Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Christ
I was baptized as an infant on June 18, 1967, in St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Norman, Oklahoma. My godparents (pictured) were longtime friends of my parents who had six children of their own. My godfather, Dr. B., was a respected doctor in Oklahoma City, and his wife was a dedicated full-time mother. All during my childhood, I remember us taking the annual pilgrimage on New Year’s up to Oklahoma City to visit my god-family. Dr. B. even saved my mother’s life at one point. She had a throat infection that persisted for weeks, resisting all treatment with antibiotics. She finally went to my godfather about it. He immediately had her admitted to the hospital and had a giant blister excised from her throat. Without the surgery, the infection would have gone into her bloodstream and, in all likelihood, would have killed her. My godfather was a constant, loving, protective presence during my life.
I was never well-versed in the Roman Catholic theology of Baptism, other than knowing it was ostensibly for the forgiveness of sins. But my experience with my godfather left me with the impression that it was about something else: That when we are born, we are exposed to the harsh, chaotic waters of life … and we arrive into the welcoming, safe arms of loving people who are there for the long run. Baptism, to me, was about arriving home safely.
[I would also like to note that, while I have had no personal experience with adult Baptism, I think it is a perfectly acceptable and meaningful practice.]
In the ancient Hebrew cosmology, the earth was a disk at the center of the universe, held precariously between expanses of chaotic, cosmic waters above it and below it. The thing keeping the earth from being engulfed by the chaos-waters above and
below was the firmament (or rakia in Hebrew), which also means “sky” or “expanse”. The main thing to remember is that, above the sky and below the earth, the ancient Hebrews were keenly aware that there were incredibly destructive forces swirling around, that were held at bay only by God’ good creation – the rakia. Later on, in Genesis, we see what happens when YHWH allows the rakia to open: ” … all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11). This, of course, was the beginning of the Great Flood that wiped out all living creatures, except for Noah and his Ark.
In modern times, the chaos waters being unleashed has not been a good thing, either. It means the deaths of countless people and the land being laid to waste.
In the Gospel reading this week, we see another example of the firmament being torn asunder … but with very strange and different results. In this reading, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist – the wild, camel-hair-wearing, locust-and-honey-eating prophet. After Jesus is baptized by John, the following occurs: “… just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Matthew 3:16). As mentioned above, normally, when the heavens (the rakia) are torn apart, it’s a VERY, VERY BAD THING. It means that the cosmic order has been torn apart, and very big, awful forces are about to wreak havoc on humanity. But instead, here, we just have the Spirit gently and quietly descending like a dove.
What follows is even more surprising: “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.'” (vv.11) As we know from the Mosaic law, anyone claiming familial relationship with the Lord YHWH was committing blasphemy, using the name of YHWH in a trivializing manner, and subject to death by stoning. So not only does the world not come to an end by water, but the Law as we know it is – seemingly – turned on its head. In the baptism of Jesus, the cosmic order is turned upside down … but peace and love result (or perhaps peace and love turn things as we know them upside down).
In Baptism – the sacrament, or sign of God’s presence – Jesus becomes our rakia. Jesus is the one that holds back the chaos-waters by showing us the power of God’s chesed (unconditional, Covenant-backed love) to take the existing order as we think it is, and re-create it into something wonderful and new. Instead of death and chaos, love breaks out. We fall from the waters of the womb, into the chaos of the world … and are received into the loving arms of the community around us. A miracle has occurred.
While many of us are not officially baptized by the Church, it is still possible to see the miracle of people baptized into a new life around us – addicts coming home into communities of recovery, people fighting terrible illnesses coming home to the arms of people who love them … maybe we, too, can be the rakia for someone coming out of the chaos-waters. Let us go forward in love and peace, and be open to the needs of those coming home out of chaos.