Silent and Afraid #2: Baptised on the Way

 Icon of St. John the Baptist (Nikolo-Ugreshsky Monastery near Moscow)

Icon of St. John the Baptist (Nikolo-Ugreshsky Monastery near Moscow)

 

1 [4] John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. [5] And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. [6] Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. [7] He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. [8] I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’


[9] In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. [10] And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. [11] And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’


[12] And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. [13] He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.


I have been meaning to keep writing my reading of Mark’s Gospel. Unfortunately life can get in the way, cutting into the time needed to sit, reflect, and write. This itself should remind us that all writing is sutured to concrete realities of life. To reiterate, this reality that texts are always connected to material realities drives my reading of Mark’s Gospel.


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As I’ve been percolating my reflections on the Gospel of Mark I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with narrative approaches to the text. I signalled this in my first post in this series. My dissatisfaction has two causes:


First, it disconnects the text from the community in which it resided, and the communities in which it still resides. In reading the Gospel of Mark simply as a text we are at risk of making assumptions about its composition that may be explained in other ways. Since we have no access to what lies behind the text some of the best interpreters have therefore suggested that we simply take the text as a text and set aside the unknown reality behind it. This increasingly seems to me to be unwarranted. Not because I have - at last! - secured some insight beyond the text. But because regardless of what the reality was in the author’s community behind the text, there was such a reality. And regardless of our ignorance of that communal reality, we are well aware of our own. And insofar as our own communities are Christian, and see texts like the Gospel of Mark as, in some sense, Scripture, we are obliged to see the text as enacting an intervention into the situations of our communities.


Second, a narrative approach to the text imports assumptions about how the text should be read. Notwithstanding the significant diversity of interpretations of the Gospel of Mark, the common narrative approach to Mark’s Gospel assumes that the story evolves from beginning to end. Certainly the text does have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But very few interpreters therefore think that we should read each section with equal weight. There is consensus within scholarly commentary that the Gospel of Mark amounts to a passion narrative (the end), with an extended introduction (the beginning and middle). Quite right. What interpreters then do is simply read the narrative as if the character of Jesus were fated -- as if the original readers had not already read the ending.


Even the most sophisticated interpreters read the narrative strictly naively: Jesus, as a character, develops throughout the narrative, but like a Greek tragedy there is a fated end. I would suggest that the Gospel of Mark is not trying to make the point that the crucifixion of Christ is necessary, or to retell the life of Jesus with the looming inevitability of death floating as a spectre in the background. Rather the text is continually an attempt to provide the author’s community of faith with the resources for a particular understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.


Recall my suggestion that the text transgresses its own boundaries as a text. The Gospel of Mark pushes beyond itself, it challenges us. And so it is not a simple retelling of the story, but retells this story only ever to guarantee that the story is continued. In this vein reading the text from start to finish is perhaps not the most helpful way into it. It is much better to read the text as a series of threads woven together into a more robust rope that can then be used for something.


Writing about any one of the these threads is a difficult task. This difficulty has thrown a spanner in my initial intentions to provide a straightforward sequential reading of the text. Nevertheless we shall push on with our first encounter with John the Baptiser.


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The figure of John the Baptiser plays a central role in the Gospel of Mark. However, it is difficult to appreciate this role so early in the text. It is not until we see the characterisation of John develop throughout the text that he fully comes into relief. As such the focus of this entry will be on baptism as prefiguring the mode of revelation endorsed by Mark as he writes his account of the beginning of the Good News.


I first worked out this material in a sermon that fell the first Sunday after epiphany. Epiphany is an odd event in the Christian liturgical calendar, because it tends to fall around new year's, and coincide with the beginning of the standard liturgical year that begins after Christmas, and tends towards lent and Easter (the Archimedean centre point in the Christian year). And so a preacher is presented with an unusual range of texts. Texts that mark epiphany; texts that aim at marking the new year; and texts that mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.


In a fit of irony I chose the text placed at the top of this post as an epiphany text. Epiphany which celebrates the revelation of Jesus to those outside - namely Gentiles - was here marked by a text that begins the Markan trope of the Messianic secret. Indeed, not simply the Messianic secret, but this text (Mk. 1.4-13) sets the terms of Mark’s understanding of revelation that runs through the whole text. As an epiphany text things are all wrong: there seem to be no Gentiles to speak of, no public revelation, just a wild desert preacher and a young Rabbi about to take his mantle.


To understand just how difficult this text is it’s helpful to set it aside some of its earliest recorded readers: the other Gospel writers. When set aside the other Gospel accounts, Mark’s account is the most restrictive of all in terms of revelation. It seems only Jesus can see the Spirit descending like a dove. John and the crowd are not privy to this divine revelation, as they seem to be in Luke and John's Gospels.


The divine voice from heaven is likewise restrictive. It addresses Jesus directly: “You are my beloved Son.” The indirect and public declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship, through the mouth of John the Baptiser, or a booming Heavenly voice is absent.


Matthew’s Gospel finds the interaction between Jesus and John at his baptism so awkward that Matthew feels the need to insert an interaction between Jesus and John, to relieve the tension the encounter creates.


The first Sunday after epiphany we read this difficult text: no gentiles, no public revelation. And worse: as soon as Jesus’ divine sonship is revealed he is drawn out into the desert. Upon his return he begins a ministry characterised by a messianic secret: no one is allowed to publicly utter that Jesus is the son of God.


The importance of this text is that it sets up the terms of revelation that Mark uses throughout the rest of his text. And, as noted in my first post, sets up the fact that Mark’s text transgresses itself: it is conscious of itself as more than a text, the text is a conversation partner within a community of faith. If we are to read this text faithfully, then we must take seriously what it means to see this text as a conversation partner for ourselves.


The terms of revelation Mark employs are not simply fascinating aspects of a text, but are instructive for our own grappling with questions of divine revelation. How might we see baptism as a mode of revelation?


First, it should be noted that Jesus’ baptism  by John is not Jesus’ first baptism. Sergei Bulgakov sees Jesus’ conception as the first and paradigmatic example of spirit baptism. Echoing the theme of baptism as participation, it is by the spirit that God participates in humanity. Recalling the great birthing waters over which the Spirit hovered in the beginning, God came in Christ to dwell fully in and with our humanity. This first baptism of Jesus - in which he is incarnate by the Holy Spirit, to use the language of Nicea - recalls Genesis 1 as a key intertext. (In this regard John’s Gospel sits comfortably within this stream of thought, as do the annunciation narratives of Matthew and Luke.)


The idea of baptism in which, through the symbol of water, we participate in Christ, is mirrored in the Spirit's enabling of Christ's participation in humanity. This understanding of baptism is absent from Mark. Mark sees no need to include the accounts of the unusual birth of Jesus.


I am somewhat sympathetic to the claim that the opening word of the Gospel of Mark:  Ἀρχη (beginning), does allude to a sort of founding or creation motif. However, if this text is offering us a new founding we should be careful not to import our assumptions about creation into this text.


Accepting our conceit that everything is deliberate, Mark omits the first baptism of Jesus for good reason. By refusing to acknowledge the stories of Jesus’ unusual birth Mark draws on different threads within Jewish thought. Mark offers a counter narrative.


Creation does not begin with the world over which God is sovereign. Indeed, as Jesus’ flight into the desert highlights, this opening movement of the text is as much about Exodus as about Genesis.


This way of blurring creation and exodus is not unprecedented in the Jewish tradition. The clearest example is in Habakkuk 3. Where Habakkuk’s resolution to the suffering of Israel intertwines the Exodus and Genesis narratives. Indeed this is to such a degree that the creation account of Genesis is repudiated: creation is much more akin to the ambivalence of Job than the meticulous care of the Priestly tradition.


As Jesus begins his ministry Mark seeks to set this as a new creation. This new creation is not an ordered perfection that Jesus seeks to return us to. It is rather a way -- a way that ends in liberating death. For this reason there is no need to begin with a miraculous birth that grafts perfect humanity back into the corrupted root. There is only need to acknowledge the arrival of a secret way. Only those that follow this way will see - as Bartimaeus will show later.


This is what we are introduced to in Jesus’ baptism. The arrival of the way, which we are called to follow. And along which we will see. This is a major theme of the text, and it is perhaps the major theme of the Christian life. It is a way that does not seek a return to perfection, but seeks to re-enact the liberating work of Exodus, challenging the quaint notions of truth in the created order. No truth is found publicly. It is found along the way, it is found in following the pursuit of justice.


Jesus’ baptism by John is interesting not because it begins Jesus’ entry into creation. It is interesting because it begins Jesus’ entry into our human condition of sin and repentance. In this sense it is Jesus’ entering into the task of liberation. (This claim of solidarity is so radical the Gospel of Matthew has to try to erase it.) But this act of solidarity with the sinful, entering into the task of liberation, is the trajectory of the story of Jesus. And it begins with baptism. - as it does for us.


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I have, perhaps, introduced too much too quickly at the end here. But my hope is that I can slowly unfold this way of reading as I keep writing and re-writing.