Saturday, January 07, 2012

Baptism of Jesus

One of the great ironies of living in Perth is that we are floating on an underground sea of fresh water – the Yarragadee deep aquifer that runs all the way down the coastal plain from Geraldton to the south coast – an underground envelope of water that in some places is up to two kilometres thick.  As one of the driest cities in the driest State – we are sitting on about 1,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water – in technical terms about 2,000 Sydney Harbour's full.  It's a wonderful but at the same time frustratingly fragile resource that seems to be best utilised as a sort of bank account – a trial currently underway is investigating the feasibility of injecting excess groundwater into the deep aquifer during the winter months in order to allow a sustainable drawdown during summer. 

Water, of course, is life.  All livings things that we know of depend on water, and our planet home is a cosmic rarity because it lies just at the right distance from the Sun to allow liquid water to slosh around on the surface.  Human beings can only live in places where there is enough water – the paradox of global warming funnily enough is that on the one hand with the rise of sea levels coastal communities may be inundated while at the same time agriculture will be threatened by not enough of the stuff falling out of the sky.  Human beings obsess about water.  It is the stuff of life and refreshment - in almost every religion of the world, running water is a symbol of spirituality – but at the same time when we look at images of the devastation brought by cyclones and monsoons like the flooding that has swept away whole villages in the Philippines over the last few weeks we are reminded that water also represents danger.

In the Bible, water has the same sort of ambivalent reputation.  If I ask you to think of a Bible story about water the first few that come to mind are probably Noah's Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, or the adventures of Jonah – dramatic and violent images – then maybe the waters of creation or the crossing of the Jordan.  When you think about it these are all stories about new and difficult beginnings, difficult transitions that result in new life, like the experience of birth itself when the waters that surround the unborn child in the womb need to break so that she can emerge into the wide world.  And it's this image in particular, I think, that might be one of the best metaphors for baptism.

At first glance today's story – the baptism of Jesus – looks peaceful enough.  It's an attractive picture idealised by dozens of artists – Jesus dipping his long, neatly brushed and shampooed hair under the water or submitting to John pouring a few handfuls over him, hearing God overhead claiming him as his own son and the flutter of a dove's wings, the Holy Spirit descending on him.  A domestic scene that seems to fit with the trickle of a few drops of water on a baby's head in church.  Yet when we look at the actual passage in Mark's Gospel a bit more closely it starts to look a little less cozy.

For a start, Mark tells us, the sky is torn open – hardly reassuring!  In the original Greek it's a violent verb schizo – that is only used in one other place in the Gospel, to describe the veil of the Temple that is torn apart at the moment of Jesus' death.  If in Jesus God is coming into the world of men and women, according to Mark it is an invasion with violent echoes.  I'm reminded as I read this of the passage in Isaiah that we read each year at the beginning of Advent – 'oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down' (64.1).  In the visual image of the Spirit of God as a dove descending over the surface of the water disturbed by the immersion of Jesus we get another echo – this time of the moment of creation itself that Genesis imagines as a watery chaos over which the Spirit of God hovers.  This is a powerful image of God's presence – through ripped open skies and troubled waters, that shows us God's presence in Jesus as the first instant of a new creation.  The dramatic nature of the scene imagined like this is just the right setting for God's most uncouth prophet, John the Baptist, presiding over the sacrament in the muddy river dressed in animal skins after breakfasting on grasshoppers.  The baptism of Jesus as Mark describes it is earthy and mucky and a bit disturbing, a good counterbalance to our modern fantasy of a religion that is nice and polite and reassuring.  Jesus in Mark's Gospel is an uncompromising prophet of the here and now, not a dreamy messenger of the hereafter.

Believe it or not the Church needs the mucky, dangerous image of baptism more than it needs the nice one!  One of the problems it seems to me of modern Christianity is that it all too easily gets to be an escape from reality.  We fall too easily into the trap of thinking the sacred or the holy are in some different dimension, some spiritual world – and then trying to connect with that spiritual dimension in our worship instead of the world of everyday reality – the world of material poverty and inequality, the world of disease and mud and heartache but also – wonderfully! – of physical love and laughter and delight.  The world in other words that we actually live in.  The actual physical and deeply imperfect world that God commits to in what Matthew and Luke showcase as the birth of Jesus, and Mark describes vividly as the scene of Jesus' baptism and adoption as God's own Son.  We get echoes of it in our Church baptisms – we after all use real water, children and adults sometimes cry, we dry them with towels and smear them with real oil.  But we need to be reminded not to make our Church rituals so nice and spiritual that we forget the physical realities of our lives that we are inviting God's holy Spirit to invade.

And one of the earthy, muddy realities that we all too often forget is embodied by that wild and grumpy character, John, who harangued and unsettled and baptised men and women – for repentance.  For a deep change in their lives.  John was an anti-Temple prophet – there was already an institutional system for the forgiveness of sins but here John was short-cutting it, offering forgiveness holus-bolus with dire warnings that it's is not about form but about substance, about the deep change that comes from recognition of who we are and who God is.  Repentance is about seeing the truth about our lives as they are, about recognising the many ways in which we collude with or benefit from social systems that are unjust, recognising too our failure to confront evil in the world around us and selfishness in ourselves, recognising our tendencies to be manipulative or self-serving and our failure to love those around us, recognising not just the things we have done wrong but the disorientation of our lives. 

And baptism connects these moments – the about-face that is repentance is not possible without a deep reconnection with the well-springs of who we truly are and what we are created to be.  We can't actually live in a way that is life-giving and refreshing without getting in touch with the hidden springs that feed us.  Really, the deep aquifer that lies beneath the surface of our city is a wonderful metaphor for the spiritual realities of our lives that are so often hidden from us.  The Spirit is of course the depth dimension of human life, the deep flow that connects our individual lives with the One who gave us life.  A reservoir that nourishes us if we learn to tap into its springs, a tsunami that can destroy those who ignore its warning signs.  The surface of our lives – our work and home life and all that keeps us busy and growing, the relationships in which we learn to live beyond our own self-interest – our cares and concerns for our community and our world – all this is sustained and re-oriented by our ability to pay attention to the movement of the Spirit within us.  Our lives are not compartmentalised, without reflection and prayer and wonder we soon enough find ourselves running dry, contracting, unable to live generously or with joy.  The Church often fails, I think, to sufficiently emphasise or to offer signposts to the life of the Spirit.  But to be Christian is to follow Jesus not just in faith and compassion but in spirituality, in learning to live from the centre of our own life which is the spirit that connects us with God's own life.

Baptism, I think, is fundamentally a reconnection with who we are and the possibility of who we might become.  It reminds us how we should live, and it reconnects us with what makes that possible, with the source of all life that lies at the heart of our own.