Water Ceremonies

For Sunday, 6 December 2020: Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

We are used to thinking of baptism as the sacrament of initiation into the Christian community “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but John the Baptist is proclaiming a “baptism” of repentance to Jewish folk. What might that have meant to them?

In the Jewish tradition of biblical times there were people known as “God-fearers” who were Gentiles or non-Jewish believers who honored and lived by the commandments of the God of Israel. Some of these God-fearers actually became Jews by submitting to circumcision, if male, undergoing a ritual washing with water or baptism to cleanse from the corruption of idolatry, and offering a sacrifice at the Temple.

There are other references in the Hebrew Bible to water baths for the purpose of washing away uncleanness. For example, when a person became “unclean” through such things as contracting skin diseases, touching something dead or eating non-kosher foods,  they were separated from the community at large and prohibited from participating in the sacrificial system of the Temple. The remedy was “purification” which oftentimes included ritual baths and washing of clothes.

Other cultures throughout time have used water in their spiritual rituals. On Turtle Island or North America, for example, the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains participate in what we call the “sweat lodge.” A hole is dug in the earth and covered by a canopy of logs or tree branches. Rocks heated outside in a large fire are brought inside the lodge. Water poured on these red-hot stones results in a steam bath. When accompanied by prayers, the sweat lodge is a purification ceremony for body, mind, and spirit.

How does John see his followers being purified? John the Baptist is preparing the way for the Lord Jesus and the arrival of God’s bodily presence among all the tribes, nations, and peoples of the earth, beginning with the clans of Israel.  He preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Greek word for repentance is metanoia meaning “changing one’s mind.” John simply wants the hearers of his preaching to change their minds about anything that is disobedient in their lives to the will of God. John calls them to walk in a new direction of harmony, turning around and walking towards the Creator in the path of obedience to God’s ways. This decision and change of heart is then marked by immersion into the waters of the Jordan River as a cleansing ritual of purification and a sign of beginning anew.

We, too, are called to heed the words of John the Baptist by turning our lives around in the cause of welcoming Jesus into our midst. One thing is clear from the teachings of the Creator’s covenants with human beings: no matter how far we have strayed from God’s ways and wills for our lives, we are always welcomed home when we are ready to return. There is a sense of urgency about that decision, however, especially during this Advent season when the church recalls that history will have an end when Jesus returns in glory. There is still time, but the time is now!


The Darkened Sun

For Sunday, 27 November 2020: Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said to his followers:] 24 “But in those days, after that suffering,the sun will be darkened,and the moon will not give its light,25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

A solar eclipse is oftentimes a surreal occurrence for those who have experienced the phenomenon. Even if one scientifically understands it as the moon casting its shadow upon the sun, there is still an air of unreality as the sun appears to dim and vanish for a few minutes and the sky turns dark in the middle of the day. Understandably, this was a frightening experience for ancient peoples and their stories reflect as much. The Pomo, the indigenous people of northern California, tell a tale of a bear fighting with the sun and taking a bite out of it. As a matter of fact, the word for a solar eclipse in the Pomo language is Sun-got-bit-by-a-bear. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus also prophesies and warns his followers about a time when “the sun will be darkened.”

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Joel prophesied that one of the signs of the expected “day of the Lord” was the darkened sun: “The sun shall be turned to darkness … before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:31). As a familiar theme, the “day of the Lord” is both eagerly anticipated and dreaded by the chosen people for it is a day of God’s justice as well as a time of  God’s judgment, a day on which evil will be defeated and the righteous will be vindicated.

This understanding by the twelve tribes of Israel about the Day of the Lord was carried over into the New Testament as the day of the return of Christ or his second coming, one of the themes of the church season of Advent which begins today. I am reminded of the words of one of our Eucharistic Prayers when we pray: “Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy people do celebrate and make, with these thy holy gifts which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; andlooking for his coming again with power and great glory” (BCP p. 342).

There is another time in the Gospel of Mark when the sun is darkened. When Jesus is nailed to the cross and in the process of dying a painful death, it is written: “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mark 15:33). As we wait for the Day of the Lord, we do so in the shadow of the cross, giving heed to the Apostle Paul’s words to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation, for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-9).

Even though we do not know when the time will come, as we wait for angels to gather us from the four winds, and the vanquishment of evil and the triumph of God, we are not to live in fear. Rather, we have work to do, a mission to accomplish involving acts of faith, hope, and love using the gifts God has given us.  Let us encourage one another with these words.


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The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.