Friday, July 8, 2011

Forgiving the Jews, Part One - Jesus' Baptism

We might assume since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan that John somehow initiated Jesus into something. This is normal, since that’s exactly what an ordinary, Christian baptism does. There is generally a gulf between the initiate and the one doing the initiating.
But if you ask a Priest about his first baptism ever, assuming he doesn’t remember his own, a different thread appears. The first time one initiates another is also an initiation, an initiation onto the fraternity of those who initiate. And into solidarity, perhaps, with those who also initiate others.
Likewise, a person who has an over-arching agenda could well decide to demonstrate solidarity with the others so initiated, even though they themselves were already initiates.
And think for a moment about the first time a thing is ever done, like being the first one to eat at a lunch counter or attend a university or become President. Here the sense of initiation is overshadowed by the feeling that a new era is beginning, that the prospect for new beginnings somehow includes all of us; that we are all initiates now because of our new prospects.
I think that each of these things were occurring at Christ’s baptism, and I think that each could properly overshadow our mistaken conception that the event in which John and ‘Jesus participated was in any way similar to our sacrament.
When Jesus chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan, a number of things were happening that are quite unlike what will or did happen when we Christians get baptized. Like almost everything else in the Gospels, it is a pre-Christ event, and not a Christian event. The baptism of John was a Jewish baptism, offered as a radical and perhaps schismatic alternative to the blood sacrifice of animals performed in the temple by the Priests of the Sanhedrin.
This was more a rejection of the monopoly held by the temple over reconciliation than initiation into a new faith tradition. Indeed, John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. Circumcision was the initiatory sacrament of the Jews, and not Baptism; Since Jesus was already circumcised, he could hardly have been initiated into Judaism by his baptism.
Indeed, when we take into account that Jesus was also free of sin, it then becomes apparent that the only conceivable reason for Jesus to be baptized by John in the Jordan would have been to express solidarity, perhaps primarily with John and his radical new egalitarianism, and secondarily with the poor, who had long labored under the accreted heretical excesses of the temple priests, especially inasmuch their accommodations to Rome were unanticipated by Torah.
Later, when Jesus cleanses the temple, His real reason becomes apparent: Lest His actions at the temple deny the poor the reconciliation they seek, He, in concert with John, initiated an alternative liturgy of reconciliation independent of the temple.
In a sense, it was not Jesus being baptized that day, but all of humanity, as He and John began the long and still incomplete process of ending external sacrifice and scapegoating for all time, and establishing reconciliation as a internal process central to the integration of the soul’s yearnings and the body’s actions.
In a very real sense Christ that day unbound the human soul, freeing it from the blood of beasts and setting in motion the events that would spill His blood to forever bind us to the will of God. It was in the Jordan with John that Jesus began the process of baptizing all of us with the Holy Spirit.

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