Jesus Ushers in a New Creation – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the new creation we experience in baptism.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
“For those who are in Christ, creation is new. Everything old has passed away. Behold, all things are new” (II Corinthians 5:7, translation by David Rhoads).
With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church begins to tell its story of how it has come to see creation as “new.” With the ministry of Jesus, the old does indeed “pass away” and “all things are new.” As Mark’s gospel opens, we realize that this transition is already underway. As God’s people are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, the power and authority of the Jewish temple-state centered in Jerusalem, with its exclusivistic appropriation of the blessings of the God’s covenant and its sustaining cosmology, begins to give way to the reality of a new people dwelling with God within a renewed creation.
The readings draw this reality into view in dramatic fashion. In the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are invited to see the opening of a new creation story, in which again, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Once again “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). As the dove descends on Jesus, we are reminded of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). In the fresh light of this “first day,” the first born of a new humanity rises out of the waters. Having identified fully with our sinfulness in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, this “son of God” begins to restore among us the imago Dei, and opens the possibility of our lives being regenerated by the Spirit in his name.
Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” Jesus’ baptism serves to mark the difference between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full “renunciation of the old order” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete their baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. In view of its cosmological accents, however, Jesus’ baptism also marks a parallel liberation of the biblical cosmology from its ties to the temple state, in favor of its restoration as part and parcel of the new reign of God in creation. New creation, and not merely repentance, this suggests, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; this difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.
It is instructive to note, following William P. Brown’s discussion of biblical cosmology in his book on The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), that the cosmological elements we have identified here are drawn primarily from the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3, a portion of which is therefore appropriately selected for our first reading. This cosmogony, Brown shows, is clearly modeled on the pattern of the temple in Jerusalem. With clearly and fully differentiated domains,” the account “gives form to creation” that “manifests a symmetry supple enough to allow for variation and surprise.” The narrative progresses day by day from the empty formlessness of “Day 0” through the differentiation of realms of light, waters above and below, and land, which are then in turn filled with lights, aviary and marine life, and land animals, including humans, with their food, to the fully differentiated fullness of the completed creation on Day 7. It is a literary version, Brown argues, of the three-fold structure of the temple’s portico, nave and Holy of Holies. “The first six days, by virtue of their correspondence, establish the architectural boundaries of sacred space. The last day inhabits, as it were, the most holy space . . . . In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests” (Brown, p. 38-40).
What is particularly striking about this description is its inherent dynamic, which is hardly compatible with the rigidity and hierarchy commonly associated with the management of sacred space under the authority of a priestly governing elite, like what the reader will encounter later in the pages of Mark’s gospel. Here, differentiation of realms never becomes separation; dominion never implies domination. On the contrary, division is regularly overcome by generativity. As Brown puts it, “Genesis 1 . . . describes the systematic differentiation of the cosmos that allows for and sustains the plethora of life.” Perhaps this is no more apparent than in the narrative’s treatment of the very holiness of God. While adhering to the “aniconic” prohibition of divine images, the account nevertheless allows for the identification of an imago Dei with humanity. “Cast in God’s image, women and men reflect and refract God’s presence in the world. The only appropriate ‘image of God,’ according to Genesis, is one made of flesh and blood, not wood or gold (p. 38).” Whether interpreted in terms of an “essential resemblance” of son to father, the “universalizing” of the exercise of dominion, the displacement of the divine assembly unto human community, or the reflection as male and female of the “communal and generative dimensions of the divine,” the imago Dei shares with God in the “cooperative process of creation” (Brown, p. 44). Even as the waters and the earth share in that agency, so do humans participate in creation as “a cooperative venture exercised not without a degree of freedom,” and as “deemed good by God,” set toward the furtherance of life.
Mark’s Gospel, we suggest, while insisting on the displacement of the presence of God from the Jerusalem temple onto Jesus, by no means intends that this move renders irrelevant or obsolete the cosmogony of the temple. On the contrary, with his setting at the very beginning of the Gospel, of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, and filled with the cosmological reverberations as it is, the author opens up that cosmology to the restored embrace of the full creation. As all the people walk the land and move to the bank of the river and as they then experience the movement of the Spirit over the waters and the voice declaring a human being good (“my beloved”), the reader senses that this story opens one afresh to the wonder of the creation. As once before when Israel came out of exile, we are caught up in what Brown sees as the import of Genesis 1: there is here “a profound effort . . . to put the painful past of conquest and exile behind and to point the way to a new future.”
It is therefore exceedingly important to observe, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed practice of Christian baptism retains several key cosmological elements from the Genesis cosmogeny. Water, of course, takes central place here, combined with Spirit. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite, but, as Lathrop points out,
“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say. Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless gives a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).
Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to take the place of the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,
“that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Holy Ground, p. 106).
Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.
“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Holy Ground, p. 107).
Then, just as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life, and the tree of life}, so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to . . .
“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace: a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Holy Ground, p. 107).
If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized. We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation, and indeed, what “new creation” actually might mean for us.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.