The political events of the past few days reminded me of a book I read when I was in school entitled The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. Dr. Miller describes how often parents impose great expectations on their children. They do so for the best of reasons, wanting the child to excel. However, all too often this produces in the child a feeling of inadequacy, of emptiness, of isolation. In a recent movie called Lady Bird the mother tells her daughter she just wants her to be the best that she can be – to which the daughter responds, “What if this is the best that I can be. Children who try to live up to parental expectations reach a point where they feel they can never measure up, they are never good enough. To compensate, the child creates a false self, not living their own life by striving to do things which will please their parents. This reverberates in adulthood when the children who have wanted to meet the expectations of their parents while growing up constantly look to others for approval, for validation, for their sense of worth. They aren’t in touch with their own true selves so they live for what others think about them. Nothing is ever enough. Sound like anyone you know?
Contrast that with the experience of Jesus at his baptism. They way St. Mark tells the story the remarkable events that occurred at the baptism specifically targeted Jesus. Jesus saw the heavens being torn open. Jesus saw the Spirit descending life a dove upon him. Jesus heard the heavenly voice: You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. Direct address. These events were not meant to impress the crowds. They were not meant to bring his disciples to faith. They were not meant to help John the Baptist recognize who Jesus was. No, they were meant for him. At his baptism Jesus experienced the affirmation of who he was as a person. Notice this is chapter one of Mark’s gospel. Jesus hasn’t been up a mount to preach a sermon yet. Jesus hasn’t yet made the blind to see and the lame to walk. He hasn’t forgiven any sinners. Jesus is affirmed as beloved, as pleasing to God in who he was, not because of what he did. This affirmation, this unconditional acceptance is what empowered Jesus to move out of his accustomed life as a mild-mannered carpenter for a small town business into his public ministry of being faster than a cook with five loaves and two fish, more powerful than ten lepers, able to leap over six stone water jars in a single bound. It was not the things he did that made him beloved – it was because he knew himself as beloved that we was able to do those things.
The story of the baptism of Jesus provides the occasion to reflect on the fact that our baptisms. We probably did not see torn open heavens or descending doves or heavenly voices at our baptism but what happened to Jesus at his baptism also happened to us. God named us and claimed us as his very own. There are some Christians who do not believe in baptizing infants. Let the child make his own choice, they say. But our baptism is not our choice for God but God’s choosing us. It is completely appropriate, therefore, to bring a baby to be baptized because we are celebrating that God claims each individual because of who we are, not because of what we do. We don’t need to go to Church. We don’t need to say our prayers. We don’t need to keep the commandments in order to be loved by God. At baptism God says to us just as we are, you are my beloved. I am well pleased with you just in being you.
There are sermons going back to the earliest days of the Church which say that Jesus didn’t really HAVE to be baptized. He’s the Son of God, c’mon. He just did it so show us a good example or to consecrate water as the means by which we share in divine life. The evidence of St. Mark’s gospel suggests otherwise. There is a definite break, a before and after in the life of Jesus at the moment of his baptism. He could only begin his ministry once he trusted the heavenly voice: you are my beloved. Since, as the Bible teaches, Jesus was like us in all things BEFORE he had his doubts and fears about what he was supposed to do with his life; AFTER he could go forth to preach, to teach, to heal, and ultimately to suffer. Knowing his beloved nature gave him the juice he needed to bring good news into a hurting world.
But let’s not neglect that other part of the baptism where Spirit descends on him like a dove. What’s that about? To understand, remember another time when the Spirit descended – not as a dove but as tongues of flame. The experience of Pentecost transformed the lost and confused disciples into bold proclaimers of the Word. The dove-like Spirit personifies the relationship with God that will sustain Jesus throughout his life. Whatever Jesus will do from his baptism forward he does not do alone. We use the word Trinity to describe how Jesus was always in the divine relationship which characterized and defined him. That is not just his story but ours as well. It illustrates that our baptism is not so much about getting your name on the membership rolls of this thing we call Church. Rather, baptism establishes our relationship with God who promises to companion us with the Spirit in every step me take in every move we make just as Jesus was companioned. Talk about a gifted child! We as the beloved of God will never walk alone.