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Lent 1 Year B RCL February 26, 2012

Genesis 9: 8-17
Psalm 25: 1-9
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 9-15

 Martin Smith is a priest and a monk, a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a religious community for men in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Martin is a member of the community based in Boston. I have long respected his spiritual depth.

In his book of meditations for Lent,  A Season for the Spirit, Martin has a wonderful meditation on the Baptism of Christ. I am going to share this meditation with you because it gives us a perspective I have never heard expressed by any other person. I hope this will be as helpful to you as it has been to me.

Martin Smith writes, “If you were to picture the scene of Jesus’ baptism in your imagination, what would it be like? What feelings would arise? I did not realize how much I had been influenced by the typical representations of the scene in conventional Christian art until I went to a showing of Paolini’s film, The Gospel according to St. Matthew.  I found myself taken by surprise at the scene of Jesus’ baptism by John, and wept. It took a lot of thinking and praying to gain insight about why I had been moved by this scene in particular. In time I realized that hundreds of stained glass windows and paintings depicted only the two figures in the water. But the film shook me into the realization that Jesus’ baptism was  not a private ceremony but a mass affair with hundreds of men and women swarming in the river, and hundreds more waiting on the bank to take their place. Religious pictures had blunted the impact of the gospels’ insistence on the sheer numbers involved. “And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.”  (Mark 1:5.) Luke repeats the word ‘multitudes’ and paints the picture of a mass baptism. ‘Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized….’  (Luke 3: 21.)

Insight gradually dawned that I had been moved by an intuition of Jesus’ solidarity with ordinary, struggling men and women. John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It was for the masses of mediocre people whose failures, lukewarmness, and mundane unfaithfulness made the prospect of coming judgment terrible. New converts to Judaism passed through a baptismal rite as part of their initiation. Now everyone needed a fresh start, as radical as the one made by a pagan who was embracing Judaism. John was offering  to the masses of ordinary people a baptism which could give them that new beginning.

Jesus’ reaction to John’s preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was a crucial turning point. He could have kept his distance, an innocent young man conscious of unbroken faithfulness to God, looking with pity on the thousands of ordinary people who were overwhelmed by the realization of their own moral inadequacy. But instead of looking down on them from afar, secure in his own guiltlessness, Jesus plunged into the waters with them and lost himself in the crowd. He threw away his innocence and separateness to take on the identity of struggling men and women who were reaching out en masse for the lifeline of forgiveness.

It was at that moment when Jesus had thrown away his innocent individuality in exchange for the identity of needy, failed, struggling human beings that ‘the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “thou art my beloved Son: with thee I am well pleased.”’ (Luke 3: 21, 22.)

God’s pleasure in Jesus can no longer be contained, and it bursts out. God is well-pleased precisely in Jesus’ self-emptying assumption of our identity. The Spirit reveals to Jesus that he is the beloved Son of God at the precise moment when Jesus had taken on the role of the son of Man. The strange idiom which Jesus was to use to refer to himself might be better translated, ‘the Human Being.’ In the muddy river Jesus was taking on the role of representing Humanity, of being its suffering  Heart and Self before God. As soon as Jesus had done that decisively, God flooded him with awareness of his unique relationship as Son and anointed him with the life-giving Breath for his mission.

I had wept because the fleeting images of the film had invited me into the Jordan experience as no static stained-glass window or old master had done. Can you feel and see yourself as part of that crowd of  humanity in the muddy water, as I started to then, and experience the entry of Jesus into our condition, into our needs? He chooses to plunge into it and make it his own. Nothing about me, about us, is foreign to him. He has chosen to be the Self of our selves.

And now, years later, I believe I wept because of the timing of the descent of the Spirit, the coincidence between the moment of Jesus’ solidarity with human beings and the moment of God’s revelation of intimate relationship with Jesus. Never did any event so deserve the name ‘moment of truth.’ The Spirit descended when Jesus embraced the truth of our interconnectedness, our belonging together in God. As soon as Jesus undertook to live that truth to the full, he was suffused with awareness of his own unique origin from and union with God and was filled with God’s Breath. This coincidence reveals the axis on which the gospel turns. The barriers which hold us back from one another in fearful individuality are the identical barriers which block the embrace of God and insulate us from the Spirit. It is one and the same movement of surrender to open ourselves to intimacy and personal union with God in the Spirit, and to open ourselves to compassion and solidarity with our struggling, needy fellow human beings. I was weeping in that Oxford cinema, though I did not understand it at the time, under the impact of this insight. To be open to the Spirit is also to be open to humanity in all its fractured confusion and poverty and its ardent reaching for fulfillment. To be open to the embrace of the Father is necessarily and inevitably to be open to the whole creation which is held in that embrace.”

Martin closes the meditation with this prayer:

“Spirit like a dove descending, in spite of my timidity I am appealing to you to centre my heart on this axis of truth in these forty days. Every small step you enable me to take towards a deeper compassion for my fellow human beings will lead me further into the experience of the Father’s delight in me and care for me. And vice versa. Every step I take in meditation to intensify my awareness of the love of God poured into my heart through the gift of your indwelling, will take me into a deeper identification with the suffering world, ‘groaning in travail together until now.’”

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