Baptism of Christ. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John. Davezelenka
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, the iconic story of incarnation, subservience and mysticism, often reduced to the role of a theological statement about the identity of Jesus. We pay little to the relationships between Jesus and John, Jesus and the created world, and Jesus and spiritual experience by using it to prove Jesus is divine and already righteous without the need of John’s baptism.
Yet this is an incredible story, told in all 3 synoptic gospels, each with their own twist but consistent in the central truths portrayed. John is baptising on the banks of the Jordan. It is a baptism for transformation and change, a baptism not of ritual but of experience. He is challenging those who come to be transformed by the experience and to go away and transform the world in which they live. Yes the word sin appears, but it is not the trivial definition we use of personal sin today, but an understanding of the disconnection from our one-ness in creation and our need to rediscover our co-independence in our movement in relational wholeness empowered by love. His is a baptism of community for an evolving creation destined to find its beginning and completion in Christ.
John is correct, Jesus has no personal need for such baptism, but he does have a representational need to do so. He comes to John, his cousin and mentor, as a student comes to a teacher. This is about participating in the experience and become a participant in the journey to wholeness which is a journey to himself. The great Christian mystics such as Merton, Bede Griffiths, Teilhard de Chardin and others, along with the seminal mystics from other faiths and spiritual practices, all speak of the journey to wholeness as the journey to self. They all, in their various understandings, equate the inner journey of discovering your true self as the experiencing of the Christ at the most intimate and personal level. Merton write that the only journey a human takes is the inner journey.
Karl Rahner, a modern Catholic mystic, writes: “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” Jesus and John both agree with Rahner, without a deep and undeniable experience of God there is no way of being for Christ in the world. This is not necessarily an emotionally charged moment of bells and whistles, it is often the breaking open of ones self perception in such a way one becomes a completely new being, unrecognisable from the one who existed before, especially and most importantly, by ones self.
In the baptism of Jesus this is exactly what happens. Here we have a young man recognising his need of John’s tutelage and baptism and coming in obedience to John’s call. For many this may fly in the face of what we think about this story. Jesus is not just following a divine script. He is a created being, a thinking man, making a considered decision to be baptised by John.
It is an act rooted in a personal relationship with John and completed in the created world. Both points are very important. Jesus is an ordinary person, engaging with others and the created environment who experiences a mystical awareness of his true self in the midst of both. Jesus does not have his mystical experience, his awakening to his true self, in isolation from others or the world. It occurs in the midst of an act of obedience, surrounded by others engaged in the same, on the banks of a shallow and narrow river on the edge of the desert.
What happens next is, apparently, witnessed by others, but most specifically experienced and reflected on by Jesus, not just in the desert where he went after this occurs, but in his discussions and teachings with those who followed him. This event dislodged Jesus from his ego self and set him on a deep spiritual path he invites all of us to participate in – through journey through him to him.
Jesus is the fulfilment of creation and brings with him into our world both the way and the end. In his baptism he understands this truth. He participates in an act representative of the evolving understanding of the spirituality John brings and is connected to the source of all creation (God) by the power to bring us to evolved fulfilment (the Spirit). God speaks, the Spirit hovers of the waters, just as in the first creation myth. God speaks similar words to those attributed to him then, ‘and God saw it was good’. Here he says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
An interesting comment in itself as Jesus has yet to do anything, his ministry has not begun, there have been no acts of power, words of wonder or miracles of healing. It seems the ordinary human being Jesus is deemed to be sufficient by God and the simple act of responding to John’s call has opened the gates of heaven and placed Jesus in a new relationship with God.
Is this just an experience only Jesus can have? Do we read this story and listen to this sermon and go, ‘Nah, couldn’t happen to me. I’m not good enough. Only Jesus who was God’s son could have this experience.” We have been fooled by the idea that because we understand Jesus was both divine and human and somehow that excludes us from emulating such experiences. The truth is that this should be the normative experience for those on the spiritual journey. It is not the experience only of Buddha, Dalai Lama or Jesus or Mother Teresa or Rumi or any of the other spiritual pilgrims, it is the experience we all are destined for if we participate in the acts of being human and open to the possibility of such experiences.
I suspect Jesus was unaware of what was about to happen to him when he came to John, despite the prophetic words of John and Jesus’s response. I suspect Jesus was still coming to grips with the guidance John had been giving him and simply wanted to do what was necessary. His baptism dislocated him from his self-understanding in such a way that he heads into the desert to make sense of it all. What happens there is the continuation of his evolution into the Christ and the path that would take him to complete self-denial and love on the Cross.
Yes, this an iconic story of incarnation, subservience and mysticism, but not one reserved for Jesus and out of reach for you and I. It is available for us if we participate in the journey to relational wholeness in the created world out of love for God and others. This experience will set us on the Way to the Way, it will bring us, through the experience of Jesus to ultimate fulfilment in Christ. It will occur when we become open to the possibility, diligent in our worship and practice, inside and outside liturgy, and when we come just as we are, just as Jesus did. Amen