Ascension Year C
Baptism of Jesus
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
In Venice in 1997, the performance artist Marina Abramovic created a piece entitled: Balkan Baroque. For this piece, Abramovic gathered 1500 pounds — yes, really, 1500 pounds — of fresh, bloody cow bones in a large pile. At the performance, she sat in a white dress on top of the pile of bones, and then proceeded to wash them clean, using a scrub brush and the water from 2 large copper sinks and 1 copper tub, singing lullabies from her childhood as she washed. The performance lasted 6 hours per day for 4 straight days. I cannot find the words to describe the effect this piece had on me — and I only saw it second hand at MOMA as an incomplete site recreation (in other words, with clean, dry bones and no performer). But imagine the smell. Imagine her white dress, getting dirtier and dirtier as she scrubbed. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine.
This installation was the artist’s critique of Yugoslav wars. It is sometimes described as an exploration of an individual’s loss within a mass trauma, but I think there is much more to it. When speaking of the piece, Abramovic said:
Balkan Baroque is based on “cleansing our conscience,” a metaphor that one can only move on in life as one is willing to see (…) the past and present and accept all consequences connected; in order to embrace the future.
For me, Abramovic was relating an internal process of rebirth and regeneration to an external one of radical love: the labor of scrubbing clean the bones of the dead. Her piece suggests that it is through such humble work of love in community that we may best be able to find a path towards a healthier future. When I saw the recreation, the image of Abramovic performing this humble and elemental task brought three things to mind: Water, “Women’s Work,” and Baptism.
Wait, you might be thinking — did she just say “Baptism?” Yes, I sure did. Today is the feast of the baptism of Jesus. So I want to talk about re-imagining the theology of baptism.
You have all heard me speak about my frustration with the doctrine of Original Sin — the notion that we are all born “broken” because of Adam and Eve, but let’s be honest: ever since the 2nd century CE, when Tertullian labeled Eve (and by extension all other women) as the “devil’s gateway,” it’s most often portrayed as the fault of Eve. That kind of thinking has caused so much harm in our world, most especially to women. But we don’t have to think about baptism that way. Just as there are many theologies of the atonement, there are also many theologies of baptism. And there isn’t any one theology of either that contains the whole truth of what they are.
Before we start, I’d like to make a distinction between ritual purity and moral purity. Achieving ritual purity is a culturally derived process that recognizes a person’s change of status from one perfectly normal natural state to another. So, for example, here in NYC, we all engage in a city specific form of ritual purity every day – sometimes several times a day: we wash our hands after riding the subway. It’s a transformation from one normal state of being to another.
On the other hand, moral impurity comes from bad choices made by people. Given that we live in a world where there are millions of people making both good and bad choices, we end up, no matter how hard we try, participating in systemic choices that may not be of our own making, but sure can be to our advantage — as well as the clear disadvantage of others. To me, baptism is about the recognition of the systemic brokenness of the world — about marking the moment in our lives when we make a choice in how to respond to those systems. We are not using the water to appease and pay off an angry God to magically “fix” ourselves, because God has already forgiven us. Instead, we are using this water to signify our regeneration: how we will, with God’s help, respond to that grace — and how, when we are sealed as Christ’s own forever, we promise to continue, with God’s help, to make those choices in the future.
Moral impurity is about choices, not about inherent dirtiness.
But when ritual purity and moral purity get conflated —sometimes that’s a good thing — and sometimes, it is not. Here’s an example: how do we deal with blood? Blood is usually seen as benign when on the inside of bodies — life giving, sustaining. But when blood is seen on the outside – it signals danger to all of us. Immediately, we go on high alert, subconsciously thinking: “impurity” and “this has to be managed, has to be fixed.” If I get a cut, someone, maybe myself, is going to clean me, bandage me up, give me some medicine — in other words: ritually purify me to switch my status from one totally normal state of being (someone with a cut) to another (keeping my blood inside my body). But I’m not morally compromised because I got a cut in my skin.
Here’s an example of an unhelpful conflation of ritual and moral purity about blood: the glorification of war. Please do not think I am dishonoring those who serve in our military by saying this, because I am not. I am pointing out that the addition of a moral component like the “glory of sacrifice” onto the death of our young people cannot possibly be seen as always a good thing. It’s complicated. It’s situation specific. And we all know that too often glory is used as justification for pointless conflicts that enrich a few at the expense of the lives of many.
One of the things I like most about Abramovic’s Balkan Baroque is that it dismantles the conflation of ritual and moral purity in war by pointing to the very discomfort and dirtiness of the clean up process that happens after. Her piece challenges us to consider that instead of glorifying our soldiers after they are dead, wouldn’t it be more life affirming to strive for a world that emphasized love of neighbor? Maybe then we wouldn’t feel the need to build walls and send soldiers to protect them.
The work Abramovic does in the piece – scraping and cleaning the bones — is symbolic of what is often called “women’s work” – the day to day activities that actually make or break the chances of human survival in most societies. Now before I go further, let me clarify the distinction between “women’s biology” and “women’s work”. It is a biological reality that women are the ones who bear children (and are the ones who can nurse babies with their actual bodies.) And because of this biological reality, women are most often put in charge of “women’s work.” But we all know that this kind of nurturing work can be done by persons of any gender. Indeed, a few months ago, we heard Ed tell a deeply moving story of doing such work for his husband as he lay dying.
What if we decided to lift up the messy work of life — so called “women’s work” as a primary example of the nurturing work of God incarnate? What if we honored that work more than we honored war? What if we spoke of how it gives a recognizable face to the challenging actuality of living out our baptismal covenant? Catholic poet Kathleen Norris writes movingly on this subject in her short book, The Quotidian Mysteries:
I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self. This is incarnational reality, the sanctity of everyday life.
Lifting up such work, these quotidian mysteries, as Norris describes them, seems a promising avenue for illuminating the true nature of the baptized community — the body of Christ. The baptismal rite, when celebrated in all its messy, water spilling, untidy glory, seems the perfect place to locate the kind of rebirth that can only come about with the aid of the daily, messy, nurturing care by and for others. Theologian Aidan Kavanagh speaks of this when he says that “Baptism’s knowledge of Christ is not that of the dining room but of the bath house.” In the book of Acts, the second half of the gospel of Luke, the description of the earliest Christian communities also reflects this attention to the quotidian as the center of communal life in Christ:
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people.
Is it any wonder then, that of the three synoptic gospels, it is in Luke’s telling of the baptism of Jesus that we see this theology of baptism most clearly articulated? In Luke’s version, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus not just “like a dove” but in the bodily form of a dove. To the Romans, the transition of power — an inauguration — was accompanied by state officials who read the auguries — the signs of birds in the sky that predicted the future and the success of the new ruler. Most often, these augurs would see birds of prey — symbols of power and principalities — oppressive, dominating power that uses war and walls and slavery to separate the few on the top from the many on the bottom.
In contrast, the dove, in Roman times, was known as a symbol of love, specifically of nurturing, tenderness, care, vulnerability, and innocence. Those who were listening to Luke’s gospel would have picked up on that shift immediately — indeed it was an audacious, politically dangerous shift. These Christians were offering their allegiance to God instead of Caesar. They were promising to live a way of love instead of a way of domination.
I think theology, like real life, should be messy “nurturing work”. Unfortunately, it often is not. In her book Longing for Running Water, Brazilian nun and theologian Ivone Gebara writes:
“Our religious writings almost always seem to be trying to stand apart from any complicity with destructive processes, as if they were “oases” of purity, goodness, and freedom: privileged domains in which the air is pure and justice is possible.”
And I would add to her statement – “places where water is assumed to be clean.” But water often isn’t clean – and we get it, and our hands, dirty when we use it to clean. Can we re-envision Baptism from a “messy” perspective – from the perspective of nurturing work- which is rarely clean? Seeing Abramovic’s original performance, sitting in a white dress on top of that pile of 1500 bloody bones, getting dirtier and dirtier as she washed them clean, must have been profoundly disturbing and eloquent. And yet the willingness to take on such dirty work is exactly what we vow to do at our baptisms. Not coincidently, it is also directly related to the very works Jesus did in his ministry — feeding people, healing people, touching those who were considered untouchable and dirty.
Such a renewed imagining of baptism also reminds us to be aware of the ecological implications of our actions – how can there be justice when there is no clean water with which to do our “messy work”? How can there be justice when there is no clean water to drink? The task of nurturing extends to the planet as well as to our fellow human beings. This formulation of baptism also seeks to find solutions to the systemic nature of our “dirty” engagement with the planet – and each other.
Baptism is a rite that celebrates interconnectedness and relationality. The universal acts of gestating a child in the womb, cleansing each other with water, and preparing bodies for burial are all present in the baptismal font. By relating baptismal water more directly to “nurturing work,” we assert that we imitate God’s love for us in the embodied acts of nurturing we do daily, here and now, to help each other. This is still a theology of being cleansed by Baptism, but for me, a more fruitful one than the magical fixing of “original sin.” This kind of cleansing models, through human actions, how we are loved by God, and how we love God in return by loving each other.
Showing our willingness to get dirty in order to help others become clean is indeed a radical act of love. To tie this central image of mutual loving and hands on, embodied caring for each other to the rite of Baptism makes a clear connection between the act of “taking on the call of Christian life” and actually living in a new way. Given the current state of the world, we will surely need such radical acts of love to help us navigate the many challenges, including the environmental crisis, of the coming years.