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January 7, 2012

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
                                                                                        Mark 1:9-11

Encounters with the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew scriptures were dramatic and very public: the person might fall down on the ground,  lose consciousness, prophesy loudly, dance --  when the Spirit got hold of you in ancient Israel, you knew it and so did everybody else.

By the time of Jesus, the Spirit may have quieted down a bit --  in the gospel of Mark, it descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice comes from heaven, seeming to speak only to him.  Its next action is to drive him into the wilderness-- not into a public display of spirit-power, but into an intense season of self-examination we refer to as "the temptation of Christ."   From it he emerges with a sense of what his power was for.  Jesus receives direction in the wilderness, it seems.  He says yes to some things and no to others.

Perhaps the temptation in the wilderness can be seen as two parts of one liturgy.  The Spirit descends and Jesus responds, and he does so over time.  He chooses the Spirit's  priorities instead the world's.  The progression from in-spiriting to choice is necessary to unlock the Spirit's power.   In the life of Jesus, the rest is history.

When Christians baptize, the liturgical progression is reversed -- we choose publicly first, and then we baptize.  I suppose Mark's progression may be a way of handling questions about Jesus' special nature, which John the Baptist articulates in another gospel account, protesting that he is unworthy to baptize the Christ and  besides, Jesus  has nothing of which to be washed clean as we do.  So Jesus' baptism happens first, without a word about his sins.   

We, on the other hand, bring a fair amount of baggage with us -- or would, if we came to the rite as the compromised adults we know ourselves to be.  But most of us are baptized when we are considerably more sinless than we will grow up to be -- nobody thinks of sin today when a baby is baptized.  They are all innocence.

So maybe their baptism is a two-part liturgy is like his: baptism first, preceded by a few questions others answer on their behalf, and then a long season of learning what it will mean to be in Christ.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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