the waters of baptism
There are two texts about the Baptism of the Lord that I love to quote. The first one is this:
The voice of God the Father made itself heard over Christ at the moment of his Baptism so as to reach humanity on earth by means of him and in him: “This is my Beloved!” [This is the line I really like:] Jesus did not receive this title for himself, but to give its glory to us.
Now if I had read that out of context I might have made some kind of joke about it being a bunch of New Age hooey––“Oh sure, it’s all about me! It’s all about us. Perfect for the ‘Me Generation’ and our navel gazing culture!”––except for the fact that it’s from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and it wasn’t a slip of the tongue or the pen. It’s in the Catechism, which follows it up by saying that
Everything that happened to [Jesus] lets us know that, after the bath of water, the Holy Spirit swoops down upon us from high heaven and that, adopted by the Father’s voice, we become children of God.
So it is all about us! Everything that happened to Jesus happened so that we would know that we become children of God. Jesus didn’t receive the title “Beloved” for himself; he received it to give its glory to us, so that we could be come children of God.
Now, I often wonder why Christians, Catholics, preachers don’t talk about all those things more. There’s a certain mystery and hidden secret in Jesus’ message: that we are called to be participants in the divine nature, that this is all about us, that the kingdom of heaven is among us and within us. The prayer of the priest, for instance–– when pouring water into the wine at the preparation of the gifts, By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity––is one of those prayers that used to be called the “secret” prayers. One of my friends said to me, “Why don’t you guys shout that?!” In one sense I think he was right: in some way that needs to be the starting point, as it was for Jesus. If we are to trust the chronology of the Gospels, in the synoptics this Baptism is followed by Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and then his ministry, and then of course his passion and death. It’s almost as if Jesus doesn’t go to the desert, Jesus doesn’t face his life of self-giving in ministry, and certainly doesn’t face his horrific death on the cross until hears this, the voice of his Father telling him of his own dignity and beauty––You are my beloved! And so he stands on the solid ground of that.
When I do infant Baptisms I love to quote one of two things: one is Marianne Williamsons’ famous little writing that Nelson Mandela used in his inaugural address:
We ask ourselves: ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God! [This is the line I really like:] Your playing small does not serve the world!
And the other is this lyric of Joan Baez that says simply,
You are amazing grace. / You are a precious jewel. / You––special miraculous / unrepeatable, fragile / fearful, tender, lost / sparkling ruby emerald / jewel rainbow splendor person.
I know, it’s Big Sur hippie stuff, but still… I have copies of that made and keep it in my Baptism ritual book to give out to parents, and I tell them this is the kind of thing that every child should hear every day of her or his life, taped up over the crib, stuck into their lunch box and tucked in with the high school diploma. And that that is what church and community should be first and foremost, not a scolding school marm standing at the door going tch, tch, tch, but a place where we hold a mirror up to people and tell them who they are as they walk in; and as the walk out tell them what my Dad used to tell me as I was on my way out the door as a kid for a raucous Saturday night with my friends, “Remember who you are!” “I love you, you are beautiful, remember who you are…”
Even our moral theology, I don’t think we can start out with focusing on the material act of sins; we can’t start out telling someone that they are intrinsically morally disordered. We have to start out by telling people that they are intrinsically beloved, intrinsically beautiful, intrinsically precious, and give them something to stand on. That’s Pope Francis’ approach, but before him it certainly seems to have been Jesus’ approach.
That’s the Good News. Now here’s the bad news. The bad news is that on the other hand, there’s also some validity to this being secret knowledge too, because the wrong part of us can hear those things, the unregenerate part of us, the part of us that doesn’t want to reform or repent; and we might wind up divinizing our ego instead of our real self hidden with Christ in God. And that’s where the real meaning of Baptism comes in for those who are mature in the faith. Baptism is a symbol of death before it is a symbol of new life. It’s a symbol of drowning. In mythology water is always a symbol of both life and death, like River Styx in Greek mythology that formed the boundary between Earth and the underworld with its ferryman Charon, which became part of the description of hell in the Christian West, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Blake’s Paradise Lost. Or the Red Sea: the Hebrews cross safely, but the Pharaoh’s charioteers were drowned. That’s, of course, the event that gets remembered at Easter and at our Baptism. I’m also thinking of Jesus walking across the waters so many times in the Gospels, as if he were the new Charon and the new Moses, walking across the waters of death and guiding others safely across, too. But it’s almost as if he couldn’t do that or at least doesn’t do that––walk across the waters––until he had immersed himself in them first, allowed himself to drown. Maybe Jesus didn’t have to die to anything since his will was perfectly only to do his Father’s will; but for us to live out our baptismal life, for us to access this precious divinity within us, we have to die constantly. Somehow it’s only by drowning gracefully that we can walk the roads of earth with ease and grace as disciples of Jesus. It is only by something in us dying that we can access all that is promised to us by the best of our tradition: being divinized, participating in the divine nature, owning our real inheritance, becoming who we are. As we heard this past week from our friend Scott Sinclair in his excellent conferences on the “hard sayings” of the gospel, this theme that comes up over and over again in the Gospel of Mark: “You’re not going to understand this until you suffer…”
You’ve heard me talk so much about the sannyasa diksha of India, the initiation into the monastic life of renunciation. The new renunciate goes into the water in a baptismal ceremony and symbolically dies and then comes out naked to be re-born. But there’s an almost ghoulish little detail that I learned: when you give alms to a monk you are supposed to offer it with your left hand, the impure hand, because the monk is dead, and you don’t want to contaminate your right hand by touching a dead body. What a powerful image! But it is not that different from our Christian monastic tradition; when a monk makes solemn vows he lies on the ground, with the capuche over his head (in the old days even covered by a funeral pall) and dies. Saint Benedict quotes Saint Paul: Even your body is not your own from now on. And this is, by the way, the argument that our Saint Peter Damian uses to explain why monks of all people should be involved in the apostolate and church reform: because they are dead to the world, because they have no agenda, no longing for riches or power or prestige.
There’s a beautiful saying of St. Clare of Assisi: Ne sono sicurissima il Regno dei cieli il Signore lo promette e lo dona solo ai poveri––“Of this I am sure, that the Lord promises and grants the Reign of heaven only to the poor.” A variation on that might be, the Lord promises and grants divinization only to those who have died in some way. Died to what? There is a piece of universal wisdom here, and I think that the Christian tradition articulates this as beautifully if not more beautifully than any other. Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy points out that in all authentic traditions Ultimate Reality is only clearly understood by those who are loving, pure in heart and poor in spirit. “[It] is a fact which cannot be fully realized or directly experienced,” he says, “except by souls… who have fulfilled certain conditions.” But he points mostly to the life of Jesus and to many Christian saints, and he quotes the famous phrase of St. Augustine, Ama et fac quod vis––“Love and do what you will.” But, he says, you can only do this “when you have learnt the infinitely difficult art of loving God with all your mind and heart”; we can only love and do what we will when we have learned that infinitely difficult art of loving our neighbor as ourselves. That is the baptismal death we have to undergo and the baptismal pledge by which we live.
We can’t just coast on the salvation that is granted us; nor can we rest back on our laurels and enjoy our exalted status. It doesn’t work that way, at least not for us mere mortals. “Love and do what you will”; but we can only do as we will when we have emptied ourselves completely and made ourselves totally available to the Spirit of God.
Those others words don’t go away, the words that Jesus passed on to all humanity: You are my beloved. They are the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. We should hear them echo in the depths of our being. It is those words and that knowledge that we are the beloved, it is the knowledge that we are destined to inherit the reign of God, that should make us want to find our real self, and be our real self, make us long to discover that self that is in some way already in union with God, created in God’s image, make us want to strip off everything that is not godly so that we can know what it means to be a participant in the divine nature, and die to everything else but that in the waters of Baptism.
So, in a sense, Jesus says, “Come on in! The water is fine––you may drown, but you won’t die. Your real self, hidden in God, will arise, as a participant in divine nature.”