Chapter 5: Jordan {Jesus: A Pilgrimage}

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Welcome to our virtual book club! We’re reading Fr. James Martin’s bestseller, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Each week we will tackle a chapter and look forward to a lively discussion together.

Jesus book conversation

When I was reading about the Jordan River being bright green, I’ll admit: it wasn’t the biggest selling point for me. And then, in lieu of reflecting on it in more depth and actually writing this post ahead of time, I found myself sick in bed, with dashes to the bathroom thrown in for good measure.

I forgot all about this post, as a matter of fact, until I stumbled out of bed this morning and realized (a) there would be no coffee for me just yet and (b) I hadn’t written my post.

Isn’t that just the way things are? Life is full of an element of the unexpected, and the control freaks among us find it disconcerting. The organized among us find it unnerving. The adventurous among us find it alluring.

What can we learn from Jesus’ baptism in the not-yet-bright-green Jordan River? I was particularly struck by this passage:

Jesus somehow came to realize that baptism was what God the Father desired for him—to fulfill “all righteousness.” Perhaps this meant publicly aligning himself with John’s ministry. Perhaps before he began his own ministry, he wanted, in a sense, to pay tribute to that of his cousin, as a way of underlining his solidarity with the Baptist’s message. Jesus may also have wanted to perform a public ritual to inaugurate his own ministry.

But there is another possibility, which is that Jesus decided to enter even more deeply into the human condition. Thou sinless, Jesus participates in the ritual that others are performing as well. He participates in this movement of repentance and conversion not because he needs it, but because it aligns him with those around him, with those anticipating the reign of God, with the community of believers. It’s an act of solidarity, a human act from the Son of God, who casts his lot with the people of the time. It has less to do with his original sin, which he does not carry, than identifying with those who carry that sin. […] The divine one is fully immersing himself, literally in this case, in our humanity.

I need that reminder of Jesus’ humanity. It helps me relate to him, yes, but it also helps me to take him seriously. Somehow, I tend to think that because he was God, things were not as rough for him. I tend to discount his actions in ways that apply more to me than to him. We have no evidence that he wasn’t completely sincere, that he didn’t completely love us. I have plenty of evidence of those things for myself, though.

At the Baptism, Jesus was taking sides with us. God stood in line.

Theologians often speak of Jesus as “taking on” the sins of humanity. In his book on baptism, Everything is Sacred, Thomas J. Scirghi, a Jesuit theologian, compares Jesus’s sense of sin to the shame that parents might feel if their child were guilty of criminal behavior. There is no sin on the parents’ part, but they often feel the weight of the suffering that was caused by their child. As the Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrote, perhaps no one was in greater need of baptism than Jesus, because of this “bearing” of our sins.

This insight really changed my reflections on the Baptism. I guess before it was just a thing Jesus did, and I didn’t fully consider or understand the weight of it. Suddenly, reading this, I found myself with a glimpse that changed my mind, that made me better relate with Jesus and appreciate the step he took to the Baptism.

As Thomas Scirghi notes, the sacrament of baptism reorients us. For the disciples of John it marked their willingness to be converted, to experience metanoia, a Greek word meaning a change of perception, a change of heart. Water symbolized both life and death. So baptism was seen as a dying to an old life and being born into a new one. For the early Christians too, it would have marked a radical change and, more than we might be able to grasp today, a new way of life.

For many, baptized as infants, this can be inaccessible, I think. I was baptized as an adult, and this struck me, because I did embark on a new way of life after my baptism. I was struck, too, by Martin’s comment a few paragraphs later: “Sometimes we close the door to our past, thinking that since we have “progressed,” the past has little to offer. But we need to keep the door to our past open.” He continues,

All of our lives are important, even the parts of our past that we have ignored, downplayed, or forgotten. If we open the door to our past, we will discover God there, accompanying us in both happy and sad moments.

Jesus of Nazareth is not simply the man who preaches and performs miracles. Jesus is not a person who, after his baptism, forgets his old life to start anew. Like all of us, he is more than that. He is the boy who played with his friends in Nazareth, and maybe even made human pyramids with them, laughing all the while. He is the adolescent who asked questions and wondered where his life would lead. He is the adult who worked as a tektōn for many years in his hometown.

He wasn’t a regular guy, not by any means. And yet…and yet, he relates with us in a way that I can only think of as intimate and real.

To Ponder, Reflect, and Discuss:

  1. How do you relate to Jesus? How did the reflections in this chapter affect and possibly change that?
  2. How does a deeper understanding of Baptism help you to better relate to Jesus? Do you find lessons in your own Baptism that you didn’t see before?
  3. What part or parts of your past do you need to open the door to, to see God at work in them and through them?

Feel free to comment on your own thoughts from this week’s reading, your impressions and reflections, and/or your answers to these questions.

Next week, we’ll cover Chapter 6: Rejection. For the complete reading schedule and information about our Book Club, visit the Jesus Book Club page.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Reinhard

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11 Comments

  1. Baptism has always spoken to me. Seeing a baby, a child, an adult enter into their new life always fills me up. I had thought that Jesus was consecrating the start of his mission. I had never considered Jesus’ baptism as an act of solidarity before. It’s like finding an entirely new gift in a long cherished treasure.

  2. So sorry that you’re not feeling well. I’m sure that part in this chapter about the green water and cholera didn’t help your tummy! The parts of this chapter that really spoke to me were the comments Fr. Jim offered about not separating Jesus’ life into “before baptism” and “after baptism” moments. I loved how he used his own example of recapturing the value of his own life before his entry into the novitiate.

    I can’t remember my own baptism, but I do remember the feeling I had for both of my boys’ big days – this sense that we were sharing with them something we loved so deeply. I also remember renewing my own vows on both of those days and feeling a sense of awe in doing so.

    As for your question about the parts of my past that I need to look at, I think they most relate to the time before Greg became Catholic. I was largely dismissive of the role of spirituality in our lives during those years and now looking back I can see that “our” conversion (not just his) unfolded over several years… it was a gradual building.

    Hope you feel better soon!

  3. I felt the same way as Erin did. And I love how Fr. Martin helps us to think about Jesus as you quoted above. As a little boy and an adolescent. Gave me food for thought.

  4. I’ve been thinking about my past a lot lately, mainly my creative life and how it relates to where I am today. Making connections and realizing there has been a common thread in my creative experiences has really helped me to see God’s guiding hand through it all. He helps me make sense of my past.

    Thanks for the quotes re: baptism; it’s been a while since I read that chapter and I had forgotten what Fr. Martin said about baptism. I really like the analogy of the parent feeling guilt over the sins of the children.

  5. I had always wondered at Jesus’ baptism, sinless as he was why did he need to be baptised? Father Martin shed a whole new light on this when he wrote that in his baptism Jesus was formally “aligning himself with humanity”. He became one of us in this imperfectly beautiful and broken world. This Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit journeys with us wow and wow!!!

  6. I am the RCIA coordinator at our parish, so every year we deal with the question of ‘why did Jesus have to be baptized if He was sinless?’ This past year I have reflected a lot on His baptism and how it is linked to the cross and resurrection. I tend to think along the lines of Father Jim, that Jesus entered into total solidarity with humanity at the time of his baptism. And I have begun picturing Jesus coming out of the water with the sins of all humanity on His shoulders to begin His public ministry, and carrying them all the way to the cross.

  7. Fr. Jim’s statement that “Jesus decided to enter even more deeply into the human condition,” really confused me. If Jesus didn’t know his real identity – as the Son of God, why would he decide to enter “more deeply into the human condition?”
    This sounds like he knew of his own divinity and purpose in life – and in that case, yes, he would make a decision “to enter even more deeply into the human condition.”

  8. I reflected on my past and how I saw God at work in it. I always felt blessed for my life. As a 13 year old child, I would ponder on the thought that if my parents didn’t break up their former engagements to other people I wouldn’t be. I thanked God for the miracle of life which amazed me. I wondered about how God planned for my very existence. At times I would also ponder about the age of infants. On the day a child was born, to me, they were 9 months old plus 1 day. The infant was much older than 1 day old. The child existed before that day. In retrospect, I realize that I had a very pro-life attitude early on in life. I was always grateful for my family, my best friend, and my childhood.

    There were parts of my past that were difficult to see God at work in them. When I was assaulted three different times in my life by three different men in different bank jobs, God was still a part of my life. I never stopped believing in God as one would expect. I never stopped loving God; however He became a She, more of a feminine image. This image has reverted back some time ago.

    I became more of a spiritual person after I underwent a conversion experience. Back in the year 2000, I participated with a group of parishioners in a 34 week Online Retreat for Everyday Life which was provided online by Creighton University Online Ministries. This beautiful Ignatian experience began in September and lasted through to May of the following year. As a result of the weekly retreat, I developed a close relationship with Jesus. Within a couple of months after the retreat ended I entered the Master of Arts program in theology for lay people at a beautiful seminary and was hired for employment in the church.

    Recently I am undergoing a crisis within the family and feel lost and hope that I can continue this online book discussion. I pray to Jesus every day.

    • Hi Barbara,
      I admire your endurance. Even when you were assaulted you never stopped loving God. I pray that God will sustain you in this crisis too. God never forgets us, this is my strength and my joy.

  9. Stevie Barrett on

    Dear Barbara:

    Know that we who read your post are praying for you. I myself have felt at times that God was not part of my life. It was always when I found the courage to talk to a trusted person, that my faith returned.
    This chapter on the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, coincides with a recent
    gospel mass reading. My joy and comfort comes from the words that he is both “fully human, and fluky divine in all things but sin.”!how blessed are we that God chose His only Son to be born of a Virgin &’live poorly, and suffer and die for our sins. Our Redemption comes from Jesus’ Resurrection.

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