–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 various texts’ 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 quickly 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 us who preach this message) whose lives are overwhelmed with experiences of inadequacy, isolation, rejection, and shame; or for whom God has always loomed too large as judge and antagonist. It is a message to 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 or the chosen one, no matter how often we may mistake ourselves for him; and it is not through us, except by the divine grace of incorporation and extension, 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 we are, in my opinion, also quick to assign ethical imperatives to everything the gospels say about Jesus. It makes us just a little nervous to let a story just hang out there without interference and manipulation from us. I’m not saying it isn’t useful or good to think this way. I’m only wondering what else there may be for us to discover by means of a more imaginative look at Jesus himself in these stories. What would we see that we haven’t seen before because we took our eyes off him too quickly in order to focus on ourselves, our own needs, and our own morality? What is hidden here that a more steady gaze might unveil? I am only wondering what we might experience over time were we to permit the stories to be the stories of Jesus first, before we hasten to make them our own; what might happen were we to focus our attention on their main character 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.