The Baptism of the Lord – Fr. Adam Royal
January 12, 2020 – 11:00 AM
Baptism looks a bit silly. We take a baby, put her in a white frilly dress, and then pour a tiny bit of water over her head, while everyone looks on and takes pictures. If we are honest, this is an odd thing to do. Perhaps it made more sense in the past. In the time of Jesus, water was a precious resource. People built their lives around sources of water, but those were no guarantee. Aquifers, rivers, and lakes all depend upon the cycles of nature or, in the minds of the ancients, the whims of God. Even when the water was plentiful, it had to be carried, by hand, to the home. There it was distributed with utmost care: first to satisfy the thirst of the human occupants, then for cooking, and finally to fill the animals. After meeting all the needs, the minuscule amount remaining might be used for bathing, but this was rare. Removing the dirt and odor of the body was a luxury in the ancient world. It was something for which the average person longed daily, but would only experience monthly. So the idea of being immersed in water and having even more poured over the head would be appealing. Baptism would have seemed such an incredible excess, the kind of comfort felt only by the rich. They could see it as God pouring out his love and grace upon them and giving them some taste of heaven.
But we don’t live in that world. For us, water isn’t a luxury; it is a given. We use it whenever we want, and to the extent we desire. We bathe daily. When we are thirsty, we lift a small lever or turn a dial, and our thirst is satisfied. Water means nothing to us; thus baptism looks silly or, at best, mundane.
Perhaps this is because we have misunderstood baptism. So often, we see baptism as a kind of spiritual bath. Just as water washes away dirt, so the baptismal waters wash away sin. This is wrong, or maybe better said an incomplete view. Baptism is no mere bath; it is a far more radical and fearsome event.
Water does not signify cleansing. Water, in every age of humanity, signifies chaos. It signifies the seemingly limitless power of nature for destruction. Think of our recent history. In the past twenty years, we have witnessed the power of water in Hurricane Katrina, tsunamis, and countless floods. Water, ordinary water, has taken so many lives and destroyed everything we have ever built to contain it. It has demolished cities and uprooted families. Water is chaos embodied.
We see it in the first words of Genesis. The Spirit of God hovers over the waters. It hovers over the primordial chaotic void. In the beginning, there is only God and nothing. God, seeing the chaos, wills order. He wills to create a rational and ordered universe. So his Spirit goes to work, giving form to the chaos, imbuing it with the life and being of God himself. First, light shines in the darkness, then comes matter, later plant and animal life. Finally, humanity, a being endowed with God’s image, steps onto the scene, and the work is completed because the chaos is no more. Then, tragically, humanity rebels. It rejects God’s offer of friendship and invites chaos, death, back into the world. With a single choice, the order of the universe is destroyed, and chaos is given reign. Since that choice, we have seen endless violence, hatred, and every imaginable evil.
This is why Jesus was baptized. When the Lord stepped into the waters of the Jordan, he was stepping into the primordial chaos, the infinite destroying abyss which we brought back into the cosmos. Our choices, our decisions to be prideful, greedy, and vengeful, were leading us on a path to nothing, to complete and utter destruction, a path to chaos. So Jesus went before us. He stepped into the abyss of our choices, and the Spirit descended upon him. As in the beginning, so now, the Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos and began its work. It started the work of creating a new order, building a new universe. When Christ came out of the waters, it was to show us that a new creation is dawning, a creation in which we are set free. No longer must we be shackled to our sins and the sins of our parents, no longer must we be weighed down by heavy burdens. There is a new way, a way of grace, mercy, and love.
Baptism is no mere bath; it is the birth of a new and beautiful universe. We who have stepped into those chaotic waters with Christ have been raised to new lives. We have been empowered by him to build his new Kingdom, where the poor, the meek, and the merciful will find a home.