When I was in eighth grade I experienced my first independent excursion away from home when I attended a week-long church camp in what was then a rather remote part of central Michigan. I don't have any photographs of the trip, unfortunately, but I do remember two things very distinctly. First, for seven straight days it seemed like I was the main entrée for every ravenous mosquito from Big Rapids to Grayling. There were so many that the woods outside our cabin door would perceptibly hum each night with the sound of their commotion. And woe to the camper who failed to take care of business before retiring to bed – the short trip to the restrooms was a sinister gauntlet of blood-thirsty demons just waiting for their next victim.
My second memory of Cran-Hill Ranch, as the place was called, takes the form of a now nameless young seminarian who served as our chaplain for the week. Every evening we would conclude our activities with a time of singing around the campfire and then a brief message from the pastor before we turned in. I don’t recall anything of the short sermons we heard that year, but I do remember something this young man said – almost as an aside – as he prepared us for the big "come to Jesus" event that was planned for the end of the week. I can still recall the look on his face as he said it, as well as the feeling of deep theological consternation it instilled in me at the time. What I didn’t know then was that his innocent question represented a significant dilemma among the earliest disciples in the church: "If Jesus was indeed sinless, as our creeds so very clearly assert, then why did he need to be baptized?"
A brief consideration of the gospel parallels demonstrates what seems to have been a kind of inferiority complex on the part of the apostles with respect to Jesus' relationship to John. Mark's gospel makes it entirely clear that Jesus was baptized by John, despite the fact that the latter recognized the Galilean as one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie (1:8). In the hands of Matthew, however, the text takes a slightly different turn, with John objecting to the impropriety of it all: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" (Matt. 3:14). This would seem to indicate that in the fifteen years that transpired between the two narrative accounts of this event there was some serious speculation about whether John may have been the greater prophet, for after all he was the one who anointed Jesus in the Jordan that day. By the time we get to John's gospel, written sometime around the turn of the second century, any reference to Jesus' baptism at the hands of John has been entirely eliminated, and we find the Baptist directing his own disciples – not once, but twice – to behold in Jesus "the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (Jn. 1:29, 36).
Isn't it interesting, then, that this event in the life of Jesus, reputed to have revealed his true divinity to the world, becomes increasingly obscured in the successive narratives of the evangelists? Perhaps this is because the apostles realized over time that the details of the baptism were in fact eclipsing the importance of the epiphany that actually took place, and on which all four accounts do agree: the Spirit of God descending like a dove on Jesus, accompanied by the heavenly affirmation that this poor Galilean carpenter is indeed the son of God (Matt. 3:17; Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22; Jn. 1:34). What the kings from the east knew in Bethlehem is now apparent to those of the Judean countryside through the help of God's appointed messenger, John the Baptist.
But there is more to this revelation than meets the eye, and for this we can turn to the first few verses of Genesis, along with the iconography of the Orthodox Church. The Hebrew Bible opens with the Priestly account of God's creation of the world, where the spirit of God hovers over the face of the deep. I find Rashi's commentary on this text particularly helpful in his insistence that this term – tehom, the abyss – might best be described as an "astonishing emptiness." The word that God utters in the beginning shatters this state of nothingness and sets in motion the first ripples of creative possibility, of light, on the infinite expanse of darkness.
In the prologue to his gospel, John takes special care to draw on the imagery of the Priestly account of creation and places Jesus, the Word who had been revealed to him and to the world, at its center. This introduction then becomes the lens through which his entire account of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus is interpreted. The incarnation gives him radically new insights into what transpired in the beginning. Creation, it might be said, is given a human face in the person of Christ: "all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being" (Jn. 1:2). Paul further affirms this connection in his epistle to the Colossians: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:15-17).
In light of this, it does seem inappropriate to focus on the act of baptism in Mark 1:4-11 when so much more is at stake. In the first place, as we have already established, it cannot be said that Jesus is participating in this ritual on account of its symbolic intent. In other words, he is not allowing himself to be washed clean of past sins in the spirit of repentance as John so ably preached. On the contrary, it might be more accurate to say that the world itself is being sanctified by Jesus. His presence amidst the waters of the Jordan River recreates in a tangible way the very act of creation that is affirmed in the first few verses of Genesis.
In Jesus' baptism, the miracle of creation "in the beginning" becomes incarnate with the descent of the spirit onto the Word standing amidst the watery chaos, thus affirming what we are so prone to forget, or deny: that this world in which we live is good. This singular ritual is, in fact, a very concrete announcement of a new creation in which the Word become flesh has already begun to draw the "astonishing emptiness" of a world broken by sin into his own fullness of being. Redemption.
I often find it helpful when reflecting on the lectionary passages for the week to consider how the events contained therein have been portrayed by artists throughout the centuries. Anyone familiar with the iconography of the Orthodox tradition knows that the baptism of Jesus – Christ's theophany – has played a central role in the spiritual tradition of the church from its very beginning. It is interesting, though, that in some of these icons, if we look very closely at the waters of the Jordan, we will see depicted there a school of fish swimming around the person of Christ. Other visual interpretations of the text tend to leave these out, perhaps thinking that they are holdovers from an earlier pagan era. But for me, I want the fish to be there because they acknowledge that this is an event in which the whole of creation is participating, and in which the whole of creation can rejoice. Jesus, the Son of God, is by his very presence amidst the waters of the world, sanctifying them and affirming that they are what they have always been in the eyes of God: very good. So let the new creation begin.
When I look back on my Cran-Hill Ranch experience, I'm kind of glad I didn't take any photographs that year, because in my memories I am a much more integral part of the landscape than any snapshot could ever convey. I find in this a lesson for the church as well: while our tendency is to emphasize the individual aspects of our salvation – recalling, for instance, how our own baptism has washed us clean from the blemish of original sin – the picture is really much greater than this. Don't forget the fish, I say. Indeed, look for the fish. And the bears, the rabbits, the birds… and the mosquitoes, the snakes, and every other critter that Walt Disney has refused to portray as cute and cuddly.
In the end, the story is not simply about us, just as Mark 1:4-11 is not merely about baptism. Jesus is not only a personal but a universal Lord and Savior. Our first affirmation of faith, then, must be what we find repeatedly proclaimed in the very first book – the very first chapter – of the Bible: "God saw everything that God made, and indeed, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31).
Of Related Interest
See the excellent article at National Public Radio on the beautiful music of amorous mosquitoes. No wonder the hum outside my cabin door all those years ago seemed so melodious.