John appears extreme, but he is fundamental. He begins in the wilderness baptizing the multitude with water. John is the first born, barely having clothes on his back; eating what he can grope for. John rasps Apocalypse, then cleanses the people of their sin. Baptism by water is the first of our parenting; baptism by the Holy Spirit is the second. To speak of the Holy Spirit as John does in Mark's Gospel is to speak of, above all, the power of God: intoxicating, dangerous, world-transforming. Often symbolized by fire, the Spirit is dynamic. With John we have water; with Jesus fire. Two primal elements are the way of the Lord: baptism by water and baptism by fire.
The Spirit is the final fulfillment of Christ's earthly messianic mission, the beginning of the Christian Church. It is the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy that in the time of the messiah-king, the Son of God will be "poured out on all flesh" (Joel 2:28, Acts 1:14)-but poured like molten lava. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, John warns us. We the Christian Church now lives by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit alone is the guarantee of God's kingdom on earth. The Spirit is the sole guarantee that God's life and truth and love are with all men and women. We are not genuinely human without the Holy Spirit, the fire that kindles our characters, our passions, our hopes and fears. That is the testimony of scripture and the tradition of God's people. The Good News is that being baptized with water and the Spirit is just the beginning. Reborn in the waters of baptism, we are parented throughout our lives in the flames of the Spirit. Parented into a distinct existence, receiving every gift from God, sharing God's divine nature and life, and doing what Christ has done.
Mark's story explains neither why Jesus leaves Nazareth nor why he chooses to be baptized. Hard questions arise concerning what might have impelled Jesus to leave home, enter the Jordanian wilderness, and go to the radical and renegade preacher of baptism. A portion of a poem by Sheila Moon imagines what Jesus' experience might have been:
Through fierce-starred midnights
and searing noon days I walked Judea,
filled with memories of Nazareth's wood,
its smell, its live grain, its warmth under my hands;
filled with the words of prophets
crying my people's kingdom for generations.
Doubts circled me in darkness
-- staring, waiting, unsleeping beasts --
then pursued me silent-footed under the sun
until I wanted to shout them away!
For who can endure God's coming?
Who can stand when he appears?
But through dust, loneliness, stars, heat,
I heard always
Return to me, and I will return to you.
How should I return, I asked, sand in my mouth.
Dry hours gave me no answer.
I stumbled the Judean plain to Jordan's reedy edge.
There -- seeing the Baptist's sparse and ragged presence,
face furrowed with fasting, hearing him
rasp his apocalypse into a burying sky
-- there I learned.
God's needs were into my flesh like thorns
(never after to leave me),
and Adam, Cain, Jacob, Noah, Job
-- each was a necessity to God to be more full
than law or desire or wrath.
I saw God's need and mine to find each other
hurled in John's angry cry...
Later in Mark we're told Jesus is baptized into the waters, a genuine act of repentance forced Jesus to embrace the reality of his death before his actual physical death. Sheila Moon's poem continues and expresses the death experience well:
I plunged until yellow waters shut out the world.
Water-sound roared about me
and waves of my life rushed past
blown by great winds. I was alone
in creations abyss where Spirit moved
and thundered for light,
Let there be light!
There was light.
Most of us have been submerged into the waters of baptism, but are we conscious of our baptism by fire? If we've experienced crisis of faith, if we've been challenged and transformed by the Gospel preached to us, if we've sensed a purpose we must fulfill in life, in a relationship, in a vocation, then we've been singed by the Spirit's flaming wings.
The Baptist knew that the Spirit is bent over humankind with flaming wings. The Baptist cleanses our wild and aimless hearts in the waters of the river Jordan and knew another, greater than himself, would perfect and refine us through the Spirit's light. The way of the Lord begins when we are called to turn and be freed of aimless life. Having done this, like Jesus, we are reborn and prepared to continue life in the Spirit.