I always feel caught off guard by the celebration of the Lord’s baptism. I mean, we just celebrated His birth followed by the visit from the Magi to meet the infant King. And then, boom, fast forward thirty years or so to the scene of the River Jordan. Other than the one story of Jesus hanging back at the temple when he was a pre-teen, we don’t have lots of stories to help us understand His slow trajectory from child, to youth, to man to Savior of the world. What went on in those intervening years? What was Jesus like and how did He become the man we know from the Gospels? Was He a serious, introverted kid or was he gregarious and always running with the neighborhood pack? Did Jesus have a quick wit? Did he play a mean game of street ball? Was He exceptional at something or was He a relatively ordinary guy? What life experiences did He have that led Him to understand the role He would play? We just don’t know, and in a way, it doesn’t really matter, because showing up at the River Jordan is square one, ground zero. The Baptism marks a seismic shift in the salvation story, a moment of revelation and utter newness. And self-abasement made it all possible.
Jesus chooses to mark the beginning of his life in the public eye by identifying with the rank and file Israelite people, by being counted among them, especially the repentant sinners. Jesus, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, very intentionally makes the long journey from Nazareth to the Jordan River, a distance of about 80 miles, to ask for John’s lesser baptism with water. Could you imagine a more humble way to begin your ministry of self-giving? One Biblical scholar writes: “The one to whom man’s mind and heart must turn in a gesture of repentance himself teaches man that gesture by submitting to his own minister. He…puts on the penitential garb and recites prayers of contrition for our own sinful flesh, which is now his own… Before he utters any teaching, Christ’s first revelation of the interior Being of God occurs in this gesture of humility.” (Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, p.124)
In order to make this all work, John, too, must respond with perfect meekness. Imagine John’s shock and dismay at seeing the Messiah approach! How does the prophet who is “not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” follow through on such an absurd request? Like Peter during the washing of the feet, John must have said, “No way can I baptize you, cousin!!” Newness, humility and revelation are all bound together in this moment. Fortunately, John responds to this novel paradigm by letting go of expectations and embracing Christian obedience, no matter how challenging.
This encounter between Jesus and John provides a new road map for relationship with God and one another. Humility, according to St. Augustine, is “almost the whole of Christian teaching.” Thirty some odd years prior, the story of Jesus is begun with humility; consider Mary’s humble yes to the angel Gabriel; Joseph’s humble acceptance of a pregnant new bride; the three kings bowing down before an infant. Christianity is born of and perpetuated by acts of humility. Humility is the through line for Jesus’ entire ministry — it connects everything from the moment with John at the River Jordan to the moment with Pilate in the Praetorium, and on to Calvary.
Humility can get a bad rap. We often think of humble people as weak. And how often do you see fist pumping crowds going wild over someone known for their meekness? We prefer to embrace the individual with the fighting spirit, the one who knows his own mind and acts with confidence. On close inspection, though, we begin to understand that humility requires not that we think less of ourselves but that we merely think of ourselves less. (C.S. Lewis) The humble acknowledge what makes them exceptional; they just don’t expect to be treated differently because of it. Humble people are also able to embrace their limitations, using them as a means of personal growth.
Christian humility goes a step further. A llow me to share a lengthy quote by philosophy professor Kent Dunnington, who speaks of Christian humility as “a glad acceptance of our fundamental weakness and neediness” which are seen not as “obstacles to flourishing but rather avenues to flourishing. This is what the beatitudes are about. Jesus says that if you want to be blessed, you’ll sooner or later have to learn to rest in your neediness, weakness and meekness. And then Jesus demonstrated in his life and resurrection that one could really live this way. The Christian story of cross-and-resurrection challenged the dominant narrative of what a successful human life would look like. Christians began to proclaim that exaltation and humiliation were not opposed but, somehow, two sides of the same coin.” (Dunnington, Humility: the beginning and end of the virtues) Again, humility leads to the revelation of a new idea, a turning of tradition on its head.
But let’s get back to the scene of the Baptism. As Jesus humbly submits to John and rises up from the waters of the Jordan, He is rewarded with God’s revelation that He is indeed ready for this new ministry to begin. The heavens are dramatically torn open and a voice assures Him that “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” This Son of Man is anointed by God the Father so that, as Isaiah prophesied, He might bring forth justice to the nations in continued humility and gentleness — not crying out or shouting, nor breaking a bruised reed or quenching the smoldering wick. The Father, in a corresponding sign of gentleness, sends down the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove – not some magnificent, huge raptor, you’ll note. And in that Trinitarian convergence, heaven and earth are, as the Biblical scholar aptly puts it, “spanned by a great axis of love.” “By being plunged into the Jordan by John, Jesus plunges us into the Blessed Trinity’s river of light.” (Leiva-Merikakis, p.133, 135)
We tend to most revere the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany during this holy season, but perhaps it is the Baptism that should really knock our socks off. It is the defining moment when everything changes for the Israelites and for us! It is the beginning of a new message of Good News. It is the portal through which we first glimpse Jesus’ divine membership in the Trinity. It is the moment when we, too, through baptism, are invited into this axis of love.
As we mark the end of the Christmas season, I invite you to consider Jesus, John, Mary and the three Kings and to also think about people you’ve encountered who are exemplars of humility. How might we emulate these individuals so that the Divine might begin something new in and through us, a seismic shift that might turn tradition on its head in our own time?