BAPTISM OF OUR LORD – THE INTANGIBLE, IMPALPABLE INSTANT
“The spirit descends, /untying tongues, / but it doesn’t speak words: / it speaks flames.Language, lit by a god/ is prophecy/ of flames and a crash/ of burnt syllables: meaningless ash.” Octavio Paz: “To Talk” in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz
“Between after and before, / a parenthesis of stone, / I will be, for an instant that will never return, / the first man and the last. / And as I say it, the intangible, / impalpable instant / opens under my feet/ and closes over me, pure time.” Paz: Little Variation.
The poet Octavio Paz has revealed an image that brings into focus a transcendent occurrence, a thing that flashes as swiftly as a flame, disappears just as swiftly, but not before transfiguring the cosmos. It is “the intangible, impalpable instant” where the cosmos reclaims its original purity, pure time, purely human. In “the intangible, impalpable instant” the cosmos incarnates. And “I will be, for an instant that will never return, the first man and the last.” It is the embrace of Alpha and Omega, the complete completion of redemption.
These are the thoughts that sustain my exploration of the baptism of Jesus. All of the gospels have something to say about the baptism of Jesus. The synoptic gospels are clearly dependent upon Mark’s account in Mark 1:9-11. The gospel of John is as usual quite different, though it does indicate that Jesus was baptized by John. The Q Document which knows of the work of John the Baptist does not have an episode of the baptism of Jesus. However, like it, John the Baptist would have had his origin in the Palestinian community, and his baptism practices would have been a part of the Palestinian community. John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:4. That his baptism drew many is shown in verse 5, for people came from throughout the region and were baptized by him, “confessing their sins.” John’s baptism was different from the ritual purification baths practiced by the Jews. John’s call and his message as reported in Luke 3:1-20 indicates the John’s baptism had both an ethical content, “repentance” and an eschatological content, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John believed that the end was near, that the kingdom of God was imminent, and consequently those who wanted entrance and new life must be baptized. This eschatological understanding of baptism was carried over into the ekklesia, that which was called into being in the fullness of time, the church. Baptism existed in the Christian community prior to the writing of the gospels. Paul, writing much earlier than the gospels, asks the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Rom. 6:3. The congregation in Rome had all been baptized.
Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus is quite different from the other gospels. John was reluctant to baptize him. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Mt. 3:14. What is Matthew doing here? In John 3:30 John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And one verse earlier, “for this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” I’m convinced that Matthew did not know of the gospel of John. However, it is possible that those ideas were current and available to him in other forms. Did John recognize Jesus as the one whom John had predicted would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire? If so, John would have known that Jesus was the promised eschatological Messiah. But there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist had such knowledge. Matthew is constructing a narrative, within which there is a dialogue between John and Jesus, to proclaim something special. Just what it is, is not yet clear.
John tells Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you.” It is a declaration, not a request. I assume that John had already been baptized. Matthew is declaring something about John, about baptism and about Jesus. I believe that Matthew has constructed this piece of narrative as Christian catechesis. To do this he presents the church with a picture that is memorable, graspable, and already common to their culture. They understand his language and imagery of apocalyptic because it was the language and imagery of their congregation. We are far removed from that culture today in the twenty-first century and we must excavate his words to uncover his message. He is teaching his congregation that everyone needs to be baptized by Jesus, but what he means by baptism is something completely different. Each early Christian congregation stood as the geographical center of the reign of God, the eschatological community that had been created and prepared for the arrival of the divine. John the Baptist as the one who was called by God to prepare this sacred center for the arrival of the divine must have understood that. His prophetic baptism was anticipatory: it was repentance; it was confession. John must have been aware of what comes next. Repentance and confession must be followed by absolution. I have said elsewhere that the gospel of Matthew is the gospel of absolution. John himself had received the baptism of repentance, confessing his sins. The “need” he expressed when he said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you,” must be to hear from Jesus himself the word of absolution. When Matthew teaches his congregation that everyone needs to be baptized by Jesus this is what he means: everyone stands in need of absolution; Jesus is himself the absolution for which they longed.
What is Matthew proclaiming when he has John say, “do you come to me?” By having Jesus present himself for baptism, Matthew is teaching that no one is excluded from submitting to this eschatological sacrament who wants to share in the kingdom of God. This is the simplest answer for a missionary church: everyone who wants to be a part of the redeemed community must submit to baptism. Jesus himself is the example for surrendering to the demand of the divine because Jesus is himself the absolution towards which baptism beckons.
Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” For the moment let things remain as they are. Soon this moment, this instant, will be seen in a different light. When Matthew has Jesus say, “Let it be so now,” he is building his narrative. He is laying the groundwork for an opening to occur whereby what is “now” will be thrown into the light of what is “then.” The words, “Let it be so now,” slows down the narrative. I am helped in my approach here by the Beatitudes. In them we hear an implied “now” and before we realize the impact of the promise the “now” is completely swallowed up in the “then.” However, “now” and “then” have no reference to time or to what is temporal. Matthew is proclaiming “the intangible, implausible moment,” the transcendental emergence of the divine into the light where mortals dwell. Mortals dwell in oblivion of the divine. John the Baptist came proclaiming the imminent arrival of the divine precisely because his hearers were completely unaware that they were living in the absence of the divine. That was his prophetic power: he was revealing that of which they remained oblivious. And here he is, standing in the presence of Jesus who tells him, “Let it be so now.” John, the apocalyptic prophet immediately understands. “Then he consented.” He knows the “now” is nothing other than the punctuation mark signifying the end of the present age. The “then” is the eschatological dawn of the divine that has already arrived among mortals but still hidden except to those already in the kingdom of God. Matthew constructs his narrative in conformity with the apocalyptic faith that informed the Christian community that their hope has been fulfilled.
Jesus says “for it is proper in this way….” This is an extension and emphasis of “let it be so now.” It is fitting that the “now” run its course. Only when the “now” has completed the task for which it was created will it create a clearing for the arrival of the “then.” It is at this point in the dialogue that Matthew begins to reveal the full content of the “then.” I have referred to this as “the eschatological dawn of the divine.” Matthew says it is “to fulfill all righteousness.” I have pointed out elsewhere that Matthew sees Abraham as the progenitor of Jesus. He is aware of God’s covenant with Abraham, where it is said that “Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Gen. 15:6. Further, God had chosen Abraham and all his family “to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Gen. 18:19. The trajectory from Abraham to Jesus aims towards the completion of the promise to Abraham, that righteousness and justice will be fulfilled. Matthew is saying that when the “now” has completed its course, that is, when the present age has drawn to its close, then “all righteousness” will be fulfilled. He speaks not only of righteousness, but of “all” righteousness that must be fulfilled. Because righteousness is something which is reserved and will only arrive at the end of this present age, it too is an eschatological gift. It is something that will dawn with the arrival of the divine. It has the character of blessedness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Mt. 5:6. For Matthew, it is something that is still expected in the future, but that the future is here in the person of Jesus. Earlier in Matthew 3:8, John the Baptist had said to the Pharisees and Sadducees when the sought his baptism, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” from which I had concluded that John was speaking of the practice of righteousness. Abraham’s faith was the foundation of the granting of righteousness. Jesus as a descendant of Abraham now approaches John for baptism, and he presents himself with worshipful humility, ready for the fulfilling of all righteousness. Matthew is proclaiming that in Jesus the “then” has arrived, and for this reason “all righteousness” will be fulfilled. Jesus as the eschatological bringer of salvation is the one in whom all righteousness is revealed. This is at the heart of the theological catechesis of Matthew.
I have still not explored the content of righteousness, except to say that it has the character of blessedness. The distribution of the word in the New Testament allows an insight into its use. Mark never uses it. Luke has it once in the gospel, 1:71, and twice in Acts, 13:10; 17:31. John has it twice in 16: 8, 10. It is central to Paul’s theology and is used most often in his letters. The word occurs for the first time in the Bible at Genesis 15:6, where Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. For Matthew, Abraham’s importance in the life of Jesus is crucial. John had criticized the Pharisees who came to him for baptism. In the same way Jesus said to them, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 5:20. Later, in comparing his listeners with the Gentiles, Jesus tells them, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 6:33. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus says, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” 21:32. In addition to this, Matthew uses the word “righteous” 13 times. I conclude that righteousness is critical to understanding the baptism of Jesus.
Righteousness is the practice of right conduct; this is its basic meaning. It would not be appropriate to see this from the point of view of psychology. Right conduct is not the way one behaves. It is an act of faith, a gift from the divine, as with Abraham, and that is complete and irreversible surrender to the divine. When Jesus tells the people “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” he is not referring to an abundance of righteousness, for that itself is inconceivable. The scribes and Pharisees discover their righteousness in the law. In Matthew such righteousness must be transcended, and it is righteousness through faith that is uncovered in the word “exceeds.” It is only by faith that one submits to the will of God. Righteousness is rightly the gift that God bestows upon those who submit themselves in faith. As an eschatological gift, it grants to believers entrance into the kingdom of God. For this reason one must “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Righteousness as God’s gift means that righteousness is another name for the grace that redeems. This is vividly stated in Ephesians 2:8. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” If we examine what Matthew means by “all” righteousness we may look to Micah 6:2 for a point of departure. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah counsels: surrender your all to the Lord. I am convinced that in Matthew’s vocabulary which his church understood very well the “all” refers to the entire Passion of Jesus Christ in which by his ultimate submission to God he carried within himself the whole of humanity, the cosmos itself, the long expected salvation, that is, eternal blessedness in the kingdom of God.
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”
In his submission to John’s baptism, Jesus enters the flood bearing all of creation within himself, where judgment is pronounced and absolution granted. And rising now into a pure cosmos, he brings forth the new creation, cleansed, redeemed, transfigured. For me, this is “the intangible, impalpable instant” that Octavio Paz poetizes. In this passage Matthew speaks of an “ascending” (anabino) and a “descending.” (katabino).The Greek verbs are important for entering deeper into the meaning that Matthew intends. Would Matthew have been aware of Genesis 28:10-19?
Matthew clearly intends this event as a Christophany. The heavens were opened to Jesus, that is, the transcendental realm of the divine opened up itself to Jesus as he ascended from the water. One gets the picture that heaven itself has arrived to witness the event of the baptism of Jesus. The opening up of the heavens allows “the Spirit of God” to descend upon Jesus. The meeting place of the ascending and the descending, where heaven and earth, divine and human, embrace, (“alighting on him”) is called the horizon. The horizon is that which arrives to our sight “from the distance.” The horizon meets us where we are, and it meets the Christian church where it is. Wherever the church is, there is the meeting place of heaven and earth, there is the horizon. The divine, “the Spirit of God” descends into all that is human, all that is cosmos, and along with Jesus, lifts it into a transcendent eternity that the church later defined as eternal life.
“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Was it John who saw “the Spirit of God” descending? Was it Jesus who saw it? That is not easy to say. An insight may be gained from the way Matthew diverged from Mark on this. In Mark the second person, singular is used, to speak directly to Jesus. In Matthew, the third person, singular is used. The voice from heaven is a standard part of New Testament apocalyptic, where “heaven” is substituted for “God.” The meaning is that the divine itself is speaking. The essential message of apocalyptic is the proclamation of hope for the oppressed. The voice is not addressing Jesus but is disclosing who he is. Jesus is the hope of the oppressed. This indicates that the voice is addressing itself to John the Baptist, and that it was only John who saw “the Spirit of God” descending and alighting upon Jesus. Matthew intends this to be a revelation to John, henceforth to be an eye witness to this Christophany and thereafter to bear witness to it. For this reason the baptism of Jesus must not be seen as some kind of call to Jesus. As a Christophany it intends to reveal Jesus as who he is and as who he has always been, “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In the baptism of Jesus, “the intangible, impalpable instant,” the divine is presenting itself as the fulfillment of ancient promises, as Mary reminds us, “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Luke 1:55. Zechariah confirms this, “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.” Luke 1:72-73.
Matthew has made this clear to his congregation, and for me, it is a reminder of Genesis 8:22. “As long as the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”