Where is Jesus?

‘Jesus is in the neighbourhood of God the Father and so when we stand where Jesus is we too are in that neighbourhood and we learn his language of his relation to God the Father.  But the incarnate Jesus is also in the neighbourhood of the chaos and the suffering of the world – a world he has entered to transform.  It’s a dimension of baptism vividly captured in the visual and verbal imagery of the Orthodox Church which sees the descent of Jesus into the baptismal water of Jordan as a descent into the chaos, into the unformed reality which swills around just below the surface of the ordinary world.  To speak in those terms is really to paraphrase the epigram which I think originates with the great Irish Benedictine, Columba Marmion.  He spoke about Christ being simultaneously in sinu Patris and in sinu peccatoris: in the bosom of the Father and in the bosom of the sinner.  Christ is simultaneously in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of the sinner, the formlessness, the shapelessness and dissolution, the dis-integrity of creation.  He is in the heart of both realities, simultaneously.  And that, of course, suggests that when we as baptized persons come to be in the neighbourhood of Jesus, that same dual proximity is what we have to get used to.  We are in the neighbourhood of God the Father indeed, and pray the prayer that the Spirit enables: Abba, Father.  But we are also in proximity to the world into which Jesus descended; in proximity to the chaos and the formlessness of fallen creation.

And it is of course that two-sided dimension of baptism which stops the baptismal identity simply being static or exclusive, ‘religious’ in all the worst possible senses.  It means that we can only be confident of our proximity to God the Father in Jesus if we’re also alert and awake to the proximity of chaos.  Our baptismal solidarity with Jesus Christ means that we are in solidarity with all the fellow Christians we never chose to be in fellowship with (always one of the most difficult bits of Christian identity) but it also means that we’re in solidarity with an unlimited variety of human experience that relates to the darkness and the chaos into which Jesus descends in his incarnation.  We are in the neighbourhood of a darkness inside and outside the Church, inside and outside our own hearts.  In sinu peccatoris: in the bosom—the heart—of what sin means.

So the identity of the baptized is not first and foremost a matter of some exclusive relationship to God that keeps us safe, as opposed to the rest of the vulnerable and unlucky world.  It is at one and the same time living both in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of darkness.  That is why we speak of being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, not simply baptized as a mark of our affinity or alignment with Jesus in a general way, not baptized as an external sign that we more or less agree with what Jesus says.  Our baptism is a stepping-into Jesus’ place with all that that entails.  And it means that Christian baptismal identity is—again at one and the same time—both a depth of human experience that brings us into at least the potential of intense, transfiguring love, the Trinitarian love in which Jesus himself lives, and a continuing experience of expectation, humility, penitence and hope.  The experience of the baptized is not the experience of endings, but of repeated new beginnings.  We don’t simply acquire a relationship with God the Father which then requires us to do nothing more.  On the contrary, to be baptized is to be constantly re-awakening our expectation, our penitence, our protest, our awareness that the chaos and darkness of the world is not what God wills; our awareness that we are colluding with that state of chaos which God does not will.  So as baptized persons we look constantly into ourselves, rediscovering over and over again the hope that comes out of true repentance.

That, I suggest, is somewhere near the heart of what the identity of the baptized is.  And lest you should think that’s just a twenty-first-century perspective, I refer you to (among many other texts) what St Augustine had to say about baptism in some of his great treatises and letters on the subject.  St Augustine, confronted with people who seemed to be inclined to regard baptism as a badge of having ‘arrived’, would refer back to the fact that baptized people say the Lord’s Prayer.  That is in fact one of the most distinctive things that baptized people do, because they call God ‘Father’.  And in that baptismal prayer that Jesus gave us, we say, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’.  Why do we bother to say this (says Augustine) if baptism is simply the badge of having arrived?  When we meet a Christian who is inclined to treat baptism in that way, just remind them of the Lord’s Prayer.  In slightly different terms you can say baptism is the beginning of a ‘baptismal narrative’, a story of discovering and rediscovering through failure and restoration, just what it is to live in the place where Jesus lives.’ — Rowan Williams, ‘”The Fellowship of the Baptized”- The John Coventry Memorial Address’.

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