The Baptism of the Lord is a traditional way to mark the conclusion of the Christmas season. That sure seemed to go by quickly! Friday was Epiphany and today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. For the next weeks going forward we’ll be in what’s called “ordinary time,” and our readings will be tracing the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. While this Sunday’s feast may be the end of the season, I want to reflect on the meaning of baptism in Old Testament times and how John’s baptism of the Lord marked a profound change in our understanding of what a human person is.
Most of us here have been baptized. Maybe as a wailing infant wearing the family heirloom white gown. (The one in Katie’s family has now been around for four generations.) Or maybe as an adult, coming to baptism by mature choice. Today we usually think of baptism as part of “joining the church,” our membership ticket to Christianity.
Before John the Baptist, the ritual of water immersion had very elaborate meaning. Water immersion was a religious requirement long familiar to the Jews who came to John for baptism. The Torah required regular ritual bathing to purify the body. The Mosaic Law specifies different types of ritual bathing for different conditions: certain skin diseases, male and female bodily discharges associated with human sexuality, and, the most extreme condition, contact with a corpse. These are all physical conditions associated with our physical bodies. The nature of this human body that carries our souls around generates stuff that requires ritual cleansing. Nothing unnatural. And not tied to anything sinful.
These water cleansings have continued from Moses’ time to today. Every orthodox Jewish community has access to the ritual bath called a Mikvah. There are separate private Mikvah for men and for women. Essentially, the Mikvah cleanses our animal illnesses and excretions. Very much about external conditions and behaviors. The Mikvah doesn’t tackle any change to our human hearts or mind. The ritual acknowledges we remain primitive beings constrained by rules of behavior set by the Almighty: Worship one God, make no statues in the likeness of God, respect your parents, don’t murder other humans, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t encroach on your neighbor’s living space, his draft animals, his livestock, or his wife.
The Mikvah specified different water requirements for different kinds of ritual “impurity.” Rainwater can be used for ritual cleansing, but only if it has been collected in a jug or other receptacle. Going for a run in the rain won’t cut it. The word Mikvah means “collection of waters.” Traditionally Mikvahs are fed by a natural spring, even though the Mikvah itself is generally indoors and private. The most effective cleansing waters are “living waters.” The most serious conditions, such as touching a dead body, required living water for cleansing. The Jordan River would have been seen as a source of “living water” for extreme purification.
Notice that committing a sin required a different cleansing. An atonement. Reparation. Repairing. In antiquity atonement involved a temple sacrifice, or the ritual killing and offering of something living, such as an animal. And there were specific rules about reparations to be made to those harmed by the sin. Atonement for sin was accompanied by a sacrifice as a token of compensation to God affirmed by a priest.
Impurity to be cleansed was not necessarily caused by a “sin.” Think about Jewish Kosher laws. Things considered not Kosher are not unclean because of any inherent problem with the food. For example, there’s no non-religious reason why a period of time must pass between eating meat and drinking milk. Meat is fine, milk is fine, just not together. Or why shellfish should be forbidden. Or why two different types of fabric should not be combined in the making of a garment.
The principle underlying both the rituals of keeping Kosher and Mikvah bathing may be to constantly keep us humans aware there is such a thing as “Holy” and such a thing as “Not holy.” It’s hard to think of a better way to be constantly conscious of the separateness and sacredness of a Holy God than to have rituals requiring constant discernment in everyday activities of eating, dressing, and sexuality. Every day is filled with reminders that our lives are in service to a holy God. Seems like a perfectly designed system to help us become spiritually aware human beings, to wake us up.
Then along came John the Baptist. John’s baptism marked something different. John’s call to repentance was not a call to atone for specific sins, but for our sinful way of life – our attitudes, our thoughts, our hearts. And this cleansing required the living water of a river.
John’s baptism was something new in Judaism. John’s baptism went further than ritual purification. It was more like a confession, or the rite of reconciliation. John’s Baptism marked a complete cleansing in repentance of being a sinful creature who sins in thought or desire as well as in what we have done or not done. John’s baptism was an intention to repent, turn yourself, face yourself in a different direction. Align yourself with God’s will for your life.
The Jews going out to the Jordan to be baptized knew they were sinners in need of complete cleansing, not just cleansing of the physical body. It was a Mikvah of the soul, a cleansing of the nephesh, the sense of self given us at birth by God.
John’s baptism was both a recognition of our sinful nature and a cleansing of the soul; a moment to start a new life in a different direction. John’s water baptism was a public statement that you yourself were in need of complete spiritual repentance. That you were a sinner in your manner of life. The living waters of John’s Jordan River baptism cleansed the soul.
Now on this day comes Jesus — and something newer still. Something even John the Baptist was not aware of. When the sinless lamb of God presented himself for baptism John initially refused him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus calmed him with the words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
It is recorded that, “No sooner had Jesus been baptized and come up out of the water than the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove to alight on him. And there came a voice from heaven saying,
‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight.’”
At that moment of Jesus’ baptism, the future of humanity was revealed, the point and goal of each human life was made clear; the purpose of our life shown to us.
Baptism into the Christian life announces a death and a birth: a death of our old animal nature, not just a suppression of sinful behavior. Baptism also announces a birth. As our old animal humanity dies, we become at that moment a new person, a human being modeled on the life and death of Jesus. God in Jesus models the new human. Jesus is our template for our life.
Jesus publicly endorsed John’s baptism in repentance of sin but went much further. Jesus not only humbly showed himself to be human, and therefore in need of purification and transformation. In his divinity he also consecrated the sacrament of baptism. Jesus himself became the sacrifice. We see on Good Friday and Easter that He replaced token animal sacrifice with the willing sacrifice of his own human animal life.
An ancient Christian liturgical practice symbolizes our receiving this new life in the Holy Spirit. The baptismal minister blows their breath on the waters of the font before baptizing. The act of insufflation symbolically blows the breath of the Holy Spirit. This signals entrance of the Ruach, the child’s receiving the Holy Spirit, her new spiritual soul.
When we were baptized in the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we joined with Jesus in the death of the old self and our old soul. We also received instead a new, more sacred soul, the soul of spirit, the Ruach, the blessed wind of the Holy Spirit. With the living spirit of God animating us we join the mystical body of Christ. God claims us as beloved children and members of Christ’s body, the church, washing us clean from sin as we renounce the power of evil and seek the will and way of God. After receiving this spirit at our baptism, we are empowered to minister to others, a ministry of love.
After Jesus baptism he began his ministry at a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Surprise! He even used the traditional Mikvah water jars. You remember, the wine had run dry...
’There were six stone water-jars standing near, of the kind used for Jewish rites of purification; each held from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water,’ and they filled them to the brim. ‘Now draw some off,’ he ordered, ‘and take it to the master of the feast’; and they did so. The master tasted the water ... and said, ‘Everyone else serves the best wine first, and the poorer only when the guests have drunk freely; but you have kept the best wine till now.’
We have this new wine in us today. Jesus transformed the water drawn from the ritual Mikvah vessels into the life-giving baptismal wine of the New Testament.
The same vessels, as we are the same vessels. The contents miraculously changed into something new. The new wine of the New Testament. We go forward as new beings, brothers and sisters of Christ, filled with the Spirit, ready to write our own unique chapter in the Book of Life.
The Christmas season is over. This is the end of the beginning. Tomorrow starts the first week of Ordinary Time. This is our time.
Our time, our ministry of love was launched with our baptism. God is in us, around us, before us, above us. God will use us if we let God use us. All we have to do is consent that God is God, and we are his. Then, just go with the flow.
I wish you each a Happy Christmas, and a blessed ordinary time.