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But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
A recent article from The Atlantic caught my eye, “Why Getting Drunk and Making Resolutions on New Year’s Are Profoundly Religious Acts.” I’d never really thought of The Atlantic as a publication to engage in sensational headlines so I started to read and was engaged by the content from one of my former professor’s at the University of Chicago, Wendy Doeniger. As soon as I read Wendy’s name, I should not have been surprised at the title: I knew it would be provocative and grounded theology.
Professor Doeniger is one of the leading Sanskrit scholars in the western world, has a stellar reputation for her knowledge of Hindu mythology, and makes herself at home in what we might think are very edgy areas. Her new translation of the Kamasutra, the ancient guide to proper practices in all things of pleasure was widely heralded for its insight and sparked controversy among eastern readers for its candor.
When I studied with Wendy, she was in the throes of writing a book since published entitled The Bed Trick. She traces, from ancient mythology through modern novels and movies, stories of people who were utterly surprised by whom they found in their bed when they woke up in the morning. She was not focused on the “one-night stand,” but those relationships in which someone finds out after years or decades of marriage, they woke up and suddenly realized they really did not know their spouse. Or, they did not know themselves. Its more common than we’d like to think – hence the breadth of stories told over centuries and throughout cultures. She had a keen interest in understanding why.
However edgy or risqué we might feel about her theses and work, she delves into the heart of complex and pervasive human relationships to explore an individual’s identity, behaviors and values. She questions what influences what we do and shapes our relationships with others and the divine.
With this insight to Wendy, I realized she could look at drunken New Year’s Eve celebrations and find parallels in our shared religious traditions for such behaviors, even theological motives.
For the most part, New Year’s traditions are not explicitly religious, but the theme of the holiday—that this is a time to start over and be a better person—shows up in all types of faiths and cultures in history. Wearing sparkly hats, drinking champagne, and promising yourself that you’ll actually go to the gym this year may seem silly, but structurally, these acts have a lot in common with religious observances.
Doeniger states: “(t)he idea that you’re suddenly going to change is a magical idea and religions are in charge of magic for most of us. This [idea] gets into the popular culture as well.” She uses the word “magic” to explain the role faith and rituals play: religious belief is predicated on the assumption that there are forces beyond our control or understanding that influence our lives (i.e., magic, if you’re a sociologist; God, if you’re a monotheist).
She reflects: “(t)hings that happen at the stroke of midnight are always magical things.” She does not refer to magical, as in a magic trick of some sort, but rather a belief that something will happen in your life, you will turn a corner, mark a new beginning, etc. An example might be: a person really will go to the gym, change one’s being and the physical world with the power of something beyond one’s person, drawing from a power that is restorative and positive. We want to believe in the power and potential of new beginnings.
She points to a variety of religious celebrations followed by periods of solemnity and renewal. For example, in Latin America, carnival is celebrated with masks, costumes to conceal one’s identity, allowing one to pretend to be someone else, only to be followed by Lenten observances, which focus on cleansing, humility and lead into the Easter celebration of resurrection and new life. (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/why-getting-drunk-and-making-resolutions-on-new-years-are-profoundly-religious-acts/282744/)
Identity and renewal: these concepts are intimately related in the way we recognize ourselves, live our lives and the faith we place in the sacraments we practice.
Matthew’s gospel takes great effort to persuade the reader of Jesus’ humanity, born into the Abrahamic family and sharing in King David’s lineage. Matthew also proclaims Jesus’ entry into this world as God incarnate. The writer of Matthew knows that the more we can understand Jesus, the more we might be able to grasp how our life is connected to his.
Each of the four gospels includes some description of Jesus’ baptism. Among early Christian historians, there is little debate if it happened. Most profess it did. But, Matthew’s account is unique in that we can overhear a conversation between John the Baptist, who presides at the baptism and Jesus.
John the Baptist had been calling for people to repent, come into the waters of baptism, be washed clean, and with changed hearts walk into a new life. When Jesus appears, John is stumped and clearly names what seems inappropriate – how could he baptize the holy one who lives without the need to repent.
Jesus’ response is simple “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” John consents and baptizes Jesus.
“Let it be so now,” sounds so passive yet it is intended as an imperative of “permit this” for Jesus to model humble and courageous behavior. In doing so, he denies any notion of hierarchical standards we humans love to construct, presuming the more divine should anoint the lesser, and demonstrates his willingness to be with us in all of our human tasks.
God is with us. Jesus comes to stand along side all the doubting and fearful sinners. Jesus comes to claim us amidst our trials, messy and sinful life.
Together Jesus and John submit to baptism and collaborate to fulfill righteousness, as scripture describes. This righteousness, desired by Jesus, is not a legal standing before God, but an aspect of discipleship he wants to begin with John, and all of us, in this life. This righteousness is letting go of our personal sense of what we think is right for us and allow God’s will and purpose to blossom in our lives. When we let go of our self-constructed ideas of who we are, any limited identity we think we can construct, we will then become with God’s help, what God intends.
John the Baptist and Jesus’ obedience to baptism testifies to the behavior God desires from us and the way God meets us in the sacrament of baptism (Troy Miller, Feasting on the Word. 239).
When Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan, we heard a voice from heaven say “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Was Jesus’ identity changed in this act? No, Jesus’ identity is proclaimed: fully human and fully divine. Jesus’ behavior, going into the waters of baptism, is a blessed gift to us, modeling what we are called to do. The sacrament also showcases God’s approval, and proclaims God’s relationship to Jesus.
But for us, baptism does change our identity. When we baptize children, or an adult, we ask for the Christian name of the child, which is his or her given first and middle name(s). We then pronounce this name as part of the baptism rite, staking a Christian identity and claim on all of the child’s life.
Immediately after baptizing the child in the name of the Father, son and Holy Spirit we then proclaim, “you are a child of God, sealed by the spirit and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.”
Baptism forms our identities as one with Christ. Participating in the sacrament of baptism expresses our belief in God’s promise that we are part of the body of Christ, baptized into his death and from this intimate relationship, will share in Christ’s resurrection. We can also hear an echo in the rite of baptism: we too are beloved children of God.
What’s next? Can baptism become just a New Year’s Eve resolution, fragile to our human nature, tossed aside at the next party opportunity or too difficult to uphold for long periods? Or, is this the beginning of something new?
Baptism claims us as Christ’s forever and empowers us to live in his example, responsibly with others, loving others, even our enemies. Baptism is also not magic. If we want to be quit a sin-filled past and strive for a life-giving path that differs from the common culture notion of “live for today” and “whoever has the most toys wins”, we need to relinquish what we think of as control over our lives and allow ourselves to be guided by Christ and empowered by the spirit. That is not easy. To turn off the practice of not just drunken parties or other destructive habits is too difficult alone, we need God’s strength and forgiveness along with way. Let’s also be honest, it is often not a decision between something good or bad, but a decision to act when we could easily turn aside from a friend or neighbor in need or deny that another human is our neighbor.
We need God’s help, inspired by the spirit and witnessed in others, to be aware of our daily decisions to commit to a new way of life.
Baptism also asks of the community witnessing the sacrament to be responsible in nurturing its children – young or old, teaching the gospel in word and deed, by their actions in the church and in daily life. We are not alone in the sacrament of baptism or in our Christian life – we need to depend upon others.
This message is good news to those of us who want to place ourselves and our children within a community to be nurtured into what God intends and become vital members, expressing the unique gifts God implants in all each person.
Baptism is our time to collaborate with God, as John the Baptist did, in bringing righteousness into our world – a new way of being a disciple with obedience to God. This is the level ground on which we all live: witnessing Christian ethics and theology are up to all of us, not just a select few.
It is empowering to realize on those days when we are at our best, we are allowing God to shine through. It is also comforting to know on those days when we are not at our best, we are not alone and have a power that is beyond us – in the Holy Spirit and present in the church that is also committed to us – that can draw us toward a better life.
Last month we celebrated the story of Jesus coming into our world. Now the question placed before us in Jesus’ baptism is to recall our own baptism and to think about how we identify with him in our life, our beliefs and our behavior.
Jesus walked out of the water and lived a life obedient to God’s mission. His identity had been expressed not only in the genealogy of an Israelite and the voice from heaven claiming Jesus to be God’s son. Now, Jesus’ identity will be expressed by his behavior, feeding the hungry, healing, teaching humility and kindness by serving others. Jesus models the behavior we are to claim in our daily lives as part of the body of Christ.
Last week you humored me when I confessed my love of country music and then, in the quiet of the hallways, you shared with me a favorite artist or song. I know I am not alone.
I’ll go back to Rascal Flatts and their first song I ever heard. It recalls someone who made a resolution at New Year’s to live into new life differently, with humility and with God. Let me share it with you.
I came up out of the water
Raised my hands up to the Father
Gave it all to him that day
Felt a new wind kiss my face
Walked away, Eyes wide open
Could finally see where I was going
It didn’t matter where I’d been
I’m not the same man I was then
I got off track, I made mistakes
Back slid my way into that place where souls get lost
Lines get crossed
and the pain won’t go away
I hit my knees, Now here I stand
There I was, now here I am
Here I am
I’m changed for the better
More smiles, less bitter
I’m even starting to forgive myself
Yes I am
I’m changed for the better.
Thank God I’m changed.