Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Baptism of the Lord, or, My Mentor Is Straight Out of the New Testament

I have often thought that John the Baptist is a great icon for the diaconate.

Icon of the Theophany
[yes, I know John isn't front and center, but you'll see the importance
of this icon in a few moments]

Deacons are ordained for the Word and service and these two things are incredible attributes of John's ministry. The service component is evident in scripture when he tries to describe what he is doing, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals." Now as the story goes (and as is celebrated in the liturgical tradition), John, for all his words of how lowly he is, gets to inaugurate Christ's ministry in the waters of the River Jordan. I say that's pretty incredible service. Thinking of what it means for an individual to be Christ's baptizer, I am at a loss trying to put myself in those shoes, er... sandals...

John is also the voice crying out in the wilderness 'Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!' He is the crazy man who calls us out of the city, out of the ways we're used to; calls us out into  a desolate place to encounter God. It's this reason that deacons, according to liturgical custom, proclaim the Gospel reading. There's that iconographic quality to a deacon's role in liturgy as well as in actual service. A deacon, assuming one is available, is the one to give the dismissal at the end of a liturgy and lead the Church (aka the assembly of the baptized, aka the Body of Christ) out of the parish building (aka a place where we are, oh! so comfortable) and into the world (aka our desert) where we can truly encounter Christ embodied in the sacred Other, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless.

You never know that that old, crazy John fella had so much for us, did you? Bear all of that in mind as I launch into this second part...

I have been meditating for the past week on what I saw in my faith community's liturgy celebrating the Baptism of the Lord. This particular liturgy is what I referenced earlier, in regard to John inaugurating Christ's ministry in the River Jordan. Sunday, January 12 was when we celebrated that.

Our liturgy began "normally." Prelude music, procession, call to worship, Old Testament lesson, New Testament epistle, sing a sequence hymn and the deacon read aloud the Gospel. She then went straight to the pulpit to preach.

Now, the deacon at St. Christopher's is my mentor, so I look forward to the occasions that she preaches. And, (for the aforementioned value of John to the diaconate) it was fitting that she preach on the day that we celebrate the Lord's baptism. Janet and I are birds of a feather, so when she started describing the importance of the dialogue in the gospel reading and which words were directed at whom, I was really enjoying it (read here if you are interested specifically in what she said and look for the Rev. Janet MacNally's sermon for January 12). 

One of the things I was fascinated by was how she described the importance of the exchange between John and Jesus. Onlookers at the time would have wondered why Jesus was going to see a crazy man and even modern Christians think something like, "Jesus is God's son. Why does he need John's help?" But here's my interpretation of what went on:
JB: Jesus, what are you doing here? I mean, I know we're related and all, but you're kinda cramping my style.
JC: I'm here so that you can baptize me.
JB: ... srsly?
JC: Srsly.
JB: No, no, no... I've got it. You can baptize me. That makes more sense. You're more important than me, so it makes sense that you would cleanse me. That's better than me presuming that I can cleanse you.
JC: Cousin, we should do it this way. It's right for us to do it this way. You're doing what you're doing because you listened to what Isaiah and the other prophets said. I listened too. If we do  it this way we don't have to feel like we're shouting at everybody else. All we need to do is show them.
JB: I dunno. I feel like this might be like signing our death warrants.
JC: Meh. If the Romans or the temple leaders come after us, we'll just break my mother's prize vase. She'll kill us long before anyone else gets to us.
JB: That's dark, man.
JC: Meh.
JB: ... Fine. I'll do it. I'll baptize you. I trust you, cousin.

My understanding of what went on that day on the banks of the Jordan is much more intimate and heart wrenching than what either scripture or the icon at the top of the page would have you think. But that being said, remember that this whole thought process was going on while I was supposed to be listening to my mentor's sermon (sorry, Janet).

When she was done preaching, she prompted us to reaffirm our baptismal covenant. This is something that made perfect sense, since she preached on how Jesus was baptized, how baptism is central to Christian worship and liturgy, and how this promise that we make at the time of baptism is key to understanding what we're supposed to do as Christians; going out to seek and serve Christ in all persons. And moreover, why shouldn't we reaffirm our baptismal vows on the day that we celebrate the baptism of Christ himself? We can joyfully join in and remember that we, too, are part of Christ's ministry. His ministry last through today and it sweeps us up in it!

As we were saying these things together; the things that we promised (or that were promised on our behalf), there was another thing going on that I found beautiful. Janet, my deacon mentor, was the one to sprinkle us with holy water as another sign of the promises made in this rite. Now, before anyone complains, this was not a baptismal liturgy, so we were not stepping on any priest's toes. This was a reminder of our covenant with God, a prophetic sign that God will never, has never, broken the covenant with us and that we are constantly called back into this right relationship with God. This was a call to us to leave our complacency and come back to the place where we encounter and always re-encounter God. Not so different from John the Baptist, with his River Jordan and his baptisms for repentance and his camel hair shirt and his crying out in the wilderness like the Old Testament prophets.

I have often thought that John the Baptist is a great icon for Christians.