January 8, 2017
In the usual course of things -- when Christmas falls on a day besides Sunday -- the Christmas season ends with the feast of the Lord’s Baptism. This year however that feast is kept on the eighth and does not get its usual full Sunday treatment. But that does give me the opportunity to share with you some of my own musings on this event in the life of Jesus and one of my favorite hobbies, Christian iconography – the elements of design and symbolism that let you know that a specific piece of art is ‘christian’.
Let us begin, though, with the accounts of the Scriptures.
It is really fascinating to take the time to read all of the New Testament versions of this story. Each of them insists that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. But each arranges the other elements of the story in a different order -- who hears the Father’s words, whether and to whom and in conjunction with what other elements is the descending Spirit is visible.
This kind of confused reporting can be shocking to some folks. Others, refusing to be shocked will create their own ‘harmonized’ version of the events reported. Some will simply declare that the event is wholly made-up.
The most likely and easiest theory is that each evangelist made use of the material he had (probably confused after fifty years of remembering and retelling) in order to create a narrative that would most clearly express the significance of the event for Jesus, for John the Baptist, for the reader. No one of these narratives has any greater claim to ‘video’ truth than the others; but each of them is entitled to priority claim ‘theological’ truth for itself.
In countless parish churches around the world the baptistery and baptismal font are decorated in motifs that are derived from the story of the baptism of Christ: figures of John the Baptist alone, or with Jesus, or of Jesus with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the blessing hand of the Father extended from heaven to indicate the ‘beloved Son’ who has just been baptized.
Now, seeking a connection of Christian Baptism with the baptism of Jesus is too desirable to raise any eyebrow. After all, Christian life is supposed to be an imitation of Christ! And the Sacraments are all
instituted by Christ! So there must be connection between the Sacraments and the events of his life!
Even the Church’s ritual for Baptism includes readings about the Baptism of Jesus!
But sixty or seventy years ago, something – actually several things – changed and the art and meaning of Baptism changed right along with them. It will take me longer than I had planned to talk about these things, but, if they take as long as I imagine, they will lead us right into Lent and prepare us to celebrate that season and the Easter one to follow with a ‘new’ understanding of Baptism.
Lest you think me ‘all wet’ with Baptismal water, I really and truly and drily yours,