Last revised: January 18, 2021
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THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD — YEAR B
RCL: Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
RoCa: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mark 1:7-11
Reflections and Questions
1. A continuation of last week’s themes (Christmas 2) from John 1 might be appropriate. John weaves together themes of the Passion and the Gospel with creation theology. (See especially the James Alison comments on “Creation in Christ.”) The beginning of Creation also relates, as Robert Hamerton-Kelly argues (below), to Mark 1:1, “The beginning (Gr: arche) of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
1. Because Mark’s Gospel is so condensed in its narrative, the first fifteen verses overlap into lections on four different Sundays in Year B: Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8; Epiphany 1B (Baptism of the Lord) – Mark 1:4-11; Epiphany 3B – Mark 1:14-20; Lent 1B – Mark 1:9-15. So verses 4-8 of this lection overlap with Advent 2B and verses 9-11 with Lent 1B (see these pages for additional insights).
2. schizo — the heavens are “torn apart” in verse 10: “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.” Matthew and Luke choose a milder term to describe the heavens “opening.” Perhaps even more importantly, the only other place that Mark uses the word schizo is at 15:38: “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (where both Matthew [27:51 — Matthew’s only use of this word] and Luke [23:45] do choose to maintain Mark’s word). In short, Mark’s two places for using this word are when Jesus first breaks upon the scene and when he leaves it, Jesus’ entrance and exit. It looks intentional to me.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 64-73. Hamerton-Kelly devotes three sections to the beginning of Mark’s gospel: “Creation and the Beginning (Gr. arche) of the Way,” “Baptism as Taking the Way of the Servant,” and “Baptism as the Ransom for Many.” The first section relates well to the first lesson from Gen. 1, comparing the Gen. 1 with the Enuma Elish account of creation. He says, for example:
The human race, in turn, came out of the scapegoat killing of one of the assembly of the gods, namely, Kingu. Marduk summons the assembly of the gods and asks them who instigated Tiamat’s attack on him. They accuse Kingu:
“It was Kingu who contrived the uprising,
And made Tiamat rebel and joined battle.”
They bound him, holding him before Ea.
They imposed on him his guilt and severed his blood [vessels]
Out of his blood they fashioned mankind.
Tablet VI, lines 29-34 (Pritchard, 68).
The human race, therefore, comes from the blood of the accused and executed renegade god! Immediately after the execution, Marduk organizes the gods (Annunaki) into their respective orders above and below and assigns them their tasks. They in return propose the building of a temple as a place of their repose, and a throne for Marduk, which pleases him greatly. The place of this temple and throne is to be Babylon and the temple is to be called “The Sanctuary.” (VI:35-59). There could not be a clearer account of the generation of social order out of the victim and the establishment of the temple as the center of this order. The Enuma Elish is an exemplary account of a Guardian creation myth, and it is alluded to at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark because the Gospel wishes to give the lie to the notion that violence is the source of creativity and that for us to live someone must be killed. (p. 66)
2. The themes in the latter two sections of Hamerton-Kelly‘s treatment of this passage are similar to those in my article on Holy Communion in the ’96 Contagion (cf., p. 205), where I propose servanthood as a strong theme of the Eucharist. Here is an excerpt of Hamerton-Kelly’s section entitled “Baptism for the Ransom of Many” in its entirety (pp. 71-73):
***** Excerpt from Hamerton-Kelly’s The Gospel & the Sacred *****
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and receive the baptism with which I am baptized?” (10:39) The theme of baptism links 1:9-11 to 10:35-45, where the disciples misunderstand the nature of the messianic power and Jesus identifies his death as a baptism (10:38). The figure of the suffering servant, which we met at the Jordan, is also present here as the one who came “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as ransom for many” (10:45; cf. Is 53). These two baptismal stories bracket the first part of the Gospel. The major theme of the section is following the way of the servant/scapegoat, and the cost of such following. The first baptismal story introduced the exodus wandering of the servant/scapegoat; the second story concludes that theme and prepares the way for his climactic revelation in the passion narrative. (Note: The image of the cup (“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink. . . ?”) is an indication of the link with the Exodus. The cup is eucharistic and, inasmuch as Mark presents the last supper as a Passover meal (14:12), it recalls the Exodus.)
We are told explicitly that the disciples do not know what they are asking when they ask to be seated on the right and left hands of Jesus in his kingdom (10:37-38). They misunderstand the messianic power as the violence of the sacred. Their request provokes the anger of the other disciples and Jesus has to instruct them all about the peculiar nature of his power — the power to serve and to give one’s life (10:41-45).
How shall we interpret the reference to ransom in 10:45? The literal pole of the metaphor of ransom is the buying back of hostages. In this particular application, a person rather than money is given in exchange for the hostages Jesus goes into captivity instead of us. A sacrificial interpretation would have Jesus giving his life instead of ours to appease the wrath of a vengeful God, which does not fit the metaphor, because captivity does not entail the wrath of the captor and ransom is not the same as appeasement. A careful decoding of the metaphor has one person going into captivity instead of the many, and that makes good sense in terms of our theory.
According to our theory and in terms of the metaphor, Jesus went into captivity to the GMSM [Hamerton-Kelly’s coined acronym for “Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism”] in order that we might be released from it. He gave his life as a ransom to the powers of mimetic rivalry, and because the mimetic rivalry is ours, strictly speaking he gave himself to us. By dying, he unveiled the mechanism of our mimetic rivalry and thus enables us to turn away from it. He also gives us the Holy Spirit to help us in that turning. The traditional idea that Christ died as a substitute for us retains its validity, therefore, in terms of a nonsacrificial interpretation of the metaphor of ransom. He makes himself the victim of our violence instead of us.
That Jesus gave himself to the GMSM means that he was the only one who dared to live in this world of sacred violence without the protections of sacrifice. He refused to use “good” violence to drive out the bad, or even to protect himself. If all of us had lived like that he would not have died, but he was left alone at the critical moment, when instead of standing with him all turned against him. At that moment, the violence of our transgressions fell on him; our rage and cowardice broke against him. If we had joined him in a covenant not to inflict violence on the other and to bear the violence inflicted on us without retaliation, the wheel of sacrifice would have ceased to turn and he would not have had to give his life as ransom for many. The wrath that fell on him was human, not divine.
In terms of the traditional theories of the atonement, this explanation partakes of elements from both the “Christ as Victor” and the “moral influence” theories. The former sees Christ triumphing over the powers of sacred violence by his refusal to join them in their violence; the latter effects our salvation by showing us what these powers are, how they work, and how we might resist them by following the example of Jesus.
Jesus’ question in response to the disciples’ request, “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:36) foreshadows his response to the blind Bartimaeus in the next pericope (10:51). The two pericopes interpret each other and together provide the transition to the revelation of sacred violence in the temple and passion narratives.
Both pericopes are about the nature of the messianic power, as Bartimaeus’s cry “Son of David” shows. The point of their juxtaposition is in the respective answers to the question of Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Whereas the disciples ask for power at the right and left hand of the glorified Messiah, Bartimaeus asks only that he might see again. The disciples receive the teaching about servanthood, which they do not understand; Bartimaeus, who merely wants to see the world again, believes that Jesus can help him. He receives his sight and follows Jesus “on the way;” and that way leads to the temple and to the cross. The disciples are blind and the blind man sees.
Jesus’ teaching on servanthood is an interpretation of baptism and Eucharist as a sharing in his death.’ Only those who take the way of the cross can expect to enter the kingdom, but there is no determining of rank in the kingdom. The enigmatic “but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (10:40) refutes the whole notion of prestige based on the order of this world, because the order in the kingdom is set by the impenetrable grace of God. Baptism as the rite of entry into the community is the rite of identification with the crucified, and Eucharist is the proclamation of his death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26).
Therefore, these two pericopes at the end of the section pick up the themes of the opening pericope, namely, the baptism of Jesus as a symbol of his death, which, in turn, is the summary symbol of his life on the way of the servant. This service is in essence the disclosure of sacred violence in the fabric of this world and in ourselves, especially in its religious manifestations. The first major division of the Gospel is defined by the idea of baptism as identification with the scapegoat in his rejection and death, which is, in turn, the beginning of the new creation and the way to freedom.
***** End of Hamerton-Kelly Excerpt *****
3. See also Robert R. Beck‘s commentary on Mark 1:1-8 summarized at Advent 2B.
4. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ch. 1, “The First Call to Discipleship.” A key to understanding Mark involves the symbolism of place:
Mark 1:3 now cites Isaiah 40:3, which announces a messenger in the wilderness exactly where John the Baptist shows up (1:4). Through this deft editorial combination of Malachi and Isaiah, Mark has introduced a major theme of his gospel. It is the tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces: Temple and wilderness center and margins.
When on the baptism-temptation, Myers and his team write,
In the account of Jesus’ baptism, the narrative is suddenly invaded by dramatic imagery. Jesus rises from the Jordan’s waters to a vision of the “heavens rent asunder” (1:10), an allusion to another prophetic text: “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make known your name to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence, working unexpected miracles” (Isaiah 64:1f).
Does Jesus’ identification as “beloved Son” by the mysterious voice from heaven designate him as the messianic ruler of Psalm 2:7? Or does the descent of the dove point us rather to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: “I will put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1)?
This heavenly intervention is the first of many instances in which Mark draws upon the symbolism of apocalyptic literature. In Mark’s time, apocalyptic was the popular language of political dissent. It envisioned the “end of the world” — that is, the world ruled by the powers. Following his baptism Jesus is driven by the Spirit further out into the wilderness, where he engages in a struggle with the “ruler of this world” (1:12f). The struggle symbolizes the apocalyptic war between good (the angels and Jesus) and evil (Satan and the wild beasts). It is the first of many Markan allusions to the book of Daniel, a Jewish apocalyptic tract that exhorted resistance to Hellenistic imperialism two centuries before Mark. Daniel portrays oppressive rulers as “beasts” and speaks of angels contending with the “princes of kingdoms” (see Daniel 7:1-7, 10, 12:1). (pp. 7-8)
5. James Alison, a video homily for Epiphany 1B, the Baptism of the Lord; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. (Keep in mind that Alison has not only Girard in the background for his readings, but often also the work of Margaret Barker on first temple theology; on this text see especially Barker’s Temple Themes in Christian Worship, chap. 5, “Baptism and Resurrection.”) The Spirit which hovered over the waters at creation is now coming into creation through Jesus. The Holy One of God is coming into our midst in order to live out and make possible the giving of the Holy Spirit so that we can be opened out into becoming the New Creation.
6. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 19, “Jesus Coming of Age,” pages 86-90. In 2015 my sermon was primarily a reworking of this chapter.
7. David Froemming, Salvation Story, pp. 63-64. He writes:
Baptism is an ancient ritual to signify death and rebirth — being submerged in the waters of chaos and death like the flood in the Genesis Noah story, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the story of Exodus, and rising up out of the water into new life. The Jordan River is the boundary that for the Jewish people marks their entrance into the Promised Land. It signifies freedom and life as God’s people and nation. For John to be baptizing people is highly political in two ways. First, it is a ritual that signifies national identity apart from the Roman Empire and the desire to be free from its power. Second, it signifies new life and freedom from the power of sin that at this time is tied to ritual works and sacrifices performed by the priests at the temple in Jerusalem. John is by-passing the religious system of the day and defying the power of the Empire.
Yet much more is taking place during the baptismal account of Jesus, which all of the other Gospel accounts of Matthew, Luke and John share, namely that the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends. The ancient worldview that divided and separated heaven and earth is now joined. In their DVD presentation titled The Future of Christianity: A Startling New Vision of Hope for the 21st Century, Thomas Keating and Ken Wilbur point out that what is impeding the spiritual development of humanity today is the inability of people to have an integral view of the world. I touched upon this earlier with the work of Walter Wink. The religious fundamentalist mindset keeps the mimetic rivalry alive by using the separated worlds of heaven and earth to declare who is “in” and who is “out” — who is saved and who is left behind.
The baptism of Jesus reveals the ongoing incarnation (the Word become flesh) of deity and humanity inseparably joined in Jesus Christ as the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends upon Jesus. The New Testament is the ongoing presence of the Word/Spirit in Jesus’ accounts of ministry and death — the outpouring of his life into others. Our mimetic rivalry disconnects us from this incarnate and integral worldview of the New Testament. So, for example, today we find movies such as Heaven is for Real to promote once again the immortalizing of our selflike pagan gods, instead of an integral view of heaven and earth joined and our baptismal life signifying dying to our self and living in Jesus Christ whose life is poured out for all of humanity. A closer look at the biblical text of the New Testament will reveal an integral worldview that does not hold to the divided worlds of our mimetic rivalry.
8. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from January 12, 2003 (Woodside Village Church); and sermon from January 8, 2006 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2012 our congregation set a theme of healing for the Epiphany season. Looking ahead to what comes next in Mark — many ‘miraculous’ healings from Jesus — I contrasted Jesus, and discipleship to Jesus, with being a superhero. Superheroes use force to rescue people from predicaments of violence. Jesus uses love as a power to drive away evil spirits without driving away people. In baptism we are called follow Jesus in having faith in the power of love. The resulting sermon is titled “Love — More Powerful Than a Superhero.” (It also makes use of an excellent online essay by Brian McLaren, “The Seminary Is Not the Problem — the Church Is.”)
2. So why are the heavens “torn apart”? Why such a dramatic entrance? I would connect this with what I see as the organizing principal in Mark’s Gospel, his quoting of Isaiah’s call in Jesus’ inaugural sermon. These people have ears but can’t hear, eyes but can’t see. Jesus heals deaf people and cures blind people. Yet he asks others to keep a secret, and his own disciples remain blind and deaf to what he is teaching them. He comes to speak to them from God, to show them who God is, yet it will take the heavens being torn apart for them to hear and see God because something is keeping them deaf and blind.
What? What keeps them (us) deaf and blind? Our religion. Our culture. That’s why, as Jesus leaves the scene, the curtain of the temple, designed to shield us from hearing and seeing God, is torn in two. These themes and questions were used to shape a story sermon in 2000, “Out of the Water.”
3. Compare Mark 1:10 with other creation myths, such as Enuma Elish. Hamerton-Kelly makes that comparison fruitfully in connection with Mark 1:1. But how about 1:10? What do we say about the seeming violence of the heavens torn apart?
The first lesson stops a few verses short. The events of the second day of creation would be more appropriate to the heavens being “torn apart.” On the second day, the heavens were established and fixed in their place. Yet as Jesus comes from God, those heavens must be torn open. Girardian anthropology teaches us that the mythological aspect of creation stories lies in their seeking to establish human order, despite their cloaking behind god-talk. God fixing the firmament is most often a story about our human order being fixed, which is mythologically justified by such god-talk. Genesis 1 contains many de-mythologizing aspects and tendencies, the most crucial being the removal of violence. Yet, to the extent that it remains mythological, Jesus’ coming into our world represents a “tearing apart” of our fixed order. It is our heavens which are torn open at Jesus’ coming.
The equivalent idea in Luke might be that of Jesus seeing Satan fall like lightning (10:18), which Girard chose for the title of a recent book (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning). Our human institutions of ordering, ruled by Satan, are also part of the heavenly places in the New Testament worldview, by virtue of their being transcendent of individual human beings. But the significance of the Gospel, and of an evangelical anthropology, is that those transcendences are revealed as false in the sense of our being able to place our ultimate trust in them. Thus, the Satanic transcendences are seen to fall to earth like lightning.
It is appropriate here to interject Girard’s own conclusions from I See Satan:
By revealing the secret of the prince of this world, the Passion accounts subvert the primordial source of human order. The darkness of Satan is no longer thick enough to conceal the innocence of victims who become, at the same time, less and less “cathartic.” It is no longer possible really to “purge” or “purify” communities of their violence. Satan can no longer expel Satan. We should not conclude from this that humans are going to be immediately rid of their now fallen prince. In the Gospel of Luke Christ sees Satan “fall like lightning from heaven” (10:18). Evidently he falls to earth, and he will not remain inactive. Jesus does not announce the immediate end of Satan, not yet at least. It is rather the end of his false transcendence, his power to restore order through his false accusations, the end of scapegoating.
The New Testament has quite a repertory of metaphors to signify the consequence of the Christian revelation. We can say about Satan, as I’ve stated, that he can no longer expel himself. We can say likewise that he can no longer “bind himself,” which amounts basically to the same thing. As the days of Satan are numbered, he tries to gain the most from them, and quite literally, he unleashes himself.
Christianity expands the range of freedom, which individuals and communities make use of as they please, sometimes in a good way but often in a bad way. A bad use of freedom contradicts, of course, what Jesus intends for humanity. But if God did not respect the freedom of human beings, if he imposed his will on them by force or even by his prestige, which would mean by mimetic contagion, then he would not be different from Satan.
Jesus is not the one who rejects the kingdom of God; it’s human beings who do so, including a number of those who believe they are nonviolent simply because they benefit to the utmost from the protection of the principalities and powers, and so they never have to use force themselves. Jesus distinguishes two types of peace. The first is the peace that he offers to humanity. No matter how simple its rules, it “surpasses human understanding” because the only peace human beings know is the truce based on scapegoats. This is “the peace such as the world gives.” It is the peace that the Gospel revelation takes away from us more and more. Christ cannot bring us a peace truly divine without depriving us first of the only peace at our disposal. His peace entails this troubling historical process through which we are living. (I See Satan, pp. 185-186)
This excerpt also brings us back to important Markan language, that of Satan “expelling Satan” and “binding” himself (Mark 3:23-27). In Mark, the first time that Jesus speaks of “parables” is not chapter 4; it is in 3:23: “And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?'” As this is a crucial Girardian text, we will have much to say about it when it appears in the lectionary, Proper 5B. See also My Core Convictions Part I.5.