Progressive reflections on the lectionary #4

Mark 1:9-15 (The baptism of Jesus)

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #4

This week the lectionary’s visit to the gospel of Mark skips back a little way toward the beginning of the first chapter, to narrate the story of Jesus’ baptism.

Although I believe in the right of people to have their infant children to be baptised, I sometimes find it interesting to reflect that Jesus was, at the very least, in his 20s by the time he is reported to have been baptised by his cousin John. In fact the very fact that Jesus was baptised at all should give us cause to reflect on what, precisely, might be understood as the meaning and significance of the ritual for him then, and for us today.

The word ‘baptism’, which comes from a Greek word that means to plunge or immerse, describes a type of ritual washing that was very familiar to people of the ancient Near East. Ancient Jewish practises included a form of baptism for new ‘believers’, and the famous community at Qumran practised daily ‘lustrations’ – ceremonial cleansings.

The word ‘lustration’ (so good I’ve used it twice) means ‘purification by sacrifice’ and basically describe any number of ways by which people would rid themselves of ceremonial impurities. This ranged from simple washing of hands to the use of animals to ‘absorb’ sinful pollution. Who’d want to be a goat, eh?

Perhaps particularly interesting to note is that it was common Roman practise to wash oneself before making any kind of sacrifice, including before going to war. River water was understood to have the power to cleanse a person both physically and morally – remember Pilate’s famous ‘hand washing moment’.

After Jesus is ceremonially washed, or to put it another way, cleansed from impurity and made ready to (or for) sacrifice, Mark tells us that a voice came from heaven and that the Spirit descended ‘like a dove’. I’ve talked about voices from heaven before, but the dove thing is different. Despite our common imagery of a majestic, pure white (sounds a bit racist bro) and perfect dove, there was no clear distinction then between what we would now call a dove, and what we would call a pigeon. The two birds were functionally the same for ritual purposes.

For some reason we’ve chosen to prefer the pure white (sounds a bit racist bro) dove imagery over the somewhat more mottled pigeon. Some sort of bird fascism at play perhaps? Shurely shome mishtake.

What they represent, though, is a very different kind of bird to the ‘big bird’ of the time – namely the Roman imperial eagle. So here Mark ‘flips the bird’ to the Romans, and says that God’s bird is really a pigeon – it’s not an eagle at all. In your face Caesar!

After Jesus is ritually cleansed from the contamination of his former life within the exploitation system, as a day labourer up in the hills of Nazareth, we are reminded that he comes from a different/new paradigm. No more subservience to the occupying powers, no more going with the flow, instead it’s time for liberation. Bring on the messy, noisy, pesky-pest pigeon of God – forget about the stupid eagle.

To show us that this relates to who the Jews are, following his purification, Mark has Jesus repeat the actions of Moses who, after crossing through the water, found himself in the wilderness for a period of 40 years. Jesus only does a comparatively minor 40 days, but that’s long enough – as anyone who undergoes some sort of (serious) Lenten fast will attest. Anyway, the point of the number 40 is to indicate a time of renewal or a new beginning: Among other examples, Moses was on Mt Sinai for 40 days; Noah had 40 days and nights of rain (the west of Scotland feels your pain, Noah); and according to Jewish law the fertilised egg is not considered to be a foetus until 40 days after conception. I suppose the point is that 40 days is kind of a big deal.

Having made the point and linked Jesus to Moses in his customarily breathless way, Mark dispenses with the services of the fore-running Baptiser, simply informing his readers that he was arrested, and announces Jesus’ arrival on the scene. As the season of Lent begins, the stage is thus set for us to consider Jesus’ ministry of radical subversion which, as Mark has already indicated, is going to involve sacrifice and the leading of people into the promised land/kingdom.

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