Many of you have asked me what was my favorite place on sabbatical? My answer is normally, I enjoyed all the places we visited - which is completely true. But there was one place that captured and captivated my biblical, theological, artistic and poetic imagination. It was the Baptistry of the Cathedral in Ravenna, Italy. In three weeks, I will share photos of this baptistry when I present my class on Art in Italy.
As you may know, baptistries were often constructed in the early church outside the main cathedral. Christian initiates would not enter the cathedral for worship until they had first been baptized. Baptistries we saw in Florence and Rome were huge, having been built in a size relational to the size of the cathedral for which they have been designed. But, the Ravenna Baptistry was the most ancient, the smallest and the most perfect of all.
Allow your mind's eye to travel with me on a journey to Ravenna, Italy. There you see a plain stucco, four-story high octagonal building with major doors facing east and west and smaller entrances to the south and north. As you enter the west door by the cathedral (which was actually the exit in ancient days), your eyes are drawn to the 10 foot wide, four foot tall octagonal baptismal pool in the center of the room. On the east end of the baptismal pool, an oval pulpit protrudes into the pool. Thirty-feet above you, directly over the baptismal is a mosaic dome dating to 458 AD portrays Jesus's baptism by John in the River Jordan. Waist deep in the transparent Jordan River, a discretely naked Redeemer stands calmly receiving John's gentle baptism. John pours the water on Jesus' head from a flat bowl in his right hand, while he holds a cross in his left hand. A rather large white pigeon descends from the sky above directly above the flat bowl with the water. To the left of Jesus, the personification of the Jordan River approaches through the water, with the word "Jordann" over head. Some will tell you it is Moses, others will say yet another Jewish patriarch present at the baptism. Pagans say, it is simply the personification of the River, common for 5th Century art. Jordann is carrying a green cloth with which to dry our Christ as he ascends from the riverbed.
The next layer circling the dome is the zone of the apostles. There are twelve apostles led by Peter and Paul, who are flanking an empty throne, symbolizing Jesus having left the throne to be baptized. The attitude of the figures is such as to give the impression of a proceeding with a musical rhythm, as if they are dancing. Candlesticks rise between each disciple and the entire zone is draped in light blue fabric of mosaic design. The next zone is of thrones and altars. Again the thrones are empty - as if the apostles have left their thrones to enter into baptism as well. Or perhaps the thrones stand empty as if to welcome the newly baptized to take their place in the heavenly realm. In four of the corners, the four gospel writes appear. At the lower levels, the biblical story in Hebrew and Christian scripture appear, including Jonah between two sea monsters, Daniel in the lion's den, and Christ as a warrior trampling on a lion and a dragon, symbols of evil. The story of the battle between good and evil, the story of itself salvation is portrayed in ancient, intricate, colorful, mosaic beauty.
Standing in this overwhelmingly beautiful space, I imagined what it must have been like to come as a pagan to the waters of baptism 1400 years before. Journey with me farther. This time into the past.
I picture myself in nothing but a thin white muslin gown coming to the waters of baptism in the predawn hours of Easter morning. This day of resurrection is the time for baptism. The sun is begins to peak through the window to the east, directly over the pulpit. I see the sun rising as I seek to follow the rising son of God. Having studied the faith as a catechumen for one year, having fasted and worn sack cloth for the 40 days of Lent, having listened all night to God's salvation story in Hebrew and Christian scriptures, I am feel ready to step into the icy waters of baptism ahead of me. Will I be able to live this faith as Jesus has taught it 430 years before? Will I be faithful to him all the days of my earthly life? Will I do as he would do? Will I speak as he would speak? Will I live simply as he would?
The questions reverberate in my brain as I step into the pool of living water. It is icy cold. The pain of the cold water reminds me of Christ's deathly pain for me. I see the words in Latin above the Pulpit. The inscription from Psalm 32:1-2 reads, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered, blessed is the man unto to whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity." These words have been given by God for my salvation. I am humbled by the immensity of this realization. The Bishop asks me questions. "Yes, I renounce Satan," I say. "Yes, I receive new life in Christ," I say.
Three times I am immersed in the waters completely. Each time I go down into this icy, watery grave it symbolizes one day Christ spent for me in the tomb of his death. It symbolizes as well the blessing of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having been baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, and having been anointed by the oil of confirmation, I leave this darkened place of glory and head to the morning sun, toward the cathedral where I receive my first communion with the gathered brethren who applaud my arrival and the arrival of my fellow catechumens into the fellowship of faith we call Christian.
Today, my mind goes back even farther to the banks of the Jordan River, himself. Can you imagine what it must have been like the day Jesus showed up at the River Jordan to be baptized by John? It was not a glorious scene of heaven-sent mosaic grandeur. That much we know.
"The place was teeming with sinners - faulty, sorry, guilty human beings - who hoped against hope that John could clean them up and turn their lives around. If you have ever read the arrest record in the newspaper, then you know the kinds of things they were guilty of - drunk driving, (mail fraud), bad checks, petty larceny, assault. (Some were poor and had come because they had been told by priests that their poverty was caused by something wrong inside of them). Some were notorious sinners and some were there for crimes of the heart known only to themselves, but none of them had illusions of their own innocence. They had come to be cleaned. They knew they were dirty." (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, pp. 33-34).
Jesus shows up and gets in line with them. He wasn't famous. No one knew anything about him. He hadn't committed any miracles yet. He hadn't saved humanity yet. He simply stood in line waiting his turn. John recognized him as he entered the water. To the rest of the newly redeemed and waiting unredeemed sinners by the river, it looked like they were just talking. But, attention was drawn to Jesus as he emerged from the waters with the heavens torn apart, a dove descending upon him, and a voice clearly saying from heaven, "This is my son, the Beloved One, in whom I am well pleased." (Ibid).
Now the controversy began. "What was he doing there," the others must have wondered? What was the son of God doing submitting himself to a scruffy character like John in a crowd teeming with sinners?
The Christian church has never rested easily with the baptism of Jesus. Each of the gospel writes make us uneasy as they tell the story. Mark is characteristically brief. Matthew tells us that John tried to talk Jesus out of baptism. Luke will not even come out and say John did it. John's gospel is most curious of all. He bears witness that he saw the dove descend, but he does not mention anything about baptism at all.
Jesus would not have been baptized by John if he'd had political handlers and PR people. While it was okay to appear to be a friend to sinners and kind and loving to the misbegotten, it was not politically wise to be mistaken as one of them. Imagine the Mayor of Columbus, or our Governor or our President lining up with criminals seeking redemption for who knows what offenses. Everyone would wonder, what has he done wrong? If Carl Rove was there, he would have encouraged Jesus to be a back-slapper and hand-grasper. He would have shown Jesus the benefit of helping the newly redeemed out of the water. But, he would never have allowed for a photo-op down in the river alongside the sinners, under the water dirtied by the sweat of petty criminals and thieves! It wouldn't be prudent.
Even if Jesus were innocent, even his intentions were good and pure, this scene was ruinous to his reputation. Who would believe that he was actually there because he cared about people and refused to separate himself from them? I am sure folks would think he MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING WRONG. Maybe it was a tiny, teeny thing. But, he had to clear his conscience (and perhaps his name). Then he could go on to great things.
Do you see the problem? We spend a lot of time in the church talking about God's love for sinners, but we sure do have a lot of trouble seeing ourselves as one of those sinners. God forbid someone mistake us a sinner. So, we try to stay away from those who are unclean. Guilt by association and all that. Jesus was not concerned about "all that." He didn't have our issues. He understood that "God With Us," Immanuel, means God being with us as poor sinners in the river. It means God being with us in the jail cells facing someone who has committed a crime according to the state and seeks forgiveness according to God. It means God being with us when we have HIV/AIDS and lie dying alone. It means God being with us in the pain of divorce. It means God being with us in rehabilitation from drug and alcohol abuse. It means God being with us when we have run away from home and need parental love and forgiveness or when we as parents have seemingly given up on one or more of our children. It means God being with us in the Tsunami and the aftermath. It means God being with us as we cry out to City Council or The County Commissioners calling them to a deeper consciousness of remembering the poor in our midst. It means God being with us when we stand up for justice for gays, lesbians, bi-sexual or transgendered persons, even though we are not ourselves are not gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgendered.
It means God being with us down in the river, in the flesh, in the sorrow of repentance and the joy of new life with us.
Why Baptize? Because, we need it! God calls us into the water of baptism not because we are holy, but because we need holiness. And we come: some of us brave, some of fearful; some of us weak, some of us strong; some of us well, some of hurting intensely; some of us heroes and successes or once not so long ago knew ourselves to be and some of us who can't seem to get anything right. We come to the water. We seek the Holy Spirit. We ask once again for God to make dead to sin, and alive to grace in God's name. And so today, I appeal to one more time: remember your baptism and keep it holy. Amen.