Sam describes a daily ritual in his life. Every night, he and his wife meet in the kitchen to prepare dinner. They each sip from a glass of wine as they talk, and laugh, and sometimes, even dance the stresses of the day away.
Together they chop and saute and simmer away the day’s problems. Their daughter Lacey comes in after a little while, and sets the table. They light candles, hold hands, pray, and share the dinner meal together. This time is sacred time for the family. In a deep way, it binds them together.
Julie has a ritual too. Each day she comes home from work, shucks off her “business attire,” pulls on her comfy sweater and lounge pants, and washes her face. This is her way of symbolically shucking off the concerns and demands of her high-pressure job, of washing away the detritus of her long commute, of the worries of the day that still linger, and easing into her evening of activities or relaxation or rest. There is something sacred for Julie, too, in this symbolic transformation she makes, day after day.
People engage in all kinds of rituals, for all kinds of reasons.
The most common reason may be the belief (or hope) that the prescribed actions within the rituals will provide some kind of comfort, reassurance, or sometimes perhaps, protection.
Rituals somehow bring about or mark a change. A change in focus; a change in essence of the person, place, or time; a change in status or condition.
Think about it. What rituals might you engage in, daily or othewise?
Sometimes, rituals tie us in some way, to others. As vulnerable, finite beings, we often rely on rituals because they reassure us that we are not alone or that we are part of something larger than ourselves, or that we have the ability to tap into powers greater than ourselves, through the actions of our rituals.
Rituals may, in fact, provide an entry point into membership of a group or community. They may convey a new identity in some way. They provide meaning. They are at the core of the communal activity of most religions.
At the beginning of our worship service today, we engaged in a ritual when we remembered and gave thanks for Baptism. Perhaps you even got a little bit wet. Again. As you once did, when you were baptized.
Now, the truth is, that you may or may not, literally remember your own baptism. Perhaps you were old enough that you remember the day—if nothing else, remember getting your head wet, remember the prayers and celebration that may have followed.
For many of us, any actual memory of our baptism has been provided to us by our parents or other relatives, or by pictures that were taken that day, or other mementos that may have been saved, because we were too young to form those memories for ourselves.
But we need to remember. Because Baptism means something, and yet, that meaning often gets lost in all the packaging.
Baptism is seen by many people as a ritual itself—it may be understood as an action that brings comfort, or reassurance, or protection and identity to the person being baptized—which, I suppose you could say is at least partially true. But we miss the real meaning of Baptism if we only see it as a ritual to be performed, a rite to accomplish. The fact of the matter is that it is not our action, it is not what we do, it is not all the movements, words, clothing and celebration that form our rituals around it that make Baptism the holy and sacred gift that it is.
It is what God does in us through this spectacular gift of love and mercy that is at the heart of Baptism. Baptism matters.
In a world where life itself seems some days to hold less and less worth, where we constantly hear about bombings and shootings, about hit-and-runs and the lives of little children coming to tragic, horrific ends Baptism matters. Indeed, in a world where death constantly beckons, where health fails and cures don’t always exist, Baptism matters. For the forgiveness of sin and the promise of everlasting life, Baptism matters.
And in our gospel today, we read about Jesus’ own Baptism. And we have to wonder, don’t we? How is it that the sinless one is first revealed and met through a ritual of repentance?
Why in the world would Jesus, the Messiah, need to be, choose to be, baptized? Why did this one of whom John the Baptist spoke, this one who, John identifies as, “more powerful than I,” of whom, John said, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,” present himself to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River?
Perhaps the way in which Mark chooses to begin his gospel provides some insight into these questions.
While both Luke and Matthew begin their gospels with the nativity of Jesus, full of images we can visualize and memorize, images like Mary’s and Joseph’s incredible journey to Bethlehem, like angelic visions and angel song, like a brightly shining star and the shepherds who followed it, like a sweet manger scene; and while John begins his gospel with the poetic description of Jesus as God’s eternal Word, and the Word taking on flesh, and God’s glory being revealed in this Word who brings Light and Life, Mark takes us to the river. Mark begins his gospel with this Epiphany, with this revelation of who Jesus Christ truly is. Mark gives us this baptismal scene.
John, who, we remember, is Jesus’ cousin, the one who leapt in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb at the Virgin Mary’s visit, is in the wilderness, calling people to repentance and inviting them to be baptized, and announcing the one who is coming…..
Baptism as ritual was nothing new to many of those in ancient Judaism, who viewed it as a religious cleansing, a washing with water, signifying purification or consecration, not only for the purpose of extinguishing the guilt of transgression, but as a ritual of holy living, to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God.
But then, Jesus enters in. Literally. Jesus enters the waters of the Jordan. Perhaps, Jesus entering those waters is meant to help us recall all the water-tales of the Scriptures, beginning with the first reading and the water story of Genesis, where the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters and God created the world.
Or the flood story where God uses water to make a new creation, saving Noah and his family. Or the exodus story where God uses water to free the Israelites from slavery as they cross through the sea, with God creating a wall of water for them on their left and on their right so that they can walk on dry land to freedom.
As they journey through the wilderness God provides water from a rock so they may never thirst. And when they reach the end of their wandering, God brings them into the Promised Land through water, to the land flowing with milk and honey and the fulfillment of God’s promises. That water is the river Jordan. The same water we find Jesus in.
Pastor Virginia Cover writes that perhaps all this water-talk is meant to remind us that God is faithful throughout the generations. That God shows up in the water, to make good on God’s promises. That God uses water to shape identities and reveal who God is. And so, at the beginning of this gospel, at the beginning of this Epiphany and this story of the revelation of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Jesus enters in.
Here is where Mark’s story stands in stark contrast to the nativity scenes we have so recently left behind. Here the story of Jesus’ Baptism stands in stark contrast to our own sweet, tender and tame baptismal photographs and remembrances.
As we read this gospel, we come to understand Baptism is not about us and what we do, it is about God and what God has done in Jesus Christ. When it comes right down to it, Jesus’ Baptism bears little resemblance to comforting, familiar ritual we know.
Because at Jesus’ Baptism the heavens are torn apart. Ripped to shreds.
Cover points out that the same Greek verb used here appears later when Jesus breathes his last and the curtain of the temple is torn in two. Ripped to shreds. Literally.
The curtain of the temple: that barrier between God and the people, the symbol of God being separated from us is ripped to shreds. And here in this gospel, at his Baptism we find Jesus, in the waters, ripping stuff to shreds as a preview of more to come because in his death and resurrection he will rip apart anything, and everything that might try to separate us from God.
He will rip it up and he will soak it with water—with tears as he weeps for the city, for the 12 killed in Paris, for the hundreds lost in an airline, for a bicyclist lost to a senseless accident, for all those lost to violence, or neglect, abuse or addiction; for those immured in illness; for all who grieve and long for a different world, for healing and peace.
This same Jesus, upon whom the Spirit descends from that torn-apart heaven, will soak us all with water, flowing out from his side—a healing balm for all who hurt or long for forgiveness. This is Mark’s epiphany story. This is who Jesus is—the One who comes to the under-water places, the messed up, torn-apart places in our world and in our lives. The places we think will never be put back again. Jesus, the revelation of the love of God, meets us under the waters and pulls us up to forgiveness and healing; pulls us out to freedom and truth-telling.
There is more good news for us in this Word, for this Jesus meets us in the water and changes our baptism from ritual action to life-saving, life-giving transformation. Thus transformed, our Baptism offers us light illuminating, grace-full, mercy-full communion with our Lord and Savior, and it indeed means something. It is a game-changer, as Jesus leaves behind the mark of the cross on us. Jesus washes away the guilt of our sin, Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, tearing apart our brokenness, ripping to shreds the effects of our pain, and bringing about the healing of the nations.
By his baptism, Jesus has once again proclaimed his commitment to be alongside us, in repentance and sorrow, in forgiveness and new life. Joyfully, Baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are washed in water and Word, sealed with the cross of Christ and proclaimed “Child of God.” In mercy and in love, we are united with Jesus in death, in life, and all eternity.