In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matthew 3: 1-2, 5-11
Pretty much every religion in the world today has some sort of ritual involving water. People know: water cleanses. Water washes off the dirt and grime of (daily) living. Water refreshes us and can make us feel like a new person.
So it isn’t surprising that faith traditions have embraced ritual baths and interpreted the cleansing in a symbolic way: that the impurities of human bodies and souls are washed away through the immersion in holy waters, and that the cleaned person emerges from the waters restored and renewed. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American beliefs (among other faith traditions) use purification rituals – for more information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual_purification’
When John the Baptist called people to repentance and baptized them in the River Jordan, he did not do something entirely new: in Judaism, there was ritual handwashing before prayers and meals, and the full submersion in non-drawn waters (like rivers, lakes, and ‘mikvahs’, which are basins collecting rain water). Full submersion was required for a believer after ritual defilements as described in the Mosaic Laws (for example, after menstruation or childbirth). The purification restores a person to the worship community, which is to relationship with God.
John adopts the Jewish custom of the submersion of people in ‘non-drawn’, in living waters. What is new and radical about John’s purification ritual is that is doesn’t pinpoint certain defilements that need to be ‘washed off’ – no, John calls for repentance, which involves the entire existence of a human being. John’s baptism is about a renewed existence, a renewed relationship with God in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom among the people.
But regarding the baptism of John, many questions remain unanswered: was this ritual to be repeated, or was it a one-time affair? What were the practical consequences of this renewal in the waters of the Jordan?
What we know is that Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan. Theologians are still scratching their heads why Jesus underwent this ritual of repentance and renewal – but what we know is that, as Jesus came out of the water, God’s Holy Spirit came upon him, and God declared him God’s beloved child. In a sense, Jesus’ existence changed dramatically after his baptism – after about 30 years of relative obscurity, Jesus now personifies the kingdom of God that has come near. Jesus dedicates his entire life to the will of God, the Father, healing, teaching, forgiving, restoring.
John’s baptism was the precursor to the ritual the young Christian community would practice: a one-time baptism, which signified not only the purification of the human soul, but would point at the radical newness of human life in God. The Apostle Paul even speaks of the ‘drowning of the old Adam’, the death of our old existence, as we rise in newness of life out of the waters. In this baptism, we are once and for all embraced by God’s grace and declared God’s children. The baptismal waters truly are the living waters that give us a new life, and transform our existence. Not that we are entirely free of fault and sin – but the love and grace of God poured into our hearts flows over into the world, proclaiming that, indeed, the peaceable and love-filled kingdom of God has come near and breaks forth in our midst.
Photo by Zen photographer on unsplash.com
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