Sunday, January 11, 2009

The LORD's Baptism, the Church's Touch

Readings: First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

Water. God's breath moving over the primordial water. John baptizing in the Jordan. Paul at Ephesus.

Pure, living water (flowing from a stream or a spring) was used by the Israelites to make a mikvah, to take a ritual bath to cleanse yourself after experiences that made you ritually unclean. The two innovative things about John's baptism were that it cleansed you from your inner impurity (Sin) rather than an external impurity (say an unusual discharge of bodily fluid or an unusual skin condition) and that you did not administer it to yourself. John administered it to you.

Much to the embarrassment of the early Church, John administered baptism to his disciple, Jesus. When the Spirit descended and the Voice spoke, it appears that only Jesus saw and heard, and not John. In both Matthew and Luke, the imprisoned John sends messengers to ask Jesus if he is the one of whom John himself had said, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals."

Given that Jesus continued the practice of baptism, it is reasonable to conclude that he learned it from John. As Fr. John P. Meier argues in Mentor, Message and Miracles, the second volume of his series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, John the Baptist was Jesus' mentor prior to the beginning of Jesus' public ministry.

The early Church's embarrassment was that Jesus, the Son of God, of one being with the Father, truly God and truly man, had to learn anything religious from anybody, or worse, that Jesus would need to be cleansed of any sin. But we have just come through the Christmas season, in which we celebrate God's kenosis — God's emptying himself of his power, knowledge, and glory, and becoming a helpless baby. As Jesus, God had to learn almost everything from other people, including language. So why not learn baptism, this new twist on the mikvah, from John?

As for Sin, it's the down side of being human. Would Jesus be truly human if he didn't share in this aspect of the human condition as well? I'm not suggesting that Jesus ever said, thought, or did anything bad. But I notice that he often went off by himself to pray. The only reason we need to pray is that we are estranged from God. If we were at one with God, if God's presence suffused our consciousness, we wouldn't need to pray. We would have an always-on, DSL or high-speed internet cable connection from our souls to God. By comparison, prayer is a dial-up connection. Prayer is not always-on. You have to actually do it, and then you have to stop, to rest, sleep, eat, go to the bathroom, whatever. What I'm getting at is that one aspect (or is it a penalty?) of Sin is not being always-on with God. It appears that Jesus did participate in this aspect.

On this Sunday, we remember that Jesus himself was baptized by John for the forgiveness of Sin. It was an embarrassment for the early Church. But they couldn't cover it up, because it was too widely known. The disciples of John who had not gone over to the Jesus movement, who were still around after the Resurrection, made sure that it was. The early Church has Jesus submitting to baptism in order to set an example for all Christians to follow, but not because he himself actually needed it. So what?

Jesus answers his former mentor's question: Tell John that, "the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." Six signs of the Messiah, the Anointed One, or as we call him, the Christ. Not, it appears, the military genius who would throw off the domination of the Roman Empire. Just the Galilean Jewish peasant who, through his death and resurrection, would overcome the world.

But wait, as they say in those TV ads, there's more! When Paul baptizes the Ephesians in the Name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit (the breath of God that created the universe) came upon them. They spoke in languages they had not known, and they said prophetic things. Maybe they talked of future events, or maybe they spoke God's truth about what was happening around them. Whatever it was, baptism in the Name of Jesus accompanied by Paul's laying on of hands, had powerful after effects. It's almost as if Christianity were a spiritual contagion — a good contagion — spreading from person to person.

That points up another aspect of Church. Church is person to person, hand to hand. Church is touch, not just words, not just thought, not just reading, not just prayer. Your computer cannot baptize you and lay hands on you. Only another believer can do that. And that places you in the network of believers.

How connected is that network?

Say a human lifetime is the traditional "threescore and ten" or seventy years. Then Jesus was baptized about 28 lifetimes ago. Imagine yourself in the Cosmic Church, holding the hand of the person on either side of you, who holds the hand of the next person, and so on. On either side, you are only 28 people away from the hand that baptized Jesus, or from the hand of Jesus himself. Maybe only 27 people away from the hand of Paul. Overhead, the breath of God is moving, touching a person here and there. May it touch you as God wills.

Let the Gospel contagion spread from your heart, your words, your hands.

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