Baptism of Our Lord: Who am I?
By: The Rev. David Henson
A few years back, as I was blearily returning from dropping my kids off at school one morning, a story came on the radio about new DNA tests that help people trace their roots and genealogy with surprising accuracy.
The story was mildly interesting, but then as the reporter Eric Weiner was preparing to send his test off, he said something so profound he nearly caused me to run a red light in my minivan.
“Hopefully in the next few weeks,” he said, off-handedly, “I’ll find out who I am and where I came from.”
And in that one sentence, Weiner distilled the internal quest of humanity: The question of identity; of discovering who we really are and who we really aren’t; the search to “know thyself” as Plato famously put it. But whether we are adolescents discovering autonomy for the first time, hovering in middle-age and asking if this is all there is, or nearing our end and wondering if we’ve done all we could and all we should, the question is always basically the same:
“Who am I?”
“How in the world did I get here, in this particular moment in time, in this particular place, with these particular wrinkles anxiously gathering at the corners of my eyes, with this particular set of passions and this particular hidden cache of flaws?”
“Is this really who I am?”
The capacity for self-conscious introspection, some argue, is exactly what makes us human. One of the ways humans have answered this question throughout history is by mapping our family trees, tracing our grandparents and ancestors, hoping to find an answer to the question of ourselves, creating meaning from fragments of our heritage. In her book, Grounded, Diana Butler Bass talks about looking into her own genealogy and how religions around the world understand the fundamental spirituality of exploring our roots.
Even if we aren’t mapping our family trees, and even if we’re not members of Ancestry.com, we all do this in small ways without thinking. We take our children to our own childhood homes, our parents tell stories about what it was like when they were young, and then, over the holidays as families gather, we find ourselves retelling these old stories of who we are, and at times and often at the most inopportune moments, we find ourselves either reverting to our childhood roles in our families or even turning into our mothers and fathers.
And isn’t this what we do as Christians, too, when we gather on holy days like today, around this table, and retell the stories of Jesus, when we look back at our traditions and the communion of saints for guidance and inspiration, when we reaffirm and remind ourselves of our baptismal vows and identity?
Of course, this isn’t always an easy nostalgic look at the past, either. For some of us, this can be perilous and painful, as our pasts can be haunted by ghosts and marked by landmines. Like when one of the people featured in the NPR story discovered an ancestor had murdered another person — and a descendent of that victim of the crime, through the same genealogy program, actually contacted her to demand an explanation for her ancestor’s actions. Or as when actor Ben Affleck was recently featured on the PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” discovered that his family had a history not only of social justice but also of grave injustice. His mother was a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights Movement and his great-great-great grandfather owned 7 slaves.
And perhaps we shouldn’t even begin to look at the checkered history of Christianity itself with its holy generosity and compassion and its rather unholy participation in wars and exploitation.
If our individual, family, and religious histories tell us anything, it is that we are a mixed bag of proud accomplishments and actions we’d rather no one know about. And if we see ourselves only in the context of our families and our histories, it can feel confining and limiting. But of course we know that’s not all there is to us. The past, while feeding our present, doesn’t completely determine our future.
Regardless of our stage in life, we still have our own growing and our own flourishing to do, our own flowers to put forth in the world, our own seeds and legacy to send out to continue the story.
And I think that’s the beauty of Jesus’ baptismal story. It is fundamentally a story of identity. When Jesus is baptized, God tears open the heavens and declares Jesus’ true nature — as the Beloved Son. But that true identity doesn’t negate everything else about him. The author of Mark roots Jesus not just in his eternal identity but in his earthly one as well. Scholar Ched Meyers explains that Mark roots Jesus in a genealogy not of mamas and daddies like Matthew and Luke, but in a prophetic genealogy of John and the prophets of old, firmly rooting Jesus in the Jewish tradition.
Mark, of course, is trying to establish Jesus’ credibility and his historical and religious lineage, but to me, it speaks deeply to our identity as Christians and as humans; as citizens of God’s kingdom and of our everyday earthly realm of fathers and sons; mothers and daughters, where we are born not just of our parents, but of our traditions, cultures, and relationships as well, with all the everyday conflict and joy that being from somewhere and someone brings.
Jesus belongs to humanity. And Jesus belongs to God. Both are integral to his identity and his work that he begins. They are inextricably linked, undivided and whole. His identity is built from the ground up and from the heavens down.
And so it is with us. In our baptism, God declares who we truly are — our true identity as beloved offspring of God like Jesus our Brother. But in our baptism, we, like Jesus, don’t stop being who we are or get to ignore the history that inevitably and fundamentally shapes us to this moment. Jesus is still the son of Mary and Joseph, still the inheritor of John’s prophetic lineage, still born in Palestine, in poverty in the first century. He’s still from somewhere and from someone.
We bring all that with us — all of our humanity, all of the ways in which our families of origin and experiences have made us who we are. In other words, as Christians, our identities can’t be centered purely in introspection and individualism. They must also be rooted in our communities and contexts as well. To know ourselves, we have to know each other as well. My Belovedness has everything to do with your Belovedness as well.
Being named as God’s beloved isn’t just one thing about us given in isolation as individuals. It’s includes all those things about us and all of us together.
And that’s why I love that baptism is fundamentally about water.
Because water is not one thing either and it’s not something easily separated into individual molecules. But like our identity as God’s own, it is eternal and interconnected with all life on earth. It is eternal not because it is static and constant, but because it is dynamic and ever-changing and transforming. We aren’t making new water. Every drop of water here has always existed as water in some form of another; it is intertwined and imprinted with the entire history of humanity and the Earth itself.
The water we baptize with is both ancient and new. The water that runs clean from our tap descends from the murky water in which the first life was incubated. The water that Jesus was baptized in, that was transformed into wine, that flowed from his side in crucifixion is the ancestor of the same water we have today. Over the centuries, it has been transformed, scattered, polluted, cleaned, restored and destroyed. It is the snow and the ice, the rain and the mist, vapor and steam, the devastating flood and the relief from drought.
As baptismal fonts are filled around the world today to baptize, each basin carries with it the entire history of the world and is incubating its whole future. It carries with it the history of the faith and the hope of its future.
Like those who are baptized today, that water, blessed and released into the world, will change and transform over time. As it has for all of history, that water and those baptized in it will shape the Earth, its climate, and its inhabitants. Like our faith, some days that water might be cold and hard as ice, as delicate and fleeting as snow. Others it might be so hot it all but evaporates into thin air. Most times, if we’re honest, it might well be just this side of lukewarm.
It is the perfect symbol of our life of faith. Because it is honest.
And I believe that at least a part of it will one day return to another baptismal font where another generation will be dipped as God’s beloved and marked as Christ’s own forever. And the story will go on and on.
This baptism and water are our genealogies, recalling our expansive history and directing us into the future. That’s what it is to reaffirm our baptismal vows. It reminds us where we came from, of our fundamental identity, but it refuses to be static. It demands that we move. It demands that we act. It demands a faith that is in motion, ever-changing, ever-transforming, ever being born anew, in a cycle of life, death, and resurrection.
So today, as God’s beloved, let us renew our baptismal vows, recalling who we were, who we are, and who we are called to be.
The Rev. David Henson is a priest in the Episcopal Church. The father of two boys and the husband of a medical resident, he lives in Western North Carolina and is perpetually behind on the laundry and lawn mowing. While he has a couple of degrees to his name, it is more important to know that he once chased his stolen Jeep Grand Cherokee at dangerous speeds down an Interstate in California. He didn’t catch it. Which is pretty accurate metaphor for his entire life.