My dear brother priests and bishops, are not the Mysteries of Light especially appropriate for use by ourselves? Blessed John Paul II, while thinking about his own priesthood over the years, put these together, it seems to me, specifically with us, his fellow priests and bishops, in mind. Please God, more Scriptural and Patristic sources will be added to the present “rant style” meditations when circumstances at Holy Souls Hermitage aren’t quite so utterly barbaric.
The purpose of this first run through these mysteries is to note especially the goodness and kindness of Jesus amidst the violence and chaos back in the day… and today. Hang on, it might be a bit of a rough ride, even worse than it was for the charioteers and horsemen of Pharaoh drowning in the crashing waters during the Exodus. They did not have the benefit of the firey pillar of cloud going with them through the parted sea, for that firey pillar of cloud was against them.
After the Exodus, still in the Jewish Scriptures, the Jordan River was seen as a symbol of that tumultuous sea. Upon entrance to the Promised Land at Jericho, the waters of the river parted for the Chosen People so that they could march through the waters on dry ground (Joshua 3,16), just as the waters of the Jordan would later part for Elijah (2 Kings 2,8) and Elisha (2 Kings 2,14). But this parting of the waters was not what the greatest prophet, John the Baptist, wanted for the Jews, the Israelites, not in the least. He wanted them to understand the symbolism of what happened at the Exodus, but in a much more incisive way.
The charioteers and horsemen were drowned because their motive was the continued enslavement of the descendents of Isaac. John wanted those coming down for the baptism unto the remission of sin to proclaim, by their going under the waters, that they deserved to be drowned like Pharaoh’s henchmen, for they had been enslaving each other in a much worse way, with sin. All those in Jerusalem, Judea and the whole region around the Jordan came down, in fact, publically confessing their sins. My fellow Catholic biblical scholar, Father John P. Meier, rewrites the text in his imagination at this point so that no one confessed their own sins (which for him is condemnable narcissistic idol worship). He has it that they recalled God’s gracious deeds for an ungrateful Israel, of which one was a member. It’s odd, then, that John the Baptist makes a distinction of the sinners coming down sincerely and the horrific hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees — Matthew 3,7): ”Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” They were invited not by God’s grace, but were told by their own imaginations of political correctness. At any rate, the idea for those who were sincere was repentance, bearing the fruit of repentance, calling on the Most High in this most humble of ways so that mercy and forgiveness might be theirs.
Father Meier – praised as the greatest Catholic biblical scholar today by the likes of Joe Fitzmyer, S.J., and the late Raymond E. Brown, S.S. — reminds scholars “c0nstantly not to project their pet theological agendas onto the legitimating figure of Jesus.” One is amazed, however, how he has ironically marginalized the historical critical truth of the baptism of Jesus to such an extent that, in reading his theological agenda into the text, he thinks that the sum total of what can be known of Jesus’ baptism is the following:
Around the beginning of A.D. 28, Jesus of Nazareth, no doubt in the company of other Jews, journeyed from Nazareth to the Jordan River to receive John’s baptism. By doing this Jesus [1.] acknowledged John’s charismatic authority as an eschatological prophet, [2.] accepted his message of imminent fiery judgment on a sinful Israel, [3.] submitted to his baptism as a seal of his resolve to change his life and [4.] as a pledge of salvation as part of a purified Israel, on whom God (through some agent?)[!] would pour out the holy spirit [sic] on the last day.
In other words, Jesus identified Himself with sinful Israel, but not in Saint Paul’s sense of Jesus becoming sin for us (see 2 Corinthians 5,21), so that, while remaining innocent, He might be the vicarious Sacrifice for our sins. Instead, here, Jesus is seen to be identified with sinful Israel in a way that makes Him part of the problem before He could (perhaps?), be part of any solution. But, I digress, hopefully usefully.
Jesus, it is true, in going under the waters of such a baptism unto the remission of sin, was making much the same statement as were all the others being baptised, except “worse”. It was as much for Him to say: “Father, treat me as the worst sinner ever; treat me as the enslaver in sin of every man, from Adam until the last man is conceived.” But there is a difference, in remaining innocent as ever, He would then have the right, in all justice, to have mercy on us, to say to His Father: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do!”
Jesus, in fact, spoke of the crucifixion (see Mark 10,38-39) as the baptism concerning which He felt oppressed until it was accomplished (see Luke 12,50), and this after the baptism of John. It would be at the crucifixion that Jesus would be treated as if He had enslaved all men in sin, from the beginning until the end. That’s why He came. This is what He wanted, for us, in His goodness and kindness, for then He would have the right in justice to have mercy on us, having taken on the worst we could give out, what we deserve ourselves, death. Jesus came for this fulfillment of justice, of righteousness, to be our Suffering Servant.
John the Baptist, it is true, did not at first understand. But at this least word of Jesus, it all came rushing home to him. John the Baptist, sanctified in the womb, had such agility of spirit. Mind you, just before John was to have his head cut off, he sent another question to Jesus, wondering if Jesus was, in fact, the One to come. John was feeling the pressure, and surely thinking that if Jesus is the One, why would he, John, have to get his head cut off. Jesus’ answered that John shouldn’t be scandalized at the ways of God, so gracious and kind, so far above our ways. Just as Jesus was to go from the baptism of John to the baptism of blood in His Passion and Death by preaching in season, out of season, so John was to go from the baptism he was providing to the baptism by blood of his own death, doing this by preaching in season and out of season. How many of us would call John a fool for reproaching Herod? Hopefully not too many, but… John is highly praised by Jesus. Not sure where all the talk of rivalry comes from, if not the “California psychobable” read into the text…
Analogous to this baptism is Jesus’ circumcision, which was a punishment for Abraham’s lack of belief in the power of the life-giving God. Jesus, the Author of Life, was being punished as if He, like Abraham, had cynically laughed at the possibility of life. This was so that all righteousness could be fulfilled, so that Jesus would have the right in all justice to have mercy on us.
At any rate, instead of the utter violence of baptism and Jesus’ crucifixion, baptism has often been seen as a nice ”christening”, ever so sweet, as sweet as the champagne which “christens” a new ship. Art reflected this ever so gentle niceness:
Perhaps it is because of a loss of sense of sin and, therefore, a loss of the sense of the majesty of the weight of the glory of Jesus’ love for us on the cross, that the theophany — the skies being shredded open, the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus, and the voice of the Father speaking of Jesus as His beloved Son — is held to be no more than the result of political correctness for those wanting to lift up Jesus and put down the said to be more popular John. Again I’ll say it: Perhaps it is because of a loss of the sense of sin, today… As Saint Thomas More said of the works of Tyndale, “Trying to find error in the works of Tyndale is like trying to find a drop in the ocean.”
With quite a bit of righteous ferocity, John takes exception to the Sadducees (pretty much agnostics) and Pharisees (who did at least externally accept the faith). They were the more outspoken religious leaders of the day. He calls them a brood of vipers, hearkening back to Genesis 3,15, calling them, therefore, sons of Satan. John’s not out to condemn them to hell, however. If he was doing that, he need not tell them anything. He wants them to convert. He needs to shake them up. He has to say what no one else had the guts to say, for they were all “sinners” anyway. We shouldn’t think that we priests and bishops are any different from the religious leaders of yesteryear. Times don’t change in this regard. Are there those who do not offer Confessions? Are there those who think there is no such thing as personal sin, or that personal sin is utterly unimportant, or that it is always thought of as being cut off from others?
In the absolution, do we not recall the Holy Spirit who was sent among us for the forgiveness of sins? It is this Holy Spirit which descended upon Jesus in bodily form, pointing out the Instrument of that forgiveness, He who would say: “Father, forgive them…”
Are not the words of the Father – ”This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” — spoken once again at the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah and Jesus were speaking of the exodus, the death Jesus was to suffer in Jerusalem?
As the Master, so the disciple. Are we priests and bishops not supposed to have our baptismal graces flourish in our priesthood by way of what Jesus was doing in His baptism? Are we not to willingly take on the ravages of those who despise being redeemed, and this specifically as Fathers of the Family of Faith? Are we not to evangelize Him who is Truth, in all charity, in all goodness and kindness, instead of running from possible controversy by not speaking out when we must lovingly govern as a father governs his family, not shirking his duties?
Jesus was not able to go from the baptism of John to the baptism of His crucifixion by being a nice guy, a man of consensus regardless of truth and justice. Jesus laid down His life by preaching and acting for us in season and out of season. That’s how our baptismal graces are to flourish, bringing us to the same end of Jesus, one way or the other. He’ll make it happen for us, if we are faithful to His graces.
Of course, I speak out of turn here, for I am a priest, not a bishop. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that the suffering of a priest is one thing, while the Calvary of a bishop is exponentially more agonizing. But, that’s part of the purpose of the hermitage, to pray for you, that you might always know something more of the baptism of Jesus by John, and of His firey desire to be baptized by blood on the Cross, all in His goodness and kindness for us. Pray for me too.
* Regarding the photo at the top of this post: I had a rather lengthy public internet debate with the religion editor of Reuters over the baptism of Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict XVI. Perhaps I’ll republish that on this blog at some future date.