Today’s reading is Mark 1:9-13:
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.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (NRSV)
The essence of the gospel, St Irenaeus wrote, is recapitulation. By this he meant that the logic of redemption, the logic of Scripture, is the logic of a single story retold countless times over countless lives, a mosaic of countless persons participating in the universal story of sin and grace. Scripture reads a lot like One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In both works, the protagonist is not an individual, but a family, a line, a house. So too, the story of Scripture is the story of the house of Adam, told through the lives of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon. It is the story of the daughters of Eve: Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, Deborah, Ruth, Bathsheba. Insofar as Adam is the man of dust and Eve is the mother of all living, we belong to the story, too.
That said, Scripture is not cyclical. It is not a timeless eternal recurrence. Instead, the storyline progresses and develops. Most prominently, Jesus’s life may profitably be read as the supreme retelling of the story of Israel, which, as we’ve suggested, is itself the story of Adam, the story of all humankind. In retelling the (tragic) story of man, Jesus offers the hope of redemption. He is the ending to our story, in the light of which we have to reinterpret everything that happened from the beginning.
The account of Jesus’s baptism nicely brings out the theme of recapitulation.
Jesus’s baptism is his crossing of the Red Sea, his passing through the waters. Immediately thereafter, Jesus’s 40 days of temptation in the wilderness corresponds to Israel’s 40 years of journeying in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. But whereas Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness (see Numbers 14) became the paradigmatic example of human sinfulness in later Jewish literature (e.g. Psalm 95), Jesus is tempted and yet remains faithful.
Lent is the season where, for 40 days, we take up the wilderness journey of Israel and of Christ.
What is the theme of baptism all about? For this we turn to the earliest commentaries on the baptism of Jesus, namely, the other New Testament documents.
In connection with our observation above, we see Paul explicitly comments on the parallels between Israel, Jesus, and us today.
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea … Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. (1 Cor 10:1-5)
However, the more prominent idea is that baptism is about death. It’s about the cross.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6:3-5)
…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses… (Col 2:12-13)
Baptism is seen as a symbol of passing through the waters from death to life. In that sense it is a central Christian symbol of dying to one’s sins, to one’s old life, and being born to new life.
Notice that the symbolism is by way of union with Christ, i.e., a kind of mystical union with or participation in his death. Just as God became man to pick up our stuttering storyline, so too man becomes Christ, making his story our own. The imitation of Christ, being united to him in the way of holiness and conformed ever more closely to his likeness, will be a key theme of Mark’s gospel.
One more tidbit. The connection made between Jesus’s baptism and own Jesus’s death is borne out explicitly by the similarities between Mark 15:33-38 and the passage for today, Mark 1:9-13. Together the two passages form a literary inclusio for the entire book. Jesus’s baptism is the beginning of his ministry; his crucifixion is its climax. Everything in between is rushing towards the cross. (It is a “death-mark’d love”, in Shakespeare’s words.) In Mark 1 the spirit of God is poured out upon Jesus from heaven; in Mark 15 Jesus “breathed his last” (note that “breath” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma, in the original Greek). In each passage a voice declares Jesus to be the son of God. Mark 15 features Elijah; Mark 1 features John the Baptist, who is likened to Elijah repeatedly throughout the gospels and elsewhere. The immediate clues are his dress (cf. 2 Kings 1:8) and his prophetic role (cf. Malachi 4:5). In Mark 1 the heavens are torn open; in Mark 15, the veil of the Temple is symbolically torn open. What is really being torn open is, again, the heavens: the wall of sin dividing God and man (cf. Isaiah 59) has been torn down.
1) Jesus’s baptism, passing through the waters, is a retelling or recapitulation of Israel’s Red Sea crossing. Likewise, Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness recapitulates Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. These events are a demonstration of Jesus’s identifying himself with us, taking on the story of humanity in general and Israel in particular as his own story. Jesus becomes a representative figure for the human race.
2) The Red Sea passage was the act where God called Israel out of slavery in Egypt to freedom (redemption), through membership in the newly created nation of Israel, who are sent on a journey to a promised land.
3) Baptism symbolises rebirth, the passage from death to life, for the newly created people of God. (“Water” is often connected with birth. And was not the original creation born out of water? Cf. Gen 1:1-2.)
4) Baptism, as practiced by John the Baptist, is a baptism of repentance, a symbol of repentance from sin. In this connection, it is therefore symbolic of redemption from slavery to sin.
5) Jesus’s baptism is the moment where he is called to fulfill a commission. Baptism is the starting point of his life’s ministry. The content of that commission is, chiefly, to die redemptively on the cross. Baptism is therefore fulfilled in crucifixion. We, like Jesus, are baptised into the cross, into his death, “buried with him”. For us, what that means is the mortification (putting-to-death) of sins, humbly crucifying our old selves in all their selfishness, pride and ambition, greed and possessiveness, anger and anxiety and all the heartbreak that attends these things. Christ calls us this Lent to repent and join him in new life, a new creation, freedom.
Stephen Mackereth ’15 is a joint mathematics and philosophy concentrator in Mather House, and is a staff editor for the Ichthus.