In the beginning

Column: Church adopted Baptist’s symbol of repentance

by Father Mike Stubbs

Biscotti are very hard and dry Italian cookies. As such, they can be difficult to eat.

But I have discovered that if I dip them in coffee, it softens them sufficiently to bite into them. Then they taste delicious. I immerse one and count to 10. More than that, and the cookie will fall apart.

The Greek word for “dip” or “immerse” gives us the English word “baptize.” But we would never say “I baptized the cookie in the coffee.” That is because the English word has acquired a very narrow meaning that it lacks in the original Greek.

For us, “baptize” means “to administer a sacrament marked by the ritual use of water which makes the recipient a member of the church.”

I bring this up because this Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Accordingly, the Gospel reading, Mk 1:7-11, features the baptism of Jesus: “It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.”

Even though the Greek verb “baptize” does not carry any particularly religious connotation on its own, we know that John is not baptizing Jesus out of hygienic concern or as part of some water sport. The Gospel text situates Jesus’ baptism in the context of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which John administered to the crowds who flocked to him in the desert. It clearly had a religious purpose.

At the same time, the baptism of Jesus did not mean exactly the same as our own baptism. That sacrament made us a member of the church, a part of the community of faith.

On the other hand, when Jesus was baptized, there was no church. And while the crowds who flocked to John for baptism were faith-filled, we could hardly call them a community. They lacked the cohesiveness necessary for that designation. They were too fluid a group. Instead, they resembled what we would call a movement.

The term “movement” sounds particularly appropriate, because John was persuading the crowds to turn back to God. The Hebrew word “teshuvah,” sometimes translated as “repentance,” literally means “return.”

Through his baptism, Jesus signaled that he was joining this movement of renewed faith, of increased religious fervor. He was endorsing it.

Eventually, Jesus would attract crowds of his own by his preaching, much as John the Baptist had. Some people in the crowd might even, at one time, have followed John. In any case, they were continuing in the same direction, turning back to God.

It was very appropriate, then, that when that movement coalesced into a community, that it would adopt as a sign of membership the same baptism which signified renewal. The sacrament that means initiation also means turning away from sin, turning toward God. It reminds us that belonging to the church always includes that spiritual renewal. That lies at the very core of our faith.

This Sunday, then, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we also anticipate the birth of our church.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

Leave a Comment