John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus went to John to be baptised so he must have had something to repent of.
After his baptism, Jesus had a powerful spiritual experience in which God spoke to him.
The baptism & the spiritual experience were separate events. The latter is the main event.
John’s preaching and baptism was based on the assumption of a vassal relationship between God & Israel. God gave them land & a role, on condition that they abided by certain laws. Jesus must have felt that he’d broken them.
Jesus’ spiritual experience inaugurated a quite different relationship between God & humankind, one based on unconditional love, like that of a loving parent to their children. It undercut the assumptions on which John’s call to repentance were based, and changed everything in our relationship with God.
Jesus ministry was based entirely upon his experience of feeling himself out of relationship with God & needing to repent, and then suddenly finding himself accepted unconditionally by God Who loves & delights in him. It led him to see that with an unconditionally loving God there are no outsiders, only a human family whom God loves.
His preaching flows from this experience. He sought to share it by treating other people as God had treated him, a process that would lead over time to His followers believing that he had ‘incarnated’ God.
The Good News He preached invites us to hear those words “You are my beloved son/daughter in whom I am well pleased” addressed to each of us, and in response to try to live out of it as Jesus did, to incarnate God to others, as he did.
This piece has been some time in its gestation, it’s something that I sense has been revealed to me over a period of time, and that it’s now time to share it. I sense that there is truth in it. I might of course be wrong, or there might simply be bits of truth in it. So, I’d welcome your comments reader, on what I’m sharing here.
The Gospels are agreed that Jesus’ ministry began after His baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. John had been ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. John’s baptism by full immersion in the river was a risky business, the person being baptised might not survive, that was the whole point of it. It symbolised a dying and a rising to new life. But what did Jesus have to repent of? It’s important to ask that question because whatever Jesus had to repent of provided the context for what came next.
The Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner [1859-1937]
The journey of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to the land of Egypt takes place under the cover of darkness. The fact that it happens ‘by night’ (Matthew 2:14) underscores the urgent note of danger and the threat of death. As the angel announces to Joseph, Herod is seeking to ‘destroy’ the child (Matthew 2:13).
Henry Ossawa Tanner was was the son of a former slave & pastor who fled the southern states for safety in the north later becoming Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The artist was haunted by this story of flight, He painted no less than fifteen versions of it. Here, the fugitive character of the Holy Family is clearly foregrounded. With strong shades of blue and the use of shadows to intensify the drama, Tanner heightens the sense of forced migration. Mary’s donkey keeps close to the wall, moving slowly as if to avoid detection. The child is kept close to his mother’s breast, safely secured in her cloak, almost invisible. Joseph brings up the rear, fulfilling his traditional role as protector of the Holy Family. This is a family on the run, their ultimate destination uncertain. Yet there are also visual clues that the fugitive family will find a ready welcome amongst the strangers they encounter.
First, they are escorted by an anonymous figure, leading them through the darkened streets. The intensity of the light emanating from the lamp he carries, illuminating their path, is a reminder that this child too will be a ‘great light’ for the people dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16, quoting Isaiah 9:2).
Second, the location of this scene is uncertain. Is it Bethlehem? Yet the family has apparently just passed through the gateway (suggested by the arch just visible in the background) into the town. More likely, then, they have arrived at their first port of call, offering a temporary respite from the dangers of Herod’s henchmen.
With thanks to father Patrick van der Vorst of ‘Christian Art’.
I sense gloom and despondency in the air. Partly it’s directed at our government which seems burnt out & out of control, busy making the mess it’s created worse. Partly it’s despair at the situation in Gaza and Israel, where two sides each with a legitimate cause, their ownership of their land, seem intent in trying to destroy each rather than seeking a peaceful compromise. Partly it’s despair at the continuing situation in the Ukraine. Of course, we feel helpless to do much about any of these, hence the gloom & despondency. ‘Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t He do something about it?’
This painting is entitled ‘Supper at Emmaus’ and Caravaggio painted it in 1602. He was a hugely gifted and theologically perceptive painter with a bit of a reputation for violent behaviour: he often had to leave town in a hurry.
Before we look at the painting, I want to ask you a question. What do you think of as being Jesus most characteristic activity? Healing, suffering, calling, teaching, listening, praying or whatever? Having answered that, park your answer to one side for a moment.
I met recently with a friend who is having to rest and recover through the summer & into the autumn, after a spell in hospital suffering from a debilitating illness. The strange thing was, he said, that he’d planned some months before to clear his diary for those months in order to take life more easily. It was almost as if an unconscious something within him knew what was coming & had prepared him for it.
The words of the well loved Advent carol O come, O come Emmanuel have a distinctly biblical feel, differing from the more overtly celebratory tone of most carols that we hear at this time of the year. For example, the actual nativity narrative doesn’t feature and there are no herald angels nor flocks being watched by night.
This painting “Skull and Candle”is by Gerard Richter, a German painter born in 1932. It’s a reflection on life and death. The lit candle symbolises life, and the life-less human skull symbolises death. Paradoxically, without the light of the candle or another light source, we would not be able to see the skull, and without the brain residing in our skull, we wouldn’t be aware of the light. The two need each other: candle & skull, life & death.
In Passiontide of this year, I found myself on a flight to Tel Aviv, heading to Bethlehem to take part in an icon painting workshop. This was no ‘holy holiday’, but rather the next step in a long process of discernment and learning.
I’ve been writing pieces on this web-site for about ten years now, and earlier this year a friend suggested that I might usefully go back and re-read them all. So I set myself a Lenten task to do so, and was agreeably surprised. Sufficiently to decide to make them all more easily available.
With help from family and friends I’ve created a blog that contains them all in order and also grouped together in themes.
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