The Baptism of Christ, Leonardo da Vinci
Isaiah 42:1-7, Mark 1: 7-11
2015 saw the demise of one of the brightest intellectuals of our age, Rene Girard. His work spanned literary theory, history, biblical criticism, psychology, philosophy and so on. He was particularly insightful about the workings of human desire and how it breeds conflict among men. It’s not easy to summarise Girard’s thought. To put it very simply, we live constantly in competition with others. This is because our desires, are not our own; we always want what others want which leads to rivalry and violence. When this tension builds up, we try to discharge our anxieties on someone – we find someone to blame for it, a scapegoat. By eliminating this scapegoat, a society comes to peace within itself. This mechanism, however, functions only so much as we are unaware of how much these things come from within ourselves. What Girard gave, was great analysis of the effect of what we call original sin, both in ourselves and in the world at large.
Once, in a meeting with theologians, he outlined our cultural and historical predicament. Someone asked, “What is to be done?”. His response was all the more pointed, for needing to be said at all in a roomful of theologians: “We might begin with personal sanctity.”
Girard was absolutely right. But in what does this ‘personal sanctity’ consist? This competition that drives us, comes from the desire to know that we have some worth. That we can be valued. And we find this value in a lot of things – in what we possess, the gifts we have, even the relationships we can call our own. And when we are under pressure, when things go wrong, it is in these that we find refuge. And usually we are good at coping. We can keep all the mess we deal with within ourselves, we know what to do and how to cope with it. There are however, limits to how much we can cope. When we are under intense pressure, it can all fall apart. We feel we are being torn apart from the inside.
I’m thinking of Girard today as we open Mark’s gospel in earnest. Mark was probably the earliest gospel to be written. We don’t know the exact dating of this gospel, but it is a very reasonable assumption that it was written to a Church which was undergoing intense persecution, causing them to fall apart. This was most likely the persecution that started under Nero. Nero was one of the most vicious of emperors. The Christians became Nero’s scapegoat to divert attention from his own unpopularity with the people. The historian Tacitus, no friend of Christians, how ‘Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or [clothed in pitch and] made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight.’ To be a Christian meant that you were already a social outcast. You were the followers of a crucified criminal. You were considered a weird sect and there were lots of false rumours circulating about them. Under such persecution, many went nobly to their martyrdom, but others gave way. They renounced their faith. Some betrayed their fellow Christians and got them arrested. This was having it’s effect on the Church, tearing them within and without. There were questions on the lips of all Christians. Why doesn’t God come to their aid at this time? How long will this last? The prayer with which we began Advent – ‘O, that you would tear the heavens and come down..!’ (Isa 64:1) was probably constantly on their lips.
To this Church, battered and bruised, Mark presents his gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. As Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism, this prayer is answered. The heavens are torn open expressing an intensity and violence not captured by the other gospels. While Matthew and Luke describe the opening above in an orderly way, Mark uses an unusual verb – schizo (from which we get schizophrenic) – to describe the heavens being split, torn or ripped apart at the emergence of Jesus from the waters. The whole cosmos seems to shake at the event of the Baptism. Yet, no one witnesses this earth-shaking event, except Jesus himself. The Father’s voice acknowledges him as the dearly beloved son in whom the Father is well pleased.
The very word which Mark uses to describe the heavens tearing open, recalls a larger passage, Isa 63. There, a mysterious figure emerges from the sea and on him, the Lord puts his Spirit. He is the one to lead his people to rest. The sea is a place where man cannot fully reach and master. Its depths are accessible to God alone. This figure who emerges from the Sea is known only to God.
“Where is he who brought up out of the sea the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his holy Spirit…” (Isa 63:11)
While the people see him only as one among sinners, and coming from an insignificant town in Galilee, Jesus knows himself as the beloved of the Father, with whom the Father is well pleased. It did not matter what the people thought of him. His value came from his Father. It is on him that the Spirit descends, coming to the world now in a new way, empowering him for the ministry which will involve a continuous struggle against the forces of darkness that have invaded God’s good creation. No one – except for the demons – will know Jesus’ true identity. Yet, every action of his, from the least to the greatest will cause the heavens and the earth to reverberate, ushering in with power, the kingdom of God. To a people broken, fearful and dismayed, Mark presents the Messiah, who was himself known as God’s Son not through his power, but only in the outpouring of his love amongst his enemies, even as he dies a shameful death. As Isaiah would prophesy in the same passage, concerning this mysterious figure –
“Who is this that comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he that is glorious in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength?” (Isa 63:1)
As he would be clothed in crimson with his own blood, a pagan centurion will acknowledge him to the Son of God. His moment of greatest weakness, would be also the revelation of God’s great might. Before Jesus did the first thing in the world, he knew himself to be the beloved Son of the Father. As he stood revelling in the knowledge of the love of God, the heavens were torn open. There was nothing that was not accessible to him, not given to him out of love. And Mark gives this to a Church in crisis, pointing out that this was what given in their baptism.
Paul would later write, “he chose us in him…[and] destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.” (Eph 1:4-8) and again, “…you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col 3:3-4). What the Father spoke over his Son is what he speaks over us, when he adopts us as his sons and daughters, in baptism.
When we know that the heavens have been torn open over us, that the Father has given us everything we need and has loved us, we don’t need to be torn apart in rivalry and competition. We don’t need to prove to someone else our worth, because we know that the Father has spoken over us his affirmation of love. This is what it means to be baptized. This is the beginning of personal sanctity. And it is by walking in this love, that we can truly bring God’s kingdom to a world that is torn apart.