hope’s humble harbinger


In this icon in the reredos of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Denver, Jesus is being baptized by John the Baptist. John’s arm is seen over Jesus’ head with a bowl of water and Jesus is pale, vulnerable and (though perhaps I am projecting) somewhat frightened of the future. His abdomen is exposed, soft, gentle, unguarded and unprotected even by ribs.

It would be easy to so super-spiritualize Jesus that the Jesus of our imaginations is the Jesus of the imperial church.  It would be easy to accept the Roman Catholic notion of a powerful, commanding Jesus handing keys to Peter so that authority and power are passed one one to the next to the next.  It would be easy to see Jesus as a commander-in-chief, with clear lines of authority from God to Jesus to Apostle to Disciple to Bishop to Priest, to Deacon, to Executive Secretary to upstairs maid.

But I wonder about that.  In this image Jesus is soft.  His skin is delicate and fragile and he seems like a strong breeze might bruise him.  Was he an imperial priest, clothed in layers of religious undergarments and religious clothing – the black shirt, the black cassock, the white alb, the golden chasuble, the heavy cope, the glittering jewels?  Or was he a man, with a loin cloth to protect his dangly bits?  If he was God, and I believe he was and is, then he has great power to effect change.  But was it imperial?  Was it power-based?  Was it with massive stone palaces and great armies?  Was it with layers and layers of levels and levels of authority and titled minions in a royal household of clergy, or was it a man, every bit a frightened as you and me by life, by being in a body made mostly of water and some calcium, vulnerable to disease, tomorrow?  If so, then I can identify with that God-man.  And I believe he understands how vulnerable and frightened I sometimes feel.

In the stained glass and icons of this image, I think we sometimes forget that there were no fonts, no silver shells, no candles, no vestments, no choirs.  Just cold water, a smelly, crazy baptist and some hope that this all might one day turn out ok against all odds; no matter what happens along the way.  What if the water in which Jesus was baptized was not heated gently by the altar guild?  What if it was cold?

“HARBINGER”

1
archaic :  a person sent ahead to provide lodgings
2
a :  one that pioneers in or initiates a major change

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