“Jesus was baptized in the River.”
Just across the field from the house I grew up in, down by the river, there was a small pond. A magical pond, it seemed to me, filled with water lilies, skunk cabbages, salamanders, and tad poles. Though I was strictly forbidden from ever going into the pond, I could not resist the allure of that place. As if it were yesterday, I can remember rolling up my jeans and wading about in that smelly pond, the mud squishing between my toes, getting sucked down deep to my knees in the gooey, gushy muck that was laid there from years of fermenting rot. It was oh so wonderful until alas one day my mother caught me. On that day I heard a booming voice from on high, but believe me it was not a gentle dove that descended upon me hastening my trip to dry land!
It was to such a place, the muddy waters of the Jordan River, that Jesus came to be baptized. John was upset by such a prospect – this Holy Lamb of God to be stained by all the muck and mire. He thought certainly someone so great as Jesus was not going to put his feet into such filth. John might have to do such a thing but Jesus would have a new kind of ministry. Jesus will be truly spiritual. He won’t baptize in dirty water but with the Sanctified Spirit. But Jesus did just that. He waded out into the water and sank deep down into the mud. And in doing so Jesus gave us the image of what our baptism is to be all about.
Baptism is about entering into the stuff of life, the kind of stuff that Isaiah spoke of. It means entering into the brokenness of humanity. Isaiah pictured this identification with brokenness as bruised reeds which Christ would not break. He was referring to the reeds which were whittled into children’s flutes; if they were bruised they were tossed aside as unusable. But Jesus does not shy away from the difficult projects. Though others have given up on us and tossed us aside, he picks us up from the discard pile and continues to whittle and shape us till once again we become an instrument upon which the sweet melodies of life can be played. Isaiah gives us another picture of the kind of mud of life Jesus entered into at baptism. A smoldering wick soon fills the room with a stench and is better put out and trimmed back or replaced, but Jesus is content to put up with the smell from our spiritual neglect and gently breathes upon us until the flame of our spiritual life is fanned fully bright. Into the dark places of our blind wandering, deep into the confines of our desperation, up to his knees trapped in our bondage, Jesus wades to rescue us from the accumulated years of human rottenness.
Compared to the above scene, we have made the baptism ritual antiseptic and sterile. A scene of talcum powdered babies, dressed in white, cute and pleasant. But, like John, we need to understand that baptism, being Christian, means following Jesus into the mess, the chaos of life, and coming back up out of it having created a little more order, a little more beauty than was at first thought possible. It is this kind of immersion that causes peace to descend and brings from on high the voice of favor to our ears.
Baptism of the Lord Is. 42: 1-7; Acts 10: 34-38; Mk. 1: 7-11
Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz. “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.