Waters of Repentance

Today, on this first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. For me this commemoration is sort of like an Epiphany Part II, because I spent several years in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan is the primary commemoration of Epiphany itself. In the Eastern tradition, the feast is called Theophany, because they see in it a revelation of the Divine Mystery we know as the Trinity.

This is a beautiful and important signification of Jesus’ baptism and it’s good for us to be reminded of it. And yet, as I reflect on it today, my thoughts are being drawn in the opposite direction. What do the events of Jesus’ baptism have to say, not about God, but about humanity? To put it another way, how might Jesus’ baptism be not just a theophany but also an ‘anthropophany,’ a revelation of true humanity?

In this way, today’s reflection picks up where last Sunday’s reflection on “the Word was made flesh” left off. There, we saw that Jesus not only reveals to us what it means to be God, but also what it means to be human — that he is ‘the Human Being.’ Today, let’s see how this idea plays out in the story of Jesus’ baptism as recounted in Mark 1.

At the beginning of the text, we find crowds gathering around John the Baptist. The messianic rumours are starting to fly, and John has to temper his followers’ enthusiasm, telling them that while he baptizes with water, there is one coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then Mark writes:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

For only being three verses long, there’s a lot going on here. So let’s take a moment to unpack some of the dense symbolism at play in the passage.

First, Mark notes that Jesus came from Galilee, an ‘outsider’ sort of place: It had long been outside Jerusalem’s political orbit and was filled with a wide assortment of people, including Jews, Samaritans, Greeks, and Romans. From the perspective of the religious establishment, it was a suspicious place filled with foreigners, half-breeds, and heretics.

Second, John is baptizing in the Jordan River, which in the story of the Exodus marked the boundary of the Promised Land. It was therefore symbolic as a threshold of inside and outside, of ‘home’ and ‘away’, hope and fulfillment. We might also note here that, while the connection is obscured in English, Jesus shares a name with Joshua, Moses’ successor who led the Hebrews across the Jordan into the Promised Land.

Third, John’s baptism — “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” — was also deeply symbolic, a ritual washing away the old ways of living and perceiving in order to perceive the world clearly and live in accordance with God’s ways.

Finally, we see that as Jesus comes up from the waters, the revelation he experiences has three parts, again all of which are deep in meaning: 1) the heavens being opened up are a common apocalyptic sign of a breakdown in what separates God from the human sphere; 2) the Holy Spirit was traditionally reserved for prophets, priests, and kings; and it is described as descending upon him ‘like a dove’, which is reminiscent of the story of Noah, where the dove’s return with the fresh shoot of greenery indicated that a new beginning for humanity was at hand; and 3) the voice from heaven identifying him as God’s own Beloved Son is a pretty strong affirmation of his ministry!

If we put all this symbolism together, we have Jesus, the Human Being coming from the wrong side of the tracks to this place that was evocative of God’s promises. There, he undergoes a ritual cleansing, and, when he emerges, what do his newly-cleansed senses reveal? He sees the heavens torn open, he perceives the Spirit descending upon him, and he hears the voice of God identifying him as God’s Beloved. And, as the New Joshua, he does this not just for himself, but for all those who follow him. Quite the day in the wilderness outside Jerusalem!

This is a story first and foremost about Jesus. But because he is the Human Being, the one who fully expresses what it means to be human, it is also by extension a story about each of us who seek to know and follow God, and in so doing, to grow up more fully into our humanity. We all come from places that do not — and can never — measure up to the rigid, graceless prescriptions of legalisms and fundamentalisms of all kinds. We all encounter God in the margins of our lives, the murky boundaries between wilderness and home, darkness and light, hope and fulfillment — on that very “line between good and evil” that Solzhenitsyn rightly claimed runs “right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” And when we meet God there, we are plunged into the depths of our hearts and minds, and through repentance we are given to see and hear with new eyes and ears. And with those new eyes, we too find that we are claimed by God, adopted in Christ as beloved sons and daughters; and we too are anointed with the Holy Spirit, no longer the purview of prophets, priests, and kings alone.

And so, God’s affirmation of Jesus at his baptism is a paradigm for all of us who have followed him into the waters of repentance. “In Christ,” to use the metaphysical language of the New Testament, we become “little christs,” Christians. In the Human Being we become human beings. In the Son we become sons and daughters, adopted together into God’s family.

This is a beautiful truth of our faith.

But, of course, this is only the beginning of the story. (We are in fact only eleven verses into Mark’s Gospel!) Jesus’ way proves not to be an easy way. He is immediately sent into the desert, where he is tempted to do things the way things are ‘normally’ done: power plays, lust for wealth, and even nepotism. Later, his ways of truth, healing, and grace, are opposed at every turn. Jesus must ask his disciples later in Mark, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and receive the baptism with which I am baptized?” (10.39). If we misunderstand what Jesus is all about, preferring a Jesus who comes for revenge or earthly power, wealth and glory, we will also misunderstand our own calling as Christians.

And this point cannot be lost in all this. We’ve seen this week the dangers of what can happen when we only look outside ourselves and blame others for the world’s problems. We must constantly descend into those baptismal depths of our own hearts — to “take up our cross daily,” as Jesus himself says in Luke’s Gospel — and emerge with the renewed vision of grace, compassion, and the true wisdom of faith, hope, and love. (“And the greatest of these is love.”)

But with that in mind, today we celebrate Jesus, in whom we are, by the wondrous grace and compassion of God, adopted as God’s own children, and anointed with God’s own Spirit. May we all have the eyes to see the heavens opened and understand this.


11 thoughts on “Waters of Repentance

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