasing circles of persecutory violence depicted in this story from the disciples’ assuming that the man was born blind because somebody sinned to the Pharisees expelling the healed man from the synagogue and setting their sights on Jesus.

For those of us who had something of a “eureka!” experience upon encountering Girard’s thought there is the danger of thinking that this insight into the scapegoat mechanism is a quick fix. Now we know the problem; we can fix it and stop persecuting people any more. It doesn’t work that way and the creation imagery in John’s story tells us why. John is telling us that we need the same radical make over in order to see that a person born blind needs in order to gain intelligible sight. If we need to be recreated in the same way, then the preliminary insight into the scapegoat mechanism is only the beginning of a long journey of being re-formed into Christ. The baptismal imagery of the water washing the clay deepens this need for re-forming.

Those of us working with Girard’s thought now have a history if several decades of struggling to become more and more aware of ways that we scapegoat others. One of the more dangerous pitfalls is what we call “scapegoating the scapegoaters.” This sounds and feels so righteous, but it falls into exactly the same pattern as the Pharisees we are denouncing in this story.

Girard’s insight into the scapegoat mechanism is not a quick fix; it is a very slow fix that takes a lifetime of prayer, meditation, alert practice in our social relationships and, most of all, constant vigilance over our inner pull toward scapegoating others. All this time, we have to be as malleable as moist clay so that God can re-create us and re-form us in God’s Desire for us and for humanity.

Two books I have written dealing with the practicalities of spirituality are Tools for Peace and Moving and Resting in God’s Desire.

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?

The Earthquake that Saves

abyssIn Matthew’s Gospel, the Resurrection of Jesus causes an earthquake. Just as an earthquake shakes up the earth, the Resurrection shakes us up, fatally undermines the way we have lived our lives, and gives us a radical reorientation. But did the Resurrection have to be an earthquake? Could it possibly have been a smooth transition from a good quality of life to a better one?

According to seismology, an earthquake is caused by one or more faults under the surface of the earth. A fault can hold its position for some time but it is inherently unstable and it will slide sometime or other and cause the earth to shake. The Resurrection could not help but cause an earthquake because there were faults in human culture just waiting to shift when the event occurred. A look at the Old Testament readings we read during the Vigil can point out where the faults were and still are.

The story of the Flood shows us what Cain’s murder of Abel led to: a society overwhelmed with violence. They did not need God to create a flood to carry them away; their own violence had overwhelmed them like a flood. The near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham refers to the institutionalization of sacrifice to stave off the meltdown of the Flood. The people were convinced that somebody must die in order that the people might be saved. That is what Caiaphas said to justify the execution of Jesus. Abraham thought somebody must die until an angel (messenger) of God told him otherwise. In Jesus Risen in our Midst Sandra Schneiders points out that God wanted neither Isaac nor Jesus to die, but while Abraham obeyed God, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate decided otherwise. Pharaoh’s Egypt was a society held together through institutionalized sacrifice: the enslavement of the Hebrews. When plagues struck, Pharaoh blamed the Hebrews and drove them out. God transformed the event into a deliverance from slavery. Like the people in Noah’s time, the Egyptians were overwhelmed by their own violence. (When Jesus welcomed the children that his disciples tried to keep away, he showed for all time that God is not a child killer.) These are the fault lines that could only slip and shake the earth when the angel of the Lord “descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” The guards, representatives of the sacrificial culture, became “like dead men.” Death is what sacrificial cultures lead to.

The angel’s words “Do not be afraid” are at least as earthshaking as the earthquake. These words of peace turn us upside down and around in circles. What is the man we killed to stabilize society going to do to us now that he is out and about again? Why would he tell us not to be afraid? What is this world coming to? Two women both named Mary who live on the margin of the society of their time, a society that would not let them testify in court as witnesses, are asked to be witnesses to this momentous news, to the momentous presence of life. They run off with “fear and great joy.” Mary and Mary don’t get far before they meet up with Jesus who greets them and repeats the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus de-centers us once again by taking us from the center of religious and political power to that backwater Galilee where he will start a new life for us. St. Paul says of the Hebrews who were delivered from Egypt that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) When we renew our baptismal vows, we renewed our commitment to being overwhelmed by God’s deliverance from a sacrificial culture that creates fault lines to a new culture based on the forgiving victim. These words are spoken not just to the two women but to the two guards and to each one of us. Sandra Schneiders says: “In the Resurrection God gave back to us the Gift we had rejected. Can we accept the gift of peace this time around? Can we spread the news to others and, most important, to ourselves that we have been delivered from the flood waters of our violence to a new land, a new way of living where we do not need to be afraid?

Eucharist (1) Christ our Passover

eucharist1

Baptism is our initiation into the Paschal Mystery where the death and resurrected life of Christ begin to shape our lives. But how do we keep going so that we can finish what we start so that we are not like the person who started to build a tower and didn’t have the resources to complete it? This question is all the more urgent for those of us who were baptized when we were infants, before we knew what was happening to us. (I don’t dispute for a minute infant baptism for the purpose of raising a child in the shape of the Paschal Mystery.)

Clearly it is the Eucharist that feeds us on the way we have started with baptism. St. Paul’s line “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” that we say just before the distribution of communion says everything about the sacrament and more. What is all the more astounding is that, as Robert Daly says in Sacrifice Revealed, it’s a throwaway line said in passing while writing about something else. That indicates how fundamental a presupposition it was in the early church.

The Passover, of course, re-lives the deliverance of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. The roots of the Passover are obscure but it may have been a protective rite of shepherds that the Jews were performing at the time they were expelled from Egypt for causing the plague that killed far more Egyptian children than Hebrew children. Nowadays, there is the simple scientific explanation that the Hebrew slaves were rigidly segregated from the Egyptians so that it is reasonable that one social group could escape a plague that struck the other. (Medieval cities copied the Egyptians by blaming the Jews for plagues that struck them and expelling them when we now know that the Jews were more intelligent about matters of hygiene.) When Jesus welcomed the children whom his disciples tried to keep away, he demonstrated for all time that God is not a child-killer.

The Passover quickly moved away from its sacrificial origins and became a domestic feast as outlined in Exodus 12 that is to be repeated every year. (In Jesus’ time, the temple priests slaughtered the Passover lambs for those who had come to the Holy City for the feast. In John’s Gospel Jesus was crucified precisely at the time that the Passover lambs were slaughtered.) As the Passover became an oft-repeated practice of remembrance of God’s deliverance, the Eucharist is an oft-repeated renewal of our baptism. Just as the death and resurrection of Jesus are made present at baptism, they are again made present in the Eucharist. For those who, like me, enjoy science fiction and fantasy literature, we could note that these sacraments constitute time travel of a sort.  This time travel is not to change the past but to change the present and the future. (The Greek word anamnesis means memory in the sense of making the remembered event currently present. The fundamental change is to bring ourselves and our communities out of sacrificial, persecuting societies into forgiving societies grounded in the forgiving victim.

In Exodus 12, there is a sense of urgency with the Passover. It must be eaten “in haste.” We don’t usually feel this same sense of urgency while celebrating the Eucharist, but maybe we should. Insofar as we are governed by Pharaoh’s way of living, we really shouldn’t waste any time moving out of that way and entering more deeply into the way of the forgiving victim. The bread and wine are gifts to give us what we need to finish what we started. When we eat Christ our Passover, we need to ask ourselves: How ready and willing are to pass over from one way of living to another? How willing are we to serve one another as demonstrated by Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet?

 

Eucharist (2)  Eucharist (3)  See also Baptism (1)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

lakeGray1All of the biblical types of baptism that I have reviewed in the first two posts of this series stress the social nature of this sacrament. In the Paschal Mystery, we die to one way of relating (or misrelating) with people to live to a totally new way of relating to others. The traditional triad of renunciations of the world, the flesh, and the devil confirms this social element of baptism. The three are nearly synonymous but their varying shades of meaning are illuminating.

The New Testament word kosmos (world) has mainly negative connotations, especially in John’s Gospel where it means, not the material world as created by God, but the social world organized in opposition to God. In baptism, then, we renounce organizing ourselves socially around scapegoating and persecution. It is important to remember, though, that it was this very kosmos that God loved so much that God gave his only son so that this kosmos might not perish. As Jesus was overwhelmed by the kosmos in his death, we, too, may be overcome by it if we renounce it.

Flesh does not refer to the material aspect of our existence, but rather to the tendency live our embodied lives without reference to God. When we live in the flesh, our social lives are dominated by mimetic rivalry that consumes us. The contentions that Paul denounced in his first letter to the Corinthians was cited as an example of living by the flesh. If we renounce the flesh, we renounce this contentious way of relating and we allow our embodied lives to be guided by the Holy Spirit in whom there is no rivalry or resentment.

Renouncing the devil does not mean renouncing a wicked supernatural creature with horns and a pitchfork. The New Testament word skandalon refers to no such thing. Rather this word means a stumbling block, an obstacle. When we live according to the flesh, we allow other people to be stumbling blocks to our desires and we do the same to them. That is, our rivals become the organizing principles of our life rather than God. In scripture, the Satan is also the accuser, which is what rivals do. They accuse each other endlessly as opposed to praising God endlessly.

The renunciations as formulated in the 1976 Book of Common Prayer amount to much the same thing. Renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” may seem to imply supernatural forces. I do not rule out such angelic beings who, themselves, put themselves into mimetic rivalry with God, but the anthropological level is what is most important to us in renouncing skandalons in this life. The opposition of such stumbling blocks can seem so strong that they seem transcendent but are really an accumulation of human desires out of control. Renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” acknowledges the systemic evil of the kosmos which we must renounce and “the sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God” point to our own responsibility to do what the fourth question asks of us, to “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] savior” and “put [our] whole trust in his grace and love.”

As noted in my last post, the new beginnings promised by the deliverances from the Flood and from the Red Sea were so daunting that, in both cases, those who were delivered returned to the old way of relating with each other and the same has happened with the Church. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament in the sense of being an initiation, that is a beginning. A beginning is just that; it is not the middle and certainly is not the end. Baptism is a beginning that must be sustained day by day, hour by hour. St. Paul’s admonition to “take off” the old person and “put on” the new person are verbs used for taking clothing on and off. Living by the Spirit in baptism, then, is allowing Christ to clothe us rather than the rivals who are usually the ones who define us. Being renewed in Christ leads us into a quality of life that we don’t easily imagine. These new clothes seem much too big for us and we get lost in them. Can we allow Christ to stretch us to fit into the new clothes of the resurrected life?

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (1)

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (2)