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 Writer's Desk 

January 9, 2006
Vol. 3, No. 34



Pat Marrin Afternoon swim triggers reflection on baptism of Jesus

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

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I try to swim regularly at a nearby hospital pool. I go mostly in the evenings, but on weekends I enjoy the late afternoon light that enters through the skylights and tall windows. During the winter months when the sun is low in the southwestern sky, it lays down a bright swath across the two lap lanes. I like to swim underwater as I pass through this zone of shimmering, refracted light. Once again I am young and sleek and near weightless. I enter another realm altogether, like the one conjured in the sky by islands of cloud I imagined sailing out to explore when I was a child. Sky and vapor, light and water invoke the memory of a place familiar and exotic, a dream I once had and am hoping to recapture.

When Jesus was baptized, the swirling waters of the Jordan River took him down and yielded him up again charged with light and dreams. The four Gospels record this event at the start of Jesus' public life as crucial, formative, an articulation of who he was and what he was called to do. The location was important, east of Jerusalem in the flats fringed by wilderness, where the meandering Jordan began its slow descent south, surrendering its sweet waters into the brackish estuaries north of the Dead Sea. The nearby Qumran community implicated John, the fearsome and fanatical baptizer, with its brotherhood of ascetics living there, separate from the world and severe in their rejection of the compromises of ordinary religion. Apocalypse was in the air, and John's ritual baptism invited a cautious eye from Herod and the high priests, and even Pilate, because it recapitulated the Exodus, God's liberation of the Israelites from their oppressors. Baptism was a political act and, along with his heavy moralizing, it would cost John his head and mark Jesus as a troublemaker to be watched. But that was still in the future.

When Jesus was baptized, the message he received was alarmingly simple, but its implications would encompass the rest of his life, his death and beyond. The sky opened and a voice was heard saying, "You are my beloved."

Jesus, a good Jew, had begun each day since earliest childhood by reciting the Shema, the prayer that located him facing the source and center of the universe: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one, there is no other: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength." The One he had submitted to wholeheartedly all his life was now responding: "You are my beloved." His first call was not to radical activism or political resistance, to service or suffering, but to be loved.

Jesus' flight into the desert after his baptism was about absorbing this declaration of love. His experience invites us to ask ourselves, what message could be more stunning - and disturbing - than this? Someone loves you. Go figure out the implications of this. Embrace it, resist it, ignore it or accept it, love has claimed you, named you. Say yes, it will define you; say no, it will define you. Either way, you are my beloved. For Jesus, the message, taken to heart, became the core of his preaching. That God loves us is no innocuous, sentimental truism, but a radical reordering of the human heart turned in on itself and against others by fear and selfishness. God's unconditional love restores us to an essential lovability. If we are at all, it is because we are loved. Baptism is about saying yes to this love. Start here, then keep doing whatever comes next.

A case can be made, I think, that Jesus never sought dramatic confrontation with the religious and state systems that would conspire to kill him. Or that he went out of his way to befriend the poor and the sick, champion victims of injustice or challenge the structures that deal inequity. He simply went about in the sure knowledge that he was beloved, exhibiting a vitality and generosity of spirit that attracted others, then insisted that this be the norm for everyone. His preaching awakened the light and the dream that is natural to us all. His acts of healing and service were about enabling others to claim life without fear or desperate competition to secure the essential dignity and confidence love inspires. He showed hospitality, deference to the most vulnerable, told the truth, asked obvious questions, lived simply and joyfully. The rest of the story shows how such behavior collides with the forces that need to control everything.

But baptism initiates us to such a way of life and to the natural maturity that results from practicing love and joy along the way. This way of life will manifest itself in institutional commitments and the more formalized works of mercy and justice. It will expose us to suffering and invite us to take up the hard work of insisting on fairness and compassion for all. But it not nearly as complicated nor difficult as living out of fear and resistance to love.

By the end of my afternoon swim, the sun has receded and the water has lost its magic. I haul myself out of the pool into normal gravity, feeling a familiar pull to the left as I walk to the showers, the result of a back injury a decade ago. I will sleep better for this exercise. Tomorrow I will get up and go to work. I am baptized over and over again by ordinary life within a network of relationships that helps me believe, if not always feel, that I am loved. I don't know what else to do except live each day as wholeheartedly as I can. I will do my best, and I am anxious to see what comes next.

Pat Marrin's e-mail address is patmarrin@aol.com. Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. For a preview, follow this link: Celebration.
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