We are born children of a fallen humanity; in the waters of Baptism we are reborn children of God and inheritors of eternal life...child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. -- LBW, liturgy for Holy Baptism
Today at church we had three baptisms -- three little kiddos decked out in white satin and lace, three extended families filling our little sanctuary to overflowing, two new sisters and one new brother in Christ. Digital cameras were in abundance, and after the service various combinations of beaming parents, godparents and baptized children posed for picture after picture up at the font.
These were beloved children. You could tell in the way their parents and other adults held them, kissed them, tousled their hair, whispered soothing murmurs when they fussed. (One little girl being not at all that enthused about her wet entry into the household of God.) A dad gently played with one baby's white-stockinged foot, looking at her with an expression of joy and at least a little awe.
Today many of us heard about the baptism of Jesus. (It's interesting that there's a lot more in the Gospels about Jesus' baptism than about his birth.) Jesus shows up at the Jordan River, where his cousin John the wild-eyed desert prophet is preaching repentance to all comers. Just as John's rough-and-ready lifestyle and demeanor is far removed from that of the urbane, well-appointed priests in Jerusalem, his mode and message are far different as well. John is a holy performance artist, and his "installations" involve preaching repentance and a call to a new life, followed by baptizing his listeners -- a ritual that, at that time, would normally be reserved for Gentile converts to Judaism. It was a pointed way of saying, You have all wandered so far from your faith that you may as well be heathen. So you'll have to begin at the beginning, like they do. It's a sharp, humiliating rebuke that would seem a great insult to persons like the Pharisees who consider themselves faithful keepers of the Law; but people respond in great numbers.
This day Jesus submits himself for baptism. Mark's "short, sharp, shocked" Gospel keeps the story brief, but in other Gospel accounts John is taken aback by his cousin's appearance, and is reluctant to baptize him: "I'm the one who needs to be baptized by you." No, says Jesus; this is the way we need to do it. The sinless Son of God isn't going to pull rank; he comes to this scene as a nobody from the nowhere town of Nazareth, surrounded by other nobodies, and he's going to submit himself to the waters of repentance, just like "the least of these" around him.
As Jesus comes up from the river, Mark notes that the heavens are "torn apart" -- a motif that will come up later, when Jesus dies on the cross and Mark reports that the curtains of the Temple (which -- surprise -- were designed to represent the heavens) are similarly torn apart. Mark goes on to say that the baptized Jesus hears a voice from the heavens: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
One of the mysteries of the Christian faith is that, wherever Jesus goes, he takes all of us with him. He takes us with him under the waters of the Jordan and brings us up again. And when Jesus hears God's loving affirmation...we hear it too. Because, as my evangelical friends put it, when God sees us, God sees us through Jesus-colored glasses. We are God's beloved too -- children and heirs, members of the divine household -- because Jesus brings us with him. The heavens -- the great metaphorical divide between the Other and our messy earthly reality -- are torn apart not just for Jesus but for us as well.
Do we feel beloved of God? Do we feel that God delights in us, as Scripture puts it, the way a loving parent plays with a baby's feet or swings her overhead or treasures every developmental milestone, every idiosyncracy, every daily pleasure in caring for a little human being? Sometimes I think that one of the major problems of Christianity is that we don't really take the love of God seriously. I recently found myself in an online discussion where some of my fellow Christians were made incredibly uncomfortable by the idea that God is in loving relationship with them. Frankly, sometimes I'm uncomfortable with this idea too. Why? I want to ask. Why me? But the irony is that we live in a society of increasingly isolated and self-isolating, lonely people -- people who on one hand are desperate for love and connection, but on the other hand feel compelled to keep others, sometimes including God, at arm's length. It's easy to say "God is love"; perhaps not so easy to say, or think about, the proposition, "God is in love with us and with me."
In this season of revelation, Christ is shown to us as God's Beloved. But what the Beloved shows us, as the story progresses, is that the Beloved loves us; stands by us; will do anything for us; gathers us in as his beloved. If we take this to heart -- really to heart -- what might this mean in how we relate to God, and in how we relate to one another?
Artwork by Corinne Vanaesch, Le baptême du Christ