–Haskovo Historic Museum, Haskovo, Bulgaria
On Baptism of Jesus Sunday, one of the most important commemorations of the season of unveiling we call Epiphany, we are often quick to turn the ancient Christian memory about Jesus at the Jordan into an intra-psychic contemplation of ourselves.
Rather than focus our religious imagination on the revelation about Jesus as God’s child and chosen one for the work of redemption, and on what sort of redeemer he is, we move immediately from Jesus’ experience to our own. We make Baptism of Jesus Sunday all about our own baptisms and our own naming as ‘beloved’ by God.
Now, this is true and well done insofar as we believe that in our own baptisms God accepts and adopts us in Christ. We are indeed God’s beloved, God is indeed pleased with us, and we can indeed move confidently into our own ministries, and towards our own suffering and deaths, secure in this necessary knowledge.
It is also true and well done insofar as this powerful and transforming message of our belovedness is desperately needed by so many in our pews (including by us who preach this message). We whose lives are often overwhelmed with experiences of inadequacy, isolation, rejection, and shame; or for whom God has always loomed too large as judge and antagonist need this message. It must be preached repeatedly and perseveringly, yes, even on Baptism of Christ Sunday.
But the fact remains that Jesus’ baptismal experience is his own, not ours, and it is unique: we are not the messiah, no matter how often we may mistake ourselves for him; and it is not through us, except by the divine grace of incorporation in him and the extension of his ministry to us, that healing comes to the world. The voice at the Jordan was for him, not us; it addresses him and his identity, character, and mission, not us and ours; and it effectively grounds his loving, sacrificial ministry in ways only he could know and with graces only he could draw upon.
No matter how much we may wish to appropriate Christ’s baptism, we have to acknowledge some difference and allow some distance between him and us so that we can contemplate with awe, as the ancient festival intended, the mystery concealed and revealed in this striking event.
Our tendency is to assume that everything in scripture has an obvious, immediate, and necessary application to our own experience and our own needs. And we are, in my opinion, also far too quick to assign ethical imperatives to everything the gospels say about Jesus. It makes us nervous simply to let a story hang out there for our contemplation without moralizing it. Our protestant tendency is always to skip sustained contemplation of Jesus and sprint to the question of us.
I think the immediate focus on ourselves misses the point sometimes. It’s useful, to be sure; but it isn’t all there is. I wonder whether we would discover something even more ‘useful’ by means of a more imaginative and more lingering gaze at Jesus himself in these stories. What would we see that we haven’t seen before because we took our eyes off him to talk about what we need, who we are, what we are required to do and become?
What is hidden here that steady contemplation might unveil? What if we permit the stories to be truly the stories of Jesus first, focusing our attention on him as the only protagonist worth thinking about — the one in whom we too are learning, by patient contemplation and wide open hearts, to be well pleased?