Texts: Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Mark 1.4-11
Today the church celebrates baptism within a social and cultural environment where the rite has been largely sanitised of its dangerous and subversive qualities. In the churches that allow the baptism of infants the rite is all-too-often reduced to a quaint and pleasant little naming ceremony. Friends and relatives gather in their finery on a bright Sunday morning; the child’s forehead is wetted with a few tiny drops of water while his or her godparents are content to make promises they can neither comprehend nor keep. In the so-called ‘baptist’ churches, on the other hand, the rite is often reduced to its pre-Christian tribal meanings, i.e. baptism as a rite of passage into responsible adult membership of the tribe or congregation. Unfortunately, neither of these practices is adequate to the baptism undergone by Jesus, the baptism that is paradigmatic for Christians. For while the baptisms of the tribe pander to social and anthropological needs, the baptism of Jesus models the rather contra-cultural action of God by which the baptised person is torn away from his or her ‘natural’ tribal roles in favour of a way of life which actually subverts and calls into question the most common paths by which we journey through life.
The confession that makes us genuinely Christian in the sacrament of baptism is infinitely more difficult than the choice to fulfil the symbolic law of tribe, society or culture. For, in theological perspective, the impossible journey towards the joy of salvation goes by no other way than by a rather traumatic encounter with God who was in Christ. For it is the view of the New Testament we can never become who we truly are apart from the interventions from beyond either self or tribe that we call creation and redemption. Christian baptism is not, therefore, any easy thing to undertake. It is not something that everyone can or should do as a matter of course. Far from it. If it is genuinely Christian, baptism should be difficult and painful. For in baptism we admit that it is neither ourselves nor our tribe that gives us life in all its fullness, it is God.
When a human being comes face to face with this truth, there is a breaking down and a loss. Like the man on death row in Tim Robbins' film Dead Man Walking, who for most of the story protests his innocence and holds himself together by the sheer wilfulness of his fantasy. And yet, when death is imminent, he can hold himself no longer. Death comes like a paschal angel and exposes the lie on which his life has been built. He collapses, he falls apart before our eyes. There is weeping and a disintegration. But finally there is the truth, a truth which is finally able to resist and overcomes his fantasy as from somewhere or somebody else (indeed, in and from the face of his prison chaplain), and he claims this truth as his only hope of joy or salvation.
To confess or avow the truth which comes from another, rather than from ourselves alone, is painful in the extreme, for here we touch the raw wound of that founding trauma that most of us spend our whole lives running from. The founding trauma who is God. “In the beginning,” says the Book of Genesis, the universe was a void and formless waste. It was a watery Nothing. But over this dark Nothingness the Spirit of God brooded, and that Spirit spoke. “Let there be light!” and there was. This is a story about the making of the world, certainly, but it is also about the making of the human self. It tells us that the Self is never itself without the traumatic intervention or presence of another. The call or voice of this other summons us from the womb-like Nothing of infinite solipsism into the real world of consciousness, inter-dependence and relationship. Thus, we are called to ourselves by an intervention, a creation, an interrupting trauma that leaves its mark on us forever.
In this, says Slavoj Žižek, Christianity and psychoanalysis are agreed: that the first event is the traumatic arrival of another, and that most us spend our lives running away from this event, pretending that we can found ourselves, or make our own salvation. Ironically, the way to healing is to return to the founding trauma, and find there a God who is irrevocably for us, who longs for and promises our liberation. For those who are baptised, this constitutes a return to the violence of the cross, that sacrifice to end all sacrifices in which is revealed, as René Girard has said, a God who asks for the worship of mercy rather than sacrificial appeasement. This is not to say that a return to the founding trauma can be accomplished by human beings in and of themselves. For a trauma is exactly that kind of event that cannot be in/corporated or re/membered. Yet, and this is the hope and grace of baptism, God is one who makes the return possible from the side of divinity. In the Spirit, God makes of Christ the saving link between the founding trauma and the event of baptism, so that our baptism ‘into Christ’ becomes a real submersion of the self in the yet more real selfhood of Christ in his accomplished humanity, the only humanity finally competent to perform the unique mercy of God. So here, in baptism, the human self is both lost and recovered more wholly than ever before; trauma is transfigured into joy. Joy, of course, is a vocative language, a language of prayer. Its primary motivation is neither to constitute the other as a version of the same, nor to reduce the transcendence of the other to a particular appearance. Joy simply celebrates the always-already-accomplished fact of the other as the salvific centre of itself.
In this, as with the prisoner in Dead Man Walking, we catch a glimpse of the absurdly paradoxical hope inscribed in Christian baptism. For baptism is not only a letting-go of the fantasy-self, the lie of a self that is its own law and judge, but also the arrival of another self, a truer self given in love by God. Such arrivals are inscribed everywhere in Mark’s story, literally everywhere. The river in which Jesus is baptised is the Jordan. It is the river that, in the memory of Israel, marks their exodus from the land of slavery into the land of promise, their transformation from a loose collection of tribal nomads into a federated nation with a land and a holy vocation given by Yahweh. The baptism therefore recalls that God is one who liberates, who takes a broken people to his breast and gives them both a new name, and a new purpose. Note, also, that the baptism of Jesus is placed by Mark alongside a memory of the exile in Babylon. Isaiah interpreted that event as an intervention by God to change the people’s hearts. The city’s nobles had become obsessed with their own power and prestige. They had forgotten the claims of charity and mercy, and so God destroyed the city. In that context, the baptism of Jesus can be read as a renewal of the work of God in human society: after destruction and exile comes forgiveness and a new covenant, the advent of a new relationship between God and the people of God’s affection.
Still, the most potent trace of joy’s arrival, in Mark’s story, is when the heavens are ripped open as Jesus comes out of the water, and the Spirit of God descends upon him like a dove. Again, one does not necessarily understand these symbols unless one knows the stories of the Hebrew Bible. There one reads of a God who dwells in a holy of holies, an ark that is placed behind a curtain in the innermost chamber of the temple. Only the High Priest, or some specially appointed leader like Moses, may approach God there, and usually only once per year at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. To my mind, the theatre of these Jewish rituals is about the irreducible otherness of God, the danger of assuming too close a familiarity with God. God is in heaven, hidden behind a veil that we may not open from our side. Yet, here in the baptism of Jesus, the veil that separates God from ourselves is not simply put aside, but ripped to pieces. Furthermore, it is done by God, from God’s ‘side,’ if you like. In the Spirit, God actually leaves the holy of holies in heaven, and comes to dwell within the heart and spirit of one who is not simply a prophet, but a Son, a beloved one. No longer is God to be understood as the other beyond us, beyond our being in the heavens. From now on God is to be understood as the other who is Christ, a human being who walks amongst us, who speaks our language, who shows us what God is like as a child reveals the form and character of his or her parent.
To put all this another way, what Mark proclaims about what happened to Christ is also something that may happen to all of us. After the collapse and breakdown of the false self that is part of a genuinely baptismal avowal, God promises to come to us with the gift of a new self: a self forged within by the cruciform activity of the Spirit who was in Christ and now bears, forever, Christ’s form and character. In the Spirit, Christ himself comes to us as the love and vitality that empowers us to put off the old and embrace the gift of the new and truer self. Paul said it perfectly in Galatians: ‘Now I live, and yet not I; it is Christ who lives within me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (2.20).
To conclude, then, Mark’s story confronts the common-place understanding and practice of baptism in two ways. First, it tells us that there is no such thing as a Christian baptism without the hard and soul-destroying work of confession and repentance. In the first centuries of the Christian church, this was taken very seriously. Several years were given over to the catechumal learning of the faith. Through a process of action and reflection, the catechumens wrestled against the demons of both self and tribe; and they did so in the power of a newly arriving self, symbolised for them in the mentor or sponsor who was, themselves, a figure of Christ. Second, the story tells us that baptism will bear its human fruit not because of our own will or determination, but because God is faithful. The Father sends the Spirit, the Spirit of his son Jesus, to hollow out the old self from the inside out, and replace it with a selfhood of God’s own making and design. In this sense, baptism is not simply about the ceremonial occasion itself. It is rather a parable and a ritual performance of the Christian life as a whole: a calling and a pledge to leave the false self behind, and to wrestle always to find the truth about things which is God’s gift to everyone who asks for it.
Baptism, then, is a destroying and a building. It is the Christian life. It is a promise from God that may only be received and performed by means of a human promising: to walk the way of the cross by which trauma is transfigured into joy.