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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Baptism of tears

See through the eyes of John the Baptist

Not all was calm and quiet on that day on the banks of the Jordan. Amid the tweeting of birds and the sound of gushing water was the thundering voice of the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Clad in camel's hair with Jordan's water dripping down his raised hands and the smell of wild honey teasing the air, neither John's figure nor his personality was much alluring to passers-by. But there was something about him-something that drew people to the Jordan to be immersed by water and tears of penance. What was it? What is so unforgettable about John?

In the many paintings that portray him through the centuries, what is most impressive is not his beard, hair or the garment he wore — but his eyes. Picture John the Baptist's eyes. Imagine those eyes whose gaze, once laid upon someone, burns. Envision those eyes, even when forcibly closed after his beheading still portrayed as that which holds the gaze. A burning gaze, a prophet's gaze, once encountered can't be forgotten.

Prophets see. And they see what the ideologues and the propaganda-mongers of the day so much want to veil from us-so that even when we have sight we often lack the vision. But prophets see even when they are blinded. They see for us, and we see through them. Their eyes ask us: Do you know what you see? Do you see what you know? We don't see because we often don't want to know. We don't know because we don't want to see.

But prophets are those who know and see. Because they know and see, prophets must speak, they must name the reality for what it is. A prophet, in the words of Martin Luther, is the one who "calls the thing what it actually is." Or as Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga phrased it, "Prophets are those who scream out through their eyes."

John was a seer. He saw hideous things that the party line can't, the proverbial "bread and circus" (and let's not forget war), veiled and hid. John let people see through his eyes. The gruesome images that flashed on the screen of those prophetic eyes were a bolt from the blue and shook them out of their stupor. It cut through the hardened hearts and brought about tears of repentance and regeneration that prepared the way, removed the veil of deception to let the messiah come in.

He flung open the gates that were shut down and protected by those in power who were, in days of old even as now, self-proclaimed guardians of these doors that shut out the vision of what is to come. But the messiah came and he comes and will come whenever and wherever there is prophecy and the vision by it engendered. This vision, the shock of seeing reality for what it is produces repentance.

Repentance

"Repentance" is the word that is forever associated with John the Baptist's message: Repent and bear fruits of repentance. Ponder again is what the word means. Ponder again that which we did not see, because in denial we didn't want to or else were prevented. Be it in personal lives, in the family, in society, in the workplace, in the home, on the streets and in our political reality, there is so much we don't see. And we don't even know it because we don't see. We don't know it as long as the words of prophecy are muted and the vision sightless.

The question is whether we can ponder again our lack of vision and listen to the outcry in the eyes of the prophets who are trying to convey the vision and make us see so we may live and not perish. As Proverbs 29:18 so well states it: "Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint." Indeed, without vision there is no hope. But hope to be truly hope needs to be honest about the way of the world, to be sincere about things as they are, to repent.

The 16th-century Reformers defined repentance this way: "[It] consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel ... and liberates us from [those] terrors" (Augsburg Confession XII).

And we know what happens when our conscience isn't struck by terror: We get terrorism. And so we miss the passing of the messiah now as many missed him at the time of his flesh because they could not see him. What does it take for us not to miss the passing of the messiah? What is required of us to enable us to see the prophetic vision? It takes some baptismal tears, some rueful rivulets of tears, not to close the eyes to the coming of the messiah. In the words of the Mexican poet León Felipe, who knew this power of baptism: "All the light of the Earth / everyone shall see / through the window / of the drop of a tear."

This is what repentance is about: the gaze to the new that comes. Repentance is the gate through which the messiah comes to lead us out of the maze we find ourselves, as it became flesh in one among those in the crowd John baptized, Jesus the Messiah, the Immanuel, God-with-us. Through him the incandescent, the fiery power of the Spirit came upon the people on that occasion, even as it comes upon us now when we listen to the prophets and learn how to see. But you won't have Jesus if you don't first stare at the eyes of John.

Did all the people in those days see even though it was the messiah? Of course not! The ones who saw were only those with the waters of the Jordan still dripping down their faces as tears of repentance. Those at that time, as it is today, saw the Spirit's fiery power present among them embodied in an ordinary man who for some 30 years lived as one of them, and only very few could see who he was.

Why did it take so long for many to realize who that man living with them and sharing their ordinary lives was? Because they weren't prepared! The work of repentance was yet to begin. We see it when the water that repentance brings to our eyes cleanses the soggy mass of images that are produced for blinding us and exploring our fears while entertaining us unto death. Not fear but tears allow us to see the messiah and bring us the true gifts of the Spirit, a life-giving vision. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot and a founder of the Cistercian monastic order, called these gifts dona lacrimorum, the gifts of tears.

The baptism of Jesus

We can also see the Spirit's vibrant power in the messiah coming today in the midst of the same everyday existence, ordinary as was the man of Nazareth for the 30 years he was among ordinary people. Thirty years was the Son of God unseen among God's people; 30 years passing largely unnoticed until that day when people repented and saw in the tearful depth of the ordinary-God's very presence dwelling among them.

John's words were sharp and pitiless. He called the crowd that gathered around him a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7) in urgent need of repentance. And many, the Gospels tell us, with contrite hearts came down to the river to be baptized. Among all those sinners in need of repentance was Jesus. Jesus came to the baptism of repentance!

So what was the Son of God doing as he lined up for baptism in that procession of sinners needing repentance? God became a repenter who needed no repentance or, as Paul said, became sin who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). God in Jesus joined the "brood of vipers" and went to baptism, the baptism of repentance. The one who needed no penance became the penitent. The one who needed no tears joined the tears of the world. The one who could see took upon our eyes and joined us in gazing through tears, as if through fine lenses, into a kingdom of justice, peace and joy in the Spirit (Romans 14:17).

This is the difference between the baptism of John and that of Jesus. John asked people to turn around and take a new way. Jesus in his baptism became the way. Jesus' baptism marks the moment in which the Immanuel-ordinarily already in the life of his people and also in the midst of our lives-becomes visible as the way into the extraordinary reality of God's kingdom. And as Jesus with water dripping like tears from his face saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descending, so shall we be granted that sight.

Such is the promise entailed in our baptism. And to this baptism we return every time we repent and ask for God's forgiveness. By joining the crowd of penitents God revealed that the extraordinary was not above and beyond the ordinary and messed up lives of people then and now, but in the very depth and brokenness from which tears spring and the waters of baptism flow again. To use this oldest of Christian symbols, God in Christ is the fish that swims in the river of our tears.

If the image surprises you, consider what Jesus may have meant when he said his kingdom was not of this world. He didn't mean it was in the flat upstairs, in the high-rise mansion by the lake-but in the very depth of the world into which Jesus plunged on that day by the Jordan. And he is here by us immersed in the very depth of our distress, in the deep waters in which we drown and he brings us back to life, to the life of the Spirit, the "giver of life."

Heed the call, come and see with the waters of baptism still dripping. Come and see God immersed among us. Come and see the gifts of tears.


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