OF SAINT JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
BAPTISM OF CHRIST
(January 12th) 2014
Readings: Isaiah 42.1-9Psalm 29
When I first entered theological college in Melbourne, and dutifully attended my first lecture, I was shocked to discover that the four gospel writers provide quite different perspectives on the moments in which Jesus was baptised. It wasn’t that this was a sort of “oh my goodness I can no longer believe this stuff” moment, as some of our more aggressive anti-Christian friends suggest, but an “oh my goodness, why hadn’t I noticed this before?” moment. The differences are subtle: who hears the voice of God? What does the voice say? Who witnesses the event? They say more, it is argued, about the perspectives and emphases of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, than about any great confusion around the event. All except the most fundamentalist of interpreters would argue that, given the passage of some three decades between the event and he writing, a shift or two in perspective and emphasis is hardly surprising.
Interpretation is something we all do. Perspective is something we all do. There probably are- despite the clams of some interpreters, some boundaries to what we might glean from a story. We are not, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum reminded us, looking at pictures in the clouds when we read a text. On the whole, though, there is wriggle room for interpretation depending on a whole host of factors, when we read.
Just adjacent to the door of my workspace, up in the deanery, there is an eastern icon of the baptism of Christ. Like all eastern icons it is in two dimensions, not attempting to force on the viewer too many restrictions of place, space or time, leaving wriggle room for interpretation. Jesus is as close to naked as could be decently portrayed, a loin cloth judiciously draped where it needed to be, but otherwise taking Jesus into what for a Jewish person were and are the dangerous places of over-exposure. The other time Jesus is dexterously protected from nakedness by artists is at his crucifixion: as a criminal under Roman law it is in fact highly likely there was nowhere to hide, no loincloth by which to protect the victim from the utter shame not merely of nakedness but of the ultimate degradation of bodily functions collapsing in an inescapable horror. The orthodox artists allow us space to imagine but also to flee from the abject terror of the exposure of Jesus.
There is a tradition, Protestant and Catholic alike, of dwelling almost voyeuristically on the horrors of that Jerusalem exposure, towards which the baptism of Jesus glimpses. That tradition dwells on our culpability for as it were placing Jesus there on the cross, and while that is true in all theological senses, it is probably not that helpful to go there.
Hymns of the " 'twas my sins that crucified my Lord" ilk convey something important about human beings’ propensity for sin – though we hardly need reminding of that if we watch television news each night – but such hymns probably underestimate, under-tell as it were, the greater story that God’s nature is a volition, an impetus to love that will always enter the waters of human degradation and shame (when eventually we let it). God’s love always transforms our ashes into beauty, our mourning into the oils of joy, our spirit of heaviness into a garment of praise, and our Good Friday into Easter (though if you recall the song I am alluding to there you might recall that this is primarily to serve not our edification and enrichment but God’s glorification: not a bad shift in focus, even in the 21st century, and a major difference between Christianity and self-improvement psychologies).
Today then we celebrate the ancient and complex yet simple rite of baptism. We remember the strange event of the immersion into waters one who the Christians came to know as clean. We might ask, as I suggest Matthew, Mark, Luke and John ask in different ways, why the sinless one enters the waters of cleansing from sin. In much ancient iconography Jesus is displayed as emerging from waters in which symbols of human grot lie beneath the surface: modern iconography sometimes depicts Jesus emerging from a harbour floor of human grot, leaving behind wheels and tyres and car bodies and syringes and condoms and batteries and the flotsam and jetsam of humans’ disregard for the sanctity of earth and of life.
While it may not be totally helpful to dwell on our role in the execution of God on a Cross (though it should never be forgotten that we will always crucify goodness and justice and even love) it may be useful to remember that we are all the litterers of the harbour floors and the river beds of existence, that we all participate in the web that Christianity calls sin, and that it is in the midst of that morass that Jesus encounters and transforms our existence – when eventually we let him. The rite of baptism – whether that of Jesus or of every subsequent person who has been baptised into Jesus – re-enacts the journey from grot to beauty, the journey that dwells at the very heart of Christianity. It is to that journey that we are re-called this day.