I’ve seen some pretty interesting weight-loss products in my time. They all promise to help you lose a lot of weight in a short time, as much as a pound a day. There are pills and shakes and special belts and shorts. There are special “exercise” machines that all promise to help you shed the pounds with little or no effort (results may vary). However, the strangest product I ever saw advertised for weight loss was something you were supposed to add to your bath water. Just put the product in the bath and then watch the fat go right down the drain! Some people will believe anything.
But I have to confess that I have had that wish. I have stood in the shower and thought to myself how wonderful it would be if I could just wash those extra ounces, pounds, people, right off me and right down the drain. Then I could emerge from the shower a new person.
In fact, I don’t know about you, but when I’ve felt sick with the flu or something, and I’ve gotten up from my sick bed and taken a shower, I’ve always felt a little better…until a couple of hours later, anyway. There is something about washing that makes things better. Our favorite hotel has hot tubs, hot tubs mind you, not Jacuzzi baths, right in the room, big luxurious things. After a stay there, we always feel so rejuvenated. There is nothing like soaking in water for a while to make the world seem a lot friendlier. Water seems to be so healing. Indeed, whenever I’ve had my car washed, I always feel like it ought to run a little better.
Is it any wonder, then, that religions have used bathing as a sort of ritual cleansing since the times of Homer? The rite of baptism did not begin with Christianity, or even with John the Baptist. Although the practice was not called “baptism”, the Jewish faith had a ritual-cleansing bath. The practice was called mikvah and was used if a person came into contact with anything “unclean”, such as a dead body or a politician. People who converted to Judaism were required to be immersed in water as part of their conversion. So when John the Baptist called upon people to be immersed in the river, it was not such a new or strange idea. Both John and Jesus baptized their followers. Jesus was baptized by John. It is an event that is chronicled by each of the four evangelists. There are not many events from the life of Christ that are documented in all four gospels. We have been looking at Matthew, so here is his version of the story:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to stop him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Allow it now, so it can be seen by all that righteousness is fulfilled.’ Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God descend upon him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'” ( Big Daddy translation)
Now this is the part where a lot of traditional Christian thinkers (if you want to call them that) tend to shy away because there is something here that doesn’t make much sense in light of church dogma. For if Jesus was born perfect, without any trace of human sinfulness, then why would he need to be baptized? Those traditionalists don’t like it when people point out these inconsistencies because it tends to mess with their preconceived ideas about Jesus and God. But I won’t run away from this question at all. For I have an answer. The answer is who knows? Actually, there are a several possible answers.
Jesus may have simply wanted people to know that John’s message was correct. John had been preaching baptism for the remission of sins out there in the desert and Jesus may well have been saying by his actions, “My name is Jesus and I approve of this message.” Another view is that Jesus was ordained to stand in for the entire Jewish nation. Like the Hebrew children, he was at one time exiled in Egypt (by his parents in order to preserve his life from Herod), and that now, in accordance with Jewish law and tradition, he was cleansing himself, and thereby the people. He would then, after the baptism, spend forty days in the wilderness to be tested, much like the Hebrews when they were lead by Moses in the wilderness for forty years. Or, it could also be that Jesus was simply a person looking for the divine and that he went through the rite of baptism because he felt he needed it.
There are some schools of Christian thought that hold that it was not until that moment, the moment of baptism, that the Christ spirit descended upon Jesus and that up until that moment, he was just an ordinary man. It is directly after this baptism and his sojourn in the wilderness that he begins his mission. Remember, he did nothing for the first thirty years of his life (which should demonstrate that there is hope for all of us). But there is yet another point of view.
If there is one message of Christianity, it is one of a new creation. That is what sets Christianity apart from the other religions, really. Christianity is not a religion of do’s and don’ts. It is about reconciliation. Through Jesus, God is reconciled to us. It was the belief (and still is, to many, most, really), that through our lack of faith and subsequent disobedience, we had lost our intimate connection with the divine. The life of Jesus is a righteous parallel to the children of Israel. And through Jesus, God has reconciled Himself to humanity. That is why it is called the “New Testament”. The old contract was torn up and thrown away, and a new contract was signed…in blood. So God is reconciled to us.
But we are not reconciled to God (or whatever you want to call the divine spirit, Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah, the Tao, the Atman, the Great Spirit, the Great Spaghetti Monster. I like to say God because it’s only three letters.). For centuries humankind has tried to reconcile itself to God by various rites and rituals, sacraments and blessings. But we never seem to succeed obviously, because we keep doing them over and over again. People even move from one religion to another in order to find that reconciliation. And because we never seem to do well enough, we begin to feel hostile towards God. We never seem to know just what it is that God wants. And so we fail. And then we get pissed at God for our inability to meet the divine standard when we never could meet the divine standard because of our very humanity.
We have to stop being hostile to God. God is already reconciled to us. We have to reconcile ourselves to God. As far as I can tell, all the people I know are unhappy with their own existence. Nobody is beautiful enough or rich enough or powerful enough or holy enough. We always want what someone else has. We always think somebody else has all the answers. That’s why the self help books sell so well. Of course, if they are “self” help books, why are we reading what somebody ELSE has to say? We are angry about our lives. God, why did you do this to ME? The whole message of all religions is to accept things for what they are. Reality simply is. It is the way it is because it is. So you have to quit trying to please God if you want to reconcile yourself to Him/Her. There is nothing that you have to do. You are already reconciled to God.
I once had a friend whom I had not seen for quite some time and one day he came to me and apologized for something he had done. He had felt, in his own way, that he had betrayed me. But I was never angry with him ever. In fact, I missed him a great deal. I never saw his actions as a betrayal and had never held anything against him, and when he came to me, I welcomed him with open arms, glad to have him back in my life. All the walls between us had been of his own construction. And he was the one who had to tear them down. He wanted forgiveness from me. He didn’t need that. He needed to forgive himself.
Once we understand that we are already reconciled to God, then we can begin to reconcile ourselves to ourselves. And then we can put away that old self, that old life, full of regrets and guilt, and become a new creation. I can think of no better time than so soon after the New Year for this message of reconciliation. There could be no better time to drop all that old baggage we’re carrying like so many bricks and become something new. And I can think of no better symbolic gesture than the rite of baptism to wash away the old self and to become that new being.
It is through reconciliation that reunion becomes possible. Jesus came to reunite us with the Godhead. That was his message. We can be connected to the divine spirit through love, love for ourselves and for one another. We demonstrate that love through kindness and compassion. What many consider weakness is more powerful than they could ever imagine. It is the power and the glory of the divine. And no particular religion holds the strings to that power. It is a mistake to believe that any religion is better than any other religion, or no religion at all. There are no requirements other than the two great commandments of Christ: love one another and love God. And those two commandments flow naturally out of reconciliation and reunion and lead to resurrection, not a resurrection from mortal death to eternal life, but from a spiritual death of anger and resentment to a divine life in love. This is how we come to peace.
We all have our little rituals, whether religious or otherwise. There are so many who look down upon religious ritual as superstition while they, themselves, perform any number of little secular rituals every day. In the long run, what is the difference between saying a little prayer to start your day and stopping by Starbucks for a non-fat grande mocha (hold the whipped cream)? They are all rituals, and we would be lost without them. A ritual becomes superstition when you believe that there something intrinsically magic about it. If you think your day will be bad without that mocha, then you’re just as superstitious has the most devout Catholic who buries St. Anthony upside down in his or her back yard. There is nothing wrong with ritual, per se.
Through baptism, Jesus became a new creation, a new being, the Christ. As Christ, Jesus reunited us with God and reconciled us to God. Through the baptism of Christ, we all became new creations. But you don’t need to go into any special church to be baptized. Baptism is all a state of mind. All those old feelings of anger and regret, those lingering resentments and guilt, let them go. Let them go and get a life, a new life. That is the message of baptism. I know I always feel better after a nice, hot shower.