One of the things that most captures my attention in the Gospel lesson for Baptism of the Lord Sunday is its geographical references.
Mark tells us that John the baptizer appears in the wilderness along the Jordan River and that folk from the Judean countryside and Jerusalem were streaming out to him to be baptized. This description raises a lot of questions: How did the people of Judea and Jerusalem know where to find him in that wilderness? Did they have a map? Was the wilderness even on a map? These questions prompted a reflection on geography and maps.
We all need a good map, don’t we? Maps give us perspective — they help us locate where we are and provide direction for where we’re going. And most maps are political documents, for somebody has decided what to include and what to exclude, and how to represent what is featured. Indeed, the very act of mapping has been described as an exercise of power, for what gets included and excluded in a map is all about power. Just think, for example, about maps of current day Israel (or is it Palestine?) and the West Bank and Gaza. How should these disputed regions be labeled? Some refer to the West Bank as Judea-Samaria or as Occupied Territories; accordingly, some maps include Jewish settlements and others do not. It is safe to say that there is no such thing as a neutral map of Israel-Palestine. In fact, there is no such thing as a neutral map of any geopolitical area, including our own.
And how did the stunning political events of this week shift the maps of our understanding, as an insurrectionist mob, incited by the president himself and inspired by racist and nativist inclinations, sought to achieve vigilante justice in the face of what they falsely deem to be electoral fraud? Some of the rioters carried banners and flags with Christian symbolism, some “Jesus 2020” signs. What have we learned this week about the map of white Christianity and white supremacy? About the depth of division in this country? About political leadership? About the price of silence? After what happened this week, many pastors are rewriting their sermons for this Sunday – their maps of what needs to be said.
I grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri, on the banks of the Missouri River, where Lewis and Clark camped out on their journey west. Thus, I have had a life-long fascination with their ground-breaking, boundary-expanding expedition. I sat through the entirety of the Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series on their journey, which helped me refresh my grade-school memory of the history lesson on the Louisiana Purchase — one of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest achievements. It is astonishing to look at that map of our country in 1803 at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, (which more than doubled the size of the nation) and to consider that huge swath of land stretching all the way from the Mississippi River to the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. Soon after the Purchase, Lewis and Clark led the expedition to explore that vast wilderness of the west — traveling northwest on the Missouri River, and providing the U.S. government with a grasp of what exactly it had purchased. But we can be fairly confident that if indigenous people, past or present, were to consider that same map of the United States in 1803 at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, they would no doubt find something wrong with the picture! Ironically, the Lewis and Clark Expedition never would have made it to the Pacific if it had not been for indigenous maps, indigenous knowledge of the geography and indigenous hospitality along the way.
We also know that Lewis and Clark developed a ritual that they used whenever they met a tribe for the first time. They would explain to the tribal leaders that their land now belonged to the United States and that a man far in the east – President Thomas Jefferson – was their new “great father.” They presented tribal leaders with a peace medal that had an image of Jefferson on one side and two clasped hands on the other; then the Corps of Discovery, a United States Army unit accompanying the expedition, would perform a kind of parade, marching in uniform and shooting their guns up into the air. The ritual, in other words, was an introduction: “Hello, we’re the new landlords!” When I learned of this ritual, I found myself recollecting the map of the Louisiana Purchase that I first saw in grade school. Was it really a map of the Louisiana Purchase or of Occupied Territories? The answer, of course, is perspectival, because there is no such thing as a neutral map. Maps are powerful instruments that influence our interpretation of the world around us and the phenomena that occur within it.
For this reason, Christians are ever in need of a map of the world from a biblical point of view; and that is what the Gospel of Mark holds before us on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Its opening chapter narrates the launching of Jesus’ ministry at the moment of his baptism, when his identity and the direction and focus of the ministry before him come into clear view. Before he even appears on the scene, John the baptizer identifies him as one who provides the pattern, the orientation, the direction, the path that we are to follow — one that begins with baptism and the reception of the Spirit, and leads to mission, opposition, a cross and resurrection.
Mark also tells us that when Jesus first shows up on the scene, he does not appear where we might have expected — not in Jerusalem, in the holy city, in the temple, the holy place, in the company of holy people. Rather he shows up in the wilderness and submits to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which places him alongside sinners and broken people. He is baptized in solidarity with them; and throughout his ministry, he continues to cross boundaries, shatter expectations and consort with the wrong sort of people, compelling us to do the same.
But most important of all: When Jesus emerges from the waters of his baptism, something happens that remaps the world, that entails nothing short of what Gordon Lathrop in “Holy Ground” calls a remapping of the cosmos. For Mark tells us that as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens being “ripped apart” and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him — identifying and empowering Jesus as one who maps the very trajectory of God in the world and as one in whom God is decisively at work to reclaim and restore God’s good creation. It is important to note that the heavens do not simply “open,” for something that opens can close. Mark tells us that the heavens were ripped apart – that reality was irreparably altered as a fissure in the heavens appeared – marking a permanent elimination of the boundary between heaven and earth. Lathrop describes it as the hole in the cosmic map of the universe. And as Jesus’ baptism prefigures our own baptism, it is this hole in the map of the universe that orients our lives. This means that for Christians, the center of our maps is not in the nation’s capital city — it is not Washington, D.C., as it was for Lewis and Clark. Neither is our current locale the center, wherever that may be. It is not in Jerusalem or New York or London or Beijing or Rome. The center of the Christian map is the baptismal font, over which there is symbolic hole in the heavens. This is where we hear a voice that tells us the truth about ourselves, claiming us as God’s own beloved children, and where God’s own Spirit claims us and anoints us for service. The hole in the cosmic map of the universe also means that God is on the loose in this world in Jesus’ ministry and in our own in discipleship to Christ. God’s transforming power is on the loose in this world, challenging everything that distorts and disfigures human life and God’s good creation, and empowering us to lend our energies to God’s project of healing what is broken.
As you ponder this text, let us remember our own baptisms and contemplate the hole above the baptismal font in the cosmic map of the universe. And remember that God on the loose in the world and in the communities around us, summoning our participation at those points where we discern God’s purposes struggling toward realization now. It will be important to return continually to this baptismal place throughout our lives in order to reorient ourselves again and again to this center, lest we lose our bearings, for everywhere we turn there will be those who proffer distorted maps or who show up announcing that they are the new landlords. They may bring gifts and stage a parade and shoot guns in the air, seeking peace that will be for some but not for all — a peace without justice. Remember that the cosmic map by which we live as Christians has a hole in the center and under it is a font, for that map challenges every other claim to power and summons us to follow Jesus Christ, and thereby participate, by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit and as God’s own beloved children, in the divine work of mending and restoring the creation.
- What would you identify as maps that provide orientation and direction for your life — both literally and figuratively? Identify as many of them as you can.
- Examine a map of your local region and ask: What is included in this map, and why? What is excluded from this map, and why?
- Ask yourself: how did what happened in Washington this week rewrite our nation’s map? What does it really mean for Christ to be at the center of the map?
- Look for a map of the indigenous tribes of North America and ask: What tribes have inhabited your region of the country? Who were they? Where are they now?
- Read Mark 1:4-11 slowly several times and imagine that you are part of this scene. Where are you in this story? What do you sense, see and smell? Imagine Jesus coming up out of water. Do you hear the voice from heaven? If so, what do you hear, and what emotions does it evoke?
- Ponder your own baptism and ask these questions: Who am I as a baptized child of God? What does my baptismal identity mean to me? Be specific.
- If you are able to do so, find a baptismal font (or simply put some water in a bowl) and renew your baptism by dipping your hand in the water and then tracing the shape of the cross on your forehead with wet fingers. Then ask: How is the baptismal font the center of my cosmic map, and what does that mean for how I might orient and conduct myself in my neighborhood, community or region?
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