THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …”
Any of you long-time movie buffs will immediately recognize these words as being the very first thing you as a viewer saw when attending George Lucas’ smash hit Star Wars. Printed on the screen for the very first moments, these ten simple words set a tone that immediately hooked moviegoers. In fact, I read somewhere that no title in the history of cinema has been more quoted.
What was so bewitching about these words was that they immediately lulled us into story time. And they did this by creating a setting in space and time that says: relax; don’t worry about a thing; what you’re about to see has absolutely no relationship to the reality of the world you live in. In other words, nothing will be asked of you except to sit back and enjoy.
And so we did. And so we still do.
The opening words of today’s gospel of Mark have an entirely different impact: “It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.” Mk: 1:9
We may often think of the Bible as “a long time ago” and “far, far away,” but the words of Sacred Scripture are fully intended to have a bearing on our lives Right Now. The story-telling in this setting is not in any way intended to be used for purposes of pure entertainment.
“Relax” would not be the intended response. “Follow me” would be.
“Sit back and enjoy” would not be the desired result. “Change your lives,” “see the world in a whole new way,” “repent and believe” would be.
“Don’t worry about any of this impacting how you live your life” would not be what is expected. “See the miracle of a new hope, a fresh start” would be.
The stories of Jesus of Nazareth, beginning with his baptism in the Jordan, are meant to create within us a whole new vision: the revelation of a new day that has dawned; the dream of a new world being opened to us. And it does this by beginning with the vivid imagery of the heavens being “torn apart” as Jesus comes out of the water. It’s as though God’s hands ripped open the sky so that a gap could be created through which God could speak to Jesus as he begins his work on earth.
Mark will use this same language again at the moment of Jesus’ death when the Temple veil, a symbolic barrier between God and his creation, is torn in two.
This “tearing” of the heavens is a dramatic and vivid image suggesting that God is initiating an entirely new kind of relationship between Him and us. In Jesus, heaven and earth have been joined. The two have become one. As a consequence, God’s relationship to each of us can now best be described by the use of prepositions: in us, with us, between us, for us, among us.
In contrast to the almost violent image of the breaching of the sky, Mark then offers us a very consoling and reassuring one: a God who comes down from above and rests above the head of Jesus “like a dove.” This stunning portrayal of an anointing suggests that God now bestows a certain kind of power upon Jesus – not the kind given to those who rule with swords and spears and chariots, but the power, the authority of one who has come to love and serve and heal and feed and redeem.
Finally, Mark uses the tender words “my Beloved” to address Jesus. These words of affirmation can probably best be understood by parents and spouses and people who are madly in love with one another. They are the ultimate in endearment. They are even the kind of words that create a sense of nakedness. Only in this case, it is God’s own heart that is laid bare.
In all of this, then, God is no longer the distant and remote One. He is no longer the Totally Other whose name cannot even be spoken.
Instead, Jesus’ relationship with God has become so intimate, so close, so cherished, he calls him Abba, Father – and encourages us to do the same!
God is now Emmanuel. He is God the Preposition.
God is also the One who chooses the man Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee to be the fulfillment of the great dream of the prophet Isaiah spoken of so powerfully in the first reading: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am well pleased …. I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice. I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you as … a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”
Notice the strength of the verbs: “I have … called, chosen, grasped, formed you.” God has in effect possessed Jesus.
And this is where you and I come into the story. This is where we realize that this same God who tore open the sky, who rested “like a dove” above the head of Jesus, who called Jesus “my Beloved,” and who grasped and formed him is also the identical One who wants nothing more than to reach out to each of us and do the same.
But, like the great challenge of the cross that Jesus himself had to endure, God also wants to introduce us to the test of our own baptism – a challenge that will ask us as well to dedicate ourselves to the “victory of justice,” to being “a light for the nations,” to being people who are willing to open our blinded eyes so that we, like Jesus, can “bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”
He wants to possess not only Jesus, but us as well.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …
That was so bewitching, so numbing. But it was a dream world, a fantasy.
Our world – the one you and I were baptized into – is the one that begins with these words instead: “In those days … Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the river Jordan.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.