Tuesday, December 27, 2011

First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of the Lord Year B

First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of the Lord  B (Revised Common Lectionary)

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29, Acts of the Apostles 19: 1-7; Mark 1: 4-11

Unabashedly taking a Babylonian creation myth for his own purpose, the author of this account of creation emphasizes God's initiative and beneficence. The Hebrew "
bara" ("create") is used exclusively as an act of which only God is capable. Creation is carried out by "the wind of God" sweeping over the primeval scene.  Robert Alter writes that God's "breath" "hovers" over the waters is the same verb used to describe "an eagle fluttering over its young..." with a "connotation of nurture." (The Five Books of Moses, p.7)  The first gift from God is light, which is declared "good."  (Five more times, God will declare the splendor, diversity, and fecundity of creation "good," and finally "very good.")

Borrowing heavily from Canaanite poetry is more obvious in this psalm than in others. The wonders of nature which inspire awe in us-- thunder, the legendary majestic cedars of Lebanon, the alien wilderness, the miracle of birth, floods-- can be signs of the Lord's "voice," glory and majesty.

Given the historical prominence of John the Baptizer before Jesus became a public figure, it should not come as a surprise that Luke in his Acts of the Apostles had to address his followers. He compares and contrast.   John the Baptizer called for repentance as preparation for the One who was to follow him. That One, Luke preaches, is Jesus who brings another type of baptism, of the Holy Spirit, which is distinct from the baptism offered by John.

Mark depicts John the Baptizer as a direct link to the messianic prophets of the past.  But this narrative contains the same distinction made in the other synoptics and John, specifically a distinction between the baptism with "water" offered by John for "repentance" vis a vis the baptism offered by Jesus of the "Holy Spirit."   The works and message of Jesus are something new, to which those who came before him could only point. The sign of something new and even unique from God is the Holy Spirit, which descends on Jesus just as he emerges from the water of the Baptizer's conventional baptism. And as significantly the text emphasizes that, "he will baptize
you with the Holy Spirit" ! To finish fittingly this dramatic scene, "A voice came from heaven, 'You are my son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased'."

What are we to make of this jumble-- four gospel accounts plus Paul's gloss (each treating John the Baptizer differently); two creation stories, including today's taken from another religion; multiple iterations of the major stories in the Hebrew scriptures; the authorized liturgical hymnal (the psalms) which happily and heavily borrows from earlier texts and even other religions?

Ludwig Wittgenstein thought about this question and wrote in
Culture and Value:

"God has
four people recount the life of His incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies-- but might we say: It is important that this narrative should not be more than quite average historically plausible just so that this should not be taken as the essential, decisive thing? So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper and the spirit may receive its due...." (p.31e)
"Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as a result of a [specific] life." (p.32e)
"But if I am to be REALLY saved--what I need is certainty-- not wisdom, dreams or speculation-- and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed in my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind." (p.33e)

The preacher preaches for effect, to move the soul, the spirit not for something trivial or sentimental, but for one's salvation. The preacher adds her own gloss on the biblical narratives, which are also glosses. Or, the preacher tells new stories that, to the best of his ability and for a specific congregation he knows, aims for the same effect inspired by the biblical narratives.

Therefore, even though the version of creation assigned for this Sunday is borrowed, it is told for the effect of conveying God's beneficence, which, through the eyes of faith, regards all creation as gift from God who called it "good." (For an admirable understanding of the power of seeing life as God's good gift, even, or perhaps especially, in the messiness of our own times as witnessed in the works of the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and the American novelist John Updike, see John Mctavish's "Soul Mates" in the journal,
Theology Today, vol. 65 no. 4, pp 475-488.  Also, Catherine Keller's wondrous Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming and John Caputo's The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event  owe their brilliant inspiration to the Elohist's creation story.) )

Mark's intended effect is to introduce the reader to his story of Jesus that follows as something "new" from God. And something that will always be new.  Any human enterprise can launch a n appeal for "repentance," as John the baptizer admirably did, but only God's spirit can launch (this time in Jesus) a new beginning as full of benevolence as the initial act of creation, which God sees as "good."

Luke's emphasis in the Acts on the Holy Spirit and Mark's words attributed to the Baptizer make a startling claim that is as powerful today as when it was first thought: God is not finished, the narrative does not end in the biblical text, but continues in those who come to see themselves as baptized by the very same Holy Spirit as Jesus himself!  The iterations/interpretations flow endlessly and so does the impact on specific "lives," as Wittgenstein insisted.