James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022
Tag Archives: Baptism
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
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.” Mark 1:4-11.
The Lectionary offers us this reading from Mark’s Gospel on this first Sunday of the season of Epiphany. The Greek word epiphaino translates roughly as the appearance or manifestation of the light. This Gospel reading fits perfectly within that idea, and you’ll remember that we previously discussed Jesus had describing himself as the “light of the world.”
I’ve always been fascinated with the issue of Jesus’ understanding of himself: what did the incarnate Lord understand about his role, and when did he begin to understand it? The story of Jesus’ baptism offers us some remarkable insight into these questions.
The story begins with a character we’ve become familiar with, John the Baptist. Now, at the time, the practice of ritual purification was fairly common. John seems to have been doing something different, though, in this rite of baptism. More than just a ceremonial cleansing, John appears to have called his followers to a spiritual act of initiation. Rather than a regular ritual purification, John seems to be engaged in something unique, radical and challenging at the time.
John’s baptism would have challenged the institutional church of the day, offering baptism for the forgiveness of sins. John lacked any institutional authority and forgiving sins lay within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Temple priests. Like most of the prophets, John presents himself as a fanatic, an outsider and a critic of the status quo. So, when Jesus endorses John’s ministry, his baptism itself challenged the authority of the Temple.
Jesus shared in listening to John’s prophetic call. He waded into the same waters as the rest of John’s followers. He approaches John just as everyone else came to John. Thus, Jesus shared those waters with all humanity. And then, something astonishing happened….
Earlier, we talked about the collision of heaven and earth in Jesus’ nativity. We discussed the notion that the Incarnation changed the very fabric of space and time. We see those ideas reinforced in this remarkable story of the Epiphany, as God begins to reveal Himself, to “enlighten” the world a bit.
As Jesus comes forth from the water, Mark reports that the heavens were “torn open.” That terribly interesting phrase, “torn open”, suggests this was no peaceful, gentle encounter. Mark uses that same word, “torn”, to describe the separation of the Temple curtain after Jesus “breathed his last” on Golgotha. As the veil separating heaven and earth rips apart, the Spirit emerges.
These remarkable events unfold as Jesus (whose very name means “God saves”) emerges from the water. The story reverberates with the memory of the Jewish people emerging the Red Sea, their principle narrative of salvation. And then, from the heavens, God claims Jesus as His son, the Beloved.
I’d encourage you to engage in an exercise. I’d like you to think back to your own baptism. And I’d like you to imagine that same voice announcing that you are God’s child, and His beloved. I believe it’s important that we become acclimated to that idea. It may offer the first step in going beyond celebrating an Epiphany to living out the Epiphany and spreading the light of Christ into the dark places of the world. My friend, Father Mike Marsh noted recently ( here) that God calls each of us to “become Epiphany”. Our vocation and our challenge lies in manifesting God’s love, helping His people hear that voice as the heavens are torn apart.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen. The Book of Common Prayer.
This past Sunday at my parish we baptized two children into the family of God. Not twenty minutes earlier, I had taught a Sunday school class in which the discussion centered on the story of a judge in Rockport, Texas who had been captured on video in the process of “disciplining” his 16 year-old daughter. The stark contradiction between that story and the sacrament of Holy Baptism left me astonished and wondering: “How did we get from here to there?”
The video of the Texas judge and his daughter has now gone “viral.” (I think one could make a pretty good argument that there was something viral in this family dynamic long before the release of the video.) In case you haven’t seen it, the video reveals a brutal, sadistic, beating of a teenage girl. The judge’s wife appears to encourage and facilitate the beating. It lasts for almost seven minutes, and I must confess that I was able to watch only about two minutes of it. Two observations emerge from watching this video. First, this was not the first time this had happened. This savage beating clearly occurred as part of a pattern of violence in the life of this family. Secondly, this family did not honor or practice the rubric that one should never strike one’s children in anger.
I don’t think we get very far by simply observing that this was a bad man, or a dysfunctional family, or an instance of genuine evil. (As I’ve said before, I try to make it a practice not to judge the content of a another man’s soul. Jesus taught us to pray for these people, and I have and will continue to do so.) Rather, I want to pose a different question.
Knowing the Texas judiciary as I do, I’m fairly certain that this man, that this family, sat in some church in the area pretty regularly. Whether they did or not, we should all ask ourselves how people can sit in our pews, nod their heads, and then go home to their families and beat, abuse and neglect our children. Aren’t these the same children that we, at some point, presented for their baptism? That strikes me as the real question.
I’m familiar with the biblical text in proverbs which seems to condone, and perhaps even recommend, the corporal punishment of children. I’m also familiar with a good deal of literature and the testimony of several friends that corporal punishment does not work. (Actually, it actually might work to change behavior in the very short-term, but we should rightly wonder whether it also fosters a culture of violence in our families and our children.) But more importantly, Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matt. 25:40. I don’t think the Savior was foolin’ around.
In my legal practice, I have volunteered as an attorney representing children in cases where the State has intervened in cases of abuse and neglect. I have seen the cycle of family violence repeat itself too often and seen the tragic results. Our churches should, no, our churches must, take their teaching responsibilities in this area more seriously. We could begin by starting a serious conversation about this issue, or by teaching new parents about other disciplinary practices they could add to their parenting toolboxes beyond corporal punishment.
As part of our promises during the sacrament of baptism, every member of our congregation agrees we will: (1) “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbors as ourselves; and (2) “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” In those promises, we recognize the sacramental nature of our duty to keep our children safe. I’m at a loss to reconcile those promises with what I saw in that video, and it’s well past the time that our churches did something about it.
Lord , make us instruments of your peace.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis