It seems that Jesus was among those that wanted to take advantage of this opportunity for a new beginning. ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan’. Now of course this simple decision by Jesus presents a huge theological dilemma for later writers, which Matthew for example addresses by inserting a conversation between Jesus and John, in which John says, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness. Then he consented.” I really am not sure what that means, are you? I can see Matthew is in a theological jam and is not sure how to get out, so offers a bit of religious speak. Mark is ignoring the problem – if Jesus is the supposedly ‘sinless’ Son of God, why would he need to be baptised and forgiven his sins? There are answers to this, but I will confess that I have never found any of them very satisfactory, so I am going to stop digging this hole and head of in a different direction.
Which is basically what Mark does. This is because Mark is interested in something different. He is interested in that revelatory moment in which Jesus realises who he truly is, and what that might mean. Jesus experiences a moment of revelation – and the pattern of that moment is the same pattern that we experience ourselves, though we may use different language to describe it. Firstly, Jesus takes intentional action seeking something more – just like those around him he goes down to the river, wades in and asks John to baptise him. Secondly Jesus perceives change- ‘He saw the heavens torn apart’. Thirdly, Jesus experiences the presence of the Spirit, ‘descending like a dove’. Finally, he receives divine affirmation, ‘You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.’
So, four stages. Intentional action on our part, receives response, such that we perceive change, experience the sense of the Spirit, and receive divine affirmation – the overwhelming sense that God is in fact pleased.
Let’s think about them each in turn. Intentionality is important in the spiritual as in every other realm of life. If we intend nothing and expect nothing, then nothing is likely to result. However, my experience is that the tiniest amount of intention – the least opening of the self towards light and love, produces quite disproportionate results. The Spirit it seems can slip through the smallest cracks!
Once that small expression of willingness occurs, all kinds of things can happen. Ignatius of Loyola, the great founder of the Jesuits, was in this quite right when he wrote, ‘there are very few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into God’s hands and let themselves be formed by God’s grace.” Very few, yet equally very many of us who have the experience of a small intentional openness, that results in the opening of the heavens, the descent of the spirit and the sense of divine affirmation – as for Jesus, so for each of us. The difference, as the liberal protestant theologian Schleirmacher observed, being one not of kind, but of degree. We experience the same kind of epiphanies as Jesus, just not to the same degree.
So, what is it for us for the heavens to open – and I don’t just mean in a good shower of rain, though that can be a cleansing and revelatory experience too! Is it not to suddenly see the totally familiar in a new way? Is it not the moment of discovery, whether of self or other, that delights and takes our breath away? And in that instant the spirit descends like a dove – now it does not do to be too literalistic about this, otherwise we end up, as we do in too many churches, with slightly deformed looking wooden or plaster pigeons suspended from ceilings. (Trying very hard not to think about the one behind my head just now!)
I wonder what you associate with doves that points you to the spirit? Perhaps the softness; something of a gentle gift that has presence and power but does not violate or intrude. It is the dove who in the story of Noah and the ark brings the message of restoration and hope. When the spirit comes, there is a settling like a bird arranging its feathers after flight; an inner calm in which it is possible to hear the voice of God.
Jesus hears God say that he is beloved, that he is in relationship and that God is pleased with him. I wonder if truly, at depth, this is always what God says to each of us? Take away our striving, our worrying about getting it wrong, our anxious wanting to start over and do it better and just relax. And then the whisper comes – you are my child, you are wanted, you are beloved, I delight in you, I am ‘well pleased.’
So, let’s savour those moments when we intentionally open ourselves to the new, and find therein fresh perception, the gentling of the spirit and the voice that tells us we are loved just as we are. And in every moment let us begin again to a fresh relaxation of effort, and a trusting that with us God is ‘well pleased’. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Sunday 10 January 2021