Thursday, March 1, 2012

In a Muddy River

If you were to picture the scene of Jesus’ baptism in your imagination, what would it look like? What feelings would arise? I did not realize how much I had been influenced by the typical representations of the scene in conventional Christian art until I went to a showing of Pasolini’s Film The Gospel According to St. Matthew. I found myself taken by surprise at the scene of Jesus’ baptism by John and wept. It took a lot of thinking and praying to gain insight about why I had been moved by this scene in particular. In time I realized that hundreds of stained glass windows and paintings depicted only the two figures in the water. But the film shook me into the realization that Jesus’ baptism was not a private ceremony but a mass affair and hundreds of men and women swarming in the river, and hundreds more waiting on the bank to take their place. Religious pictures had blunted the impact of gospels’ insistence on the sheer numbers involved. “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). Luck repeats the word “multitudes” and paints the picture of mass baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” (Luke 3:21).

Insight gradually dawned that I had been moved by an intuition of Jesus’ solidarity with ordinary, struggling men and women. John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). It was for the masses of mediocre people whose failures, lukewarmness, and mundane unfaithfulness made the prospect of coming judgment terrible. New converts to Judaism passed through a baptismal rite as part of their initiation. Now everyone needed a fresh start as radical as the one made by a pagan who was embracing Judaism. John was offering to the masses of ordinary people’s baptism which could give them that new beginning.

Jesus’ reaction to John’s preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was a crucial turning point. He could have kept his distance, an innocent young man conscious of unbroken faithfulness to God, looking with pity on the thousands of ordinary people who were overwhelmed by the realization of their own moral inadequacy. But instead of looking down on them from afar, secure in his own guiltlessness, Jesus plunged into the waters with them and lost himself in the crowd. He threw away his innocence and separateness to take on the identity of struggling men and women who were reaching out en masse for the lifeline of forgiveness.

It was at that moment when Jesus had thrown away his innocent individuality in exchange for that identity of needy, failed, struggling human beings that “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'” (Luke 3:21=22).

God’s pleasure in Jesus can no longer be contained and it bursts out. God is well pleased precisely in Jesus' self-emptying assumption of our identity. The Spirit reveals to Jesus that he is the beloved Son of God at the precise moment when Jesus had taken on the role of the Son of Man. The strange idiom that Jesus was to use to refer to himself might be better translated “the Human Being.” In the muddy river Jesus was taking on the role of representing Humanity, of being its suffering Heart and Self before God. As soon as Jesus had done that decisively, God flooded him with awareness of his unique relationship as Son and anointed him with the life-giving Breath for his mission.

I wept because the fleeting image of the film had invited me into the Jordan experience as no static stained-glass window or old master had done. Can you feel and see yourself as part of that crowd of humanity in the muddy water, as I started to then, and experience the entry of Jesus into our condition, into our needs? He chooses to plunge into it and make it his own. Nothing about me, about us, is foreign to him. He has chosen to be the Self of our selves.

And now, years later, I believe I wept because of the timing of the descent of the Spirit, the coincidence between the moment of Jesus' solidarity with human beings and the moment of God’s revelation of intimate relationship with Jesus. Never did any event so deserve the name “moment of truth.” The Spirit descended when Jesus embraced the truth of our interconnectedness, our belonging together in God. As soon as Jesus undertook to live that truth to the full, he was suffused with awareness of his own unique origin from and union with God, and was filled with God’s Breath. This coincidence reveals the axis on which the gospel turns. The barriers that hold us back from one another in fearful individuality are the identical barriers that block the embrace of God and insulate us from the Spirit. It is one and the same movement of surrender to open ourselves to intimacy and personal union with God in the Spirit, and to open ourselves to compassion and solidarity with our struggling, needy, fellow human beings. I was weeping in that Oxford cinema, though I did not understand this at the time, under the impact of this insight. To be open to the Spirit is also to be open to humanity in all its fractured confusion and poverty and its ardent reaching for fulfillment. To be open to the embrace of the Father is necessarily and inevitably to be open to the whole creation that is held in that embrace.


Spirit, like a dove descending, in spite of my timidity I am appealing to you to center my heart on this axis of truth in these forty days. Every small step you enable me to take towards a deeper compassion for my fellow human beings will lead me further into the experience of the Father’s delight in me and care for me. And vise verse. Every step I take in meditation to intensify my awareness of the love of God poured into my heart through the gift of your indwelling will take me into a deeper identification with the suffering world, “groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22).

Romans 8:12-27

From A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent by Martin L. Smith, Seabury Classics, 2004

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