The Sunday Project
The Saga Begins
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord |
By Andrew Evans
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. "I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
And Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
Okay, I admit it. The Baptism of Christ never made much sense to me. Jesus was born without original sin. There was nothing impure in Him for baptism to wash clean. There doesn’t seem to be any point in His being baptized. And yet baptized He was.
There is plenty of theology to explain this, of course. Baptism sometimes represents the death of the old, sinful self, so in some ways this scene foreshadows the crucifixion, showing Christ’s willingness to face earthly death. Aquinas held that Jesus submitted to baptism for our sake, to consecrate it as a sacrament. But today I’d like to take a different approach. Often as Christians we try to put ourselves in the Scripture, imagining ourselves as part of events, making the stories come to life. But why not take the opposite approach today? Why not examine this scene as part of a narrative text? That’s right, folks. It’s time to dust off the old literary analysis skills.
Most high school graduates have heard of the Hero’s Journey at some point or another. Canonized by Joseph Campbell, it’s an archetypal story, a pattern which resounds in everything from the legends of King Arthur to more modern media like Star Wars and Harry Potter. The essentials are this: a hero leaves the familiar world to travel to an unfamiliar environment, on a quest to return with the solution to the problem in their home. The hero will often initially refuse the call, but be forced into action. They will be tempted to give up on their quest, face trials and challenges, and face a moment of crushing defeat before triumph and a literal or figurative resurrection. Sound familiar?
In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus at the beginning of His quest, in the phase scholars call the Crossing of the Threshold. He is the Chosen One, born under unusual circumstances, with a special
mission to save the world. He has left Nazareth, the home He knows, and will journey into less familiar territories for the sake of those He loves. And to complete the archetypal scene, he even has the wise mentor: his cousin, John the Baptist.
But John is hardly the mentor one would expect for the savior of the world. Like Luke Skywalker’s Obi-Wan and Gilgamesh’s Utnapishtim, he is an old hermit living at the outer reaches of the civilized world. And unlike these two, John has no special powers or magical secrets to grant. All he has is the conviction that he has been sent on a mission by God.
It is interesting that Jesus goes to John at the very beginning of His ministry. John lives on the margins, defying authority by calling out both the government and the leaders of the Jews. He is a radical thinker, far from the mainstream, and hardly receives a warm reception from the religious or political authorities. And yet Jesus uses him to set the tone for the entirety of His ministry. Jesus, after all, has come especially for people on the margins, those ignored or abhorred by those in authority. How fortunate for us, trying to make our way as queer Catholics in the face of a sometimes unwelcoming Church! How fortunate for those whose cultures, races, genders, etc. rarely find a place in the political or spiritual dialogue of our world.
I would encourage us all to consider the John the Baptists in our own lives. Who are the people who speak against the grain, whom you fear to listen to lest you be tarred with the same brush? Who are the people whose messages cause discomfort, not because they are false, but because they are true? John called for the repentance of sinners and the unveiling of hypocrisy, hardly safe or popular things to campaign for. What are the unsafe calls to adventure we feel in our own lives today? Jesus began His journey with John the Baptist. In this, we are reminded to seek out the unconventional voices. Discount no message because others do, or because they makes you
afraid. Often God speaks loudest in the places where others refuse to go. Often, the people we are afraid to listen to will be the ones who set us on the path we will follow in out own heroic journeys as Christians.
Another traditional part of the Hero’s Journey is the magical weapon. Unlike Harry Potter, Jesus receives no magical wand to help him on His journey. He has no Excalibur to wield as the true king. Instead, He is granted a much more powerful weapon: eleven momentous words. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
These words usher in Jesus’s ministry, His quest to save the fallen human race. They denote Him as God in the person of the Son but they are also a form of encouragement, a reminder that Jesus has the love and blessing of God in everything He does. While none of us actually is God, we are reminded here that each of us is a child of God, with God’s love, Their delight in our successes, Their help in our times of despair. Jesus had His fair share of successes and moments of despair. He had to struggle with being a radical voice for change in a world which often ignored or reviled Him. He had to struggle against the antipathy of many of those in power, both from the secular and religious worlds. And yet He was armed with the conviction that God, greater than any of these struggles, was with Him and in Him always.
God does not promise us an easy path. Where we speak truth, we will often be met with anger. Where we offer friendship, we will often be met with scorn. And all too often, we will stumble and fall into sin. But we, too, are children of God. We, too, have Their unconditional love in everything that we do, even when we do the wrong thing. And I for one will take that over a magic sword any day.
Jesus’s ministry is one which has resonated with believers for nearly two thousand years. It’s an archetypal story in many ways, and yet also so much greater than any other story ever told. Jesus journeyed to save us, but also to provide us with a model for our own journeys of faith. And His baptism, as the beginning of that journey, shows us the very foundations of Christian life, the underlying assumptions with which we must always begin. Long before the Cleansing of the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount, Christ showed us to value those voices out in the wilderness who go against the messages of those in Power. He showed us that we must derive courage from the fact that we, too, are God’s beloved children, no matter how much we may be made to doubt the worthiness of our contributions. These are the truths we must bring with us throughout everything that is to come. This is where our journey begins.