Memories have the power to call to mind previous experiences in our lives. They seem to reactivate our memory banks and replay the tapes we've stored there. Perhaps as you and your spouse attend a wedding you recall the day when you exchanged your own vows. The emotion which that evokes may lead you to squeeze your spouse's hand or give a knowing wink. A funeral or memorial service for a family member or a friend might equally bring back sentiments and feelings of remembrance or sadness over the deaths of significant others in our past.
Mark's retelling of the story of Jesus' baptism is, for many, that kind of event. It conjures up for us the sights, sounds, and emotions surrounding past baptisms we've experienced: our own, a friend's, or a child's. Because of this we're enabled to better "connect" with the experience of Jesus at the Jordan River.
Mark's version of Jesus' life differs from those of Matthew and Luke in that he doesn't give us a glimpse into Jesus' earlier days. Instead, he presents John the Baptizer as the messenger fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy, as the voice of preparation for the One who is to come. Jesus was among the people who came from all over the Judean countryside to be baptized by John. There's no record of what that experience was for any of the other individuals besides Jesus. All three of the Synoptic Gospel writers record that Jesus went down into the waters, just as the others had, but that upon his emerging from the river something extraordinary happened. The voice of God the Father pierced the barrier between earth and heaven, and Jesus "saw…the Spirit descending like a dove on him."
Four verses later, Mark indicates that some time after this John's ministry came to an end when was arrested, imprisoned and eventually beheaded. Jesus, on the other hand, "came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God…" There's no gradual build-up, no account of exactly why Jesus chose to be baptized by John. We simply find him there on the Jordan bank with the others. He submits to baptism and is confirmed by the Father and the Spirit as the Beloved Son of God.
Our own baptism is an occasion for commitment, either through our godparents or on our own, to take up the ministry which Jesus began, as well as an occasion for being affirmed and supported in that decision. The ritual of baptism may have been simple or elaborate for us, but the essential elements are the same whatever. We commit ourselves to follow Jesus the Christ for the rest of our lives, and we're supported in that choice by others who've made the same commitment and have handed down to us the good news which Jesus proclaimed.
Generally, baptism is a public event. We make promises to God in the presence of a believing community, as a witness to both God and to others. We make this covenant out of the confidence that our allegiance can't be just a private matter, between us and God. We need to make ourselves accountable for what we promise, to God and to the body of Christ, the Church.
Putting into daily practice, living, the baptismal covenant isn't a "walk in the park" for any of us. In addition to the grace of God, we depend on the support of our sisters and brothers in Christ, not only at the baptismal celebration, but continually through our lives, particularly at those times when we grow discouraged and lukewarm. There is constant need of reclaiming our promises, of recommitting ourselves to live the Gospel. Perhaps the simple retelling and rehearing of Mark's story about Christ's baptism, together with the passages in today's liturgy from Genesis and 1 Peter, presents such an occasion to do so.
Several steps are involved in this process of rehearing and recommitting. First, we need to acknowledge our need for it. That can be as simple as praying: "Lord, I don't quite know how to do this, but I hand over to you again as much of myself as I can at this moment." Our reaffirmation needn't be any more dramatic or sophisticated than that. Fr. R. Stewart Wood, Jr. has written: "Goose bumps won't make it any more genuine or real! You simply need to decide and then do it."
Second, it's helpful to have a supporting person or group. It may be a close friend(s) to whom we can turn. In any case, it's always a bit scary to reach out to someone else for support, but we need to be aware that others, like us, undoubtedly wrestle with the same sense of vulnerability, need and risk as we do. In fact, many times our reaching out brings relief to the other person who may have been looking for similar support, but was too embarrassed to ask for it. In most parishes there are helpful groups (Lenten studies, Scripture classes, EFM, etc.) who serve as that "blessed company" of faithful people who are willing to uphold us in our commitment.
Living the Gospel is a cycle of growth and progress, alternating with desert-periods of dryness and stagnation. St. Mark's reminder today of Jesus' baptism and the ensuing struggle in the wilderness can encourage us as we labor through the Lenten season to renew our commitment to live out our baptismal promises. Even as Jesus had angels to minister to him in the desert, we find help "to continue in…the fellowship" through the communion of saints, particularly on the local level. Each time you and I hear the question posed during the baptisms which we celebrate in our communities of faith: "Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?", may our reply be a resounding, "We will!"