Baptismal scene from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Denver which was, at one time, the reredos of St. Martin’s Chapel of St. John’s Cathedral, Denver
Sermon for January 8, 2017 The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond, Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver, CO
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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, whom I choose.”
“Alighting on him.” I have seen this verse often. Studied it in seminary, spoken it from pulpits, used it in retreats. And never, ever have I noticed that the Spirit “like a dove” “alights on him.” Never.
The Greek word is like the English one. Alight. It comes from two words conflated: a which means “ down or aside” and “lihtan” which means to ”get off” or “make light.” But of course both words also have the double meaning of to “set on fire” or “to shine upon” or “set ablaze.”
I find the words curious. Don’t you? The imagery of fire landing on Jesus or of “weight” moving from God to the body of Jesus, incredibly provocative. The word “glory” in Hebrew “KAVOD” also means heavy. God’s heavy glory of fire lands on Jesus.
The spirit lands and stays on him as an eagle alights on a fence post. On his body. The voice comes not from the dove-like-spirit but directly from heaven. And yet this incredibly visual thing happens to Jesus’ body.
Do you not find it curious that we have given a whole week to what happens to Jesus’ body when it is beaten, tied, stripped of skin, tied to a post, dragged through the streets, lifted “alighted” onto a cross and hung there to drip and die? But when it comes to the choosing of Jesus – the heavy glory of Jesus at the beginning of the adult story – we drop a little dove into a circle of light above his head and call it a day.
Linger with me in this water. Use your imagination. Close your eyes and step into that water with Jesus and hundreds of other people and imagine that moment of heavy transference.
I expect that the reason we do not often display this moment in art is because we are uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus was not so weighted with glory a moment before…a young man…a wanderer, like you and like me. That may be why it took another 300 years for the church (once it was regal) to decide on a divinity transferred versus divinity by bloodline. One can imagine the discomfort of Anglo-catholics the world over if this was not about Mary’s sinlessness as much as it is about God’s decision – the moment of conference. This moment. A new kind of glory. A new kind of heaviness. A new kind of fire. A new kind of paternity. A new kind of divine leadership quite apart from discussions about who is or is not holy.
This gospel, remember, was written at the end of the first century after Jesus’s death and resurrection, a good three to four hundred years before the battles began over whether or not Jesus (let alone Mary) was sinless or divine. And the ancient symbolism of Zeus sending a messenger which was a great eagle which Zeus sent to fetch Ganymedes – a beautiful young man to bring him to heaven as the cup-bearer of the gods. Was this not a symbolic and literary reforming of the story of gods and people?
So let’s stay with him in an Ignatian moment of imagination-making. Stand with him. His feet are in mud. His legs in water and his body comes up from within the water – one assumes a dunking. His head is then beneath a thing like a dove but not a dove – perhaps like a dove only because in ancient lore birds conferred power and brought messages.
And then let’s look at the message itself. A voice says that he is “chosen” (a much better translation than “well pleased.” Like some colonial general well-pleased with his servant’s efforts at shining his shoes) No. This is not well-translated as “well-pleased”. It is “chosen” That is the word the scriptures use. Jesus stands in this river for all of us exactly the same way Jesus stands for all of us on that cross. So let’s stay with him and not rush in to Lent and Holy Week.
Let’s stay with him in this river and be chosen by God with Jesus. The question tis Gospel asks is NOT “What does it mean for Jesus to die for us?” The question today between Christmas and Lent is “what doe sit mean for us, with Jesus, to be God’s chosen?” “What does that Chosen-ness do to how we live…to the choices we make…to the words we say…to the way we talk to God, with God. With each other in God.?
To be chosen is so different than pleasing someone. It is adoption, not employment. The translation is important. Words are important.
What does it mean to be chosen by God? If God chooses Jesus in his baptism then this modeling must imply that God chooses us in our baptism. What is our response to that act of having been chosen? How do we proceed?
What if this is less about sanctifying and more about friendship? Jesus stands in solidarity with sinners like you and me and Ron and Evelyn and Tom Keyse and Helen and Don and Susan and Daniel and Mary and David and Amy and Bishop O’Neill and the wonderful prostitute who always leaves her corner on 14th and Washington for a couple hours on Sunday nights to come to the Wilderness with her big hair and her big huge smile that seems to light up a room when she enters it. All of us. The Bishop, the children in Sunday-school, the clergy…you, me.. and the prostitute – all. And Jesus.
The orange water that is sprinkled on the hands of people after having had dinner in Morocco. One of my earliest memories as a child – we often dined at a Moroccan restaurant when I was small and I remember the post meal ceremony well with the tall-necked silver bottles fro which the orange water fell onto waiting hands.
“Chosen people” and yet such a relationship of turbulence and heartbreak all through the books we call our scriptures.
Chosen people: A bird broods over creation, a process chooses a baby in a basket, a lover chooses a shepherdess, a harp-playing minstrel chooses and un-chooses God
with the dexterity of a gymnast flipping forward and backward on bars. Joseph chooses Mary. Mary chooses the word “yes.” Joseph chooses Mary again. Then he chooses Jesus.
The shepherds and wise travellers from across the Sahara, wrapped in turbans and rugs against the cold of the desert night choose Jesus. Herod chooses fame and power. Jesus chooses obedience and righteousness. John chooses Jesus and then God does. Jesus chooses John the Beloved Disciple. The martyrs choose torture and death. The blind, when asked, choose sight. The priests choose power and manipulation. And in Revelation, God’s dreams re-choose humanity and we find, to our surprise that way we thought was linear is, in fact, circular.
I imagine the waters of the Jordan hitting Jesus’ beautiful abdomen – a six-pack if ever there was one on a man. I imagine the waters flowing, by necessity, around Jesus’ torso – breaking left and breaking right, creating a circle of currents around a man’s body – God made flesh.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”