You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Breathing under water is easy. In fact, when you are getting certified in SCUBA diving, they teach you how to breathe under water even if your equipment fails. There is a wonderful moment when they teach you how to breathe if your regulator malfunctions and won’t stop discharging air when you need to exhale. (The regulator is the thing you clench in your teeth that delivers the air through your mouth and into your lungs.) What you do is you take the regulator more or less out of your mouth and let the air flow out of it in a long column of bubbles that rises past your face, tickling your nose as they go. Then you push your lips into this column of bubbles and sip the air as it rushes upward. When they tell you that you must breathe under water this way for at least 30 seconds, you think this is going to be hard or a weird sensation in some way. But it turns out to be amazingly easy to sip the air from the stream of bubbles rising in front of your face. It really is surprisingly easy to breathe underwater.
I mention all of this because in the Gospel reading today, Jesus spends a bit of time under water. And the question is: what is he doing there? It is a question that John the Baptist himself asks. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says to Jesus, “and do you come to me?”
John has been telling everyone that he is not the Messiah, that another is to come who is more powerful than he. John has told his followers that he himself baptizes them with water, but there is one coming who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire! And John knows that the one who is to come is Jesus, the latchet of whose shoes he is not worthy to stoop down and unloose (as he puts it). So what is Jesus doing, coming to his cousin John to be baptized?
Jesus’ own explanation is this: “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Now, I do not call this a helpful answer, and I expect that John didn’t find it all that helpful either. But it’s what Jesus said, and it seems to convey that he is sure of what must be done, so John goes along with it. But what is really going on here?
Baptism, the church now says, is the way we are incorporated, joined, folded into the Body of Christ. It’s the way we become Christians, the method by which we are knitted into the life of the new covenant with God, which is a relationship with his Son, Jesus, living by the Spirit in the world today. Baptism is a spiritual cleansing, or purification, we are told, by which we are assured of the forgiveness of God for all our sins. Baptism is the promise of life to come: death to the old self and rebirth to a new life in Christ. Baptism is the way you become a hardcore follower of Jesus.
So why is Jesus being baptized? He is the Word incarnate, born of the Virgin Mary. He is the eternal Son of God, the Alpha and Omega, in him the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. He is human, but he is divine: he is divinity itself. He is the way, he is truth, he is life. His is the Body that was offered for the salvation of the world, that was broken that we might be made whole. It’s his Body that is made present to us the wonderful mystery of the Blessed Sacrament, that lends its form to the church, and onto which all Christians are grafted in the unity of the one Spirit.
When John saw Jesus coming he declared the good news that Israel had been waiting for, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” “He must increase,” John would later say, “but I must decrease.” So why does Jesus show up at John’s little patch of the Jordan River to be baptized by him. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Jesus’ baptism is not the prototype of our Christian baptisms – it cannot be, and even John acknowledges this. But Jesus’ baptism is an important moment of preparation for all other Christian baptism, and I think I know why. I think it’s because of what Jesus was doing while he was under water.
Remember, Jesus wasn’t baptized in a font like ours, over which he would have had to bend his head for John to pour water onto. Jesus was baptized standing in the muddy water of the Jordan River. Maybe the rains had been good and the water was nice and deep, and maybe Jesus went in well past his waist, the water about mid-level of his chest, his arms stretched out to steady himself in the gentle flow of water moving by.
Did he bend his knees, and just allow himself to drop down below the surface of the water? Or did John guide his head forward, as Jesus bent at the waist to fold himself, face first, under the surface? Or did he just let go of himself altogether and let his body flop down into the river?
And how long did he stay under? Did he whoosh quickly up after only a few seconds, his long hair flinging water through the air as his flipped his head back? Or did he disappear under the water for more than just a moment or two, maybe even making John a little nervous about how long his cousin had been under?
I don’t know.
But I think I do know what Jesus was doing under the water. I think he was blowing bubbles.
There in the Jordan River I think Jesus opened his mouth and blew bubbles, to create a kind of under-water spring, whence air rushes out: not just the carbon dioxide that we all breathe out, with a little oxygen as well; but (somehow) when he blew bubbles, he created a stream of air, with just the right mix of oxygen and nitrogen that we need to breathe. Jesus was blowing bubbles to create this spring of baptism, this well of new life where you can purse your lips and lean forward to sip the air out of the column of bubbles rising past you when you are baptized, born again, given the promise that comes only by the Name of Jesus, and through his life-giving Spirit.
You are thinking that this is fanciful: another one of my stories. But I beg you to reconsider.
Because God knows that life takes us all under water from time to time, so to speak. God knows that life gets dark, and frightening, and cold, and that it sometimes seems that you don’t know where your next breath is going to come from. This happens to us. And it happens to old people, and young people, and middle aged people, and to children who are too young to even know it is happening to them. The water starts to close in around you, and you start to sink, and the more you struggle, the faster you feel yourself slipping beneath the surface, where there will be no air to breathe.
The hard part about breathing under water is convincing yourself that you will be able to do it – this is true in SCUBA diving as well as in faith. It seems like it ought not to be possible. It seems like a silly idea: believing. Anyone can see we were not made for this – no gills! And in life when you find yourself metaphorically under water, you generally do not have any equipment with you – no mask, no tank, no gauges, no regulator from which to draw deep breaths of air.
Which is why Jesus was blowing bubbles in the Jordan River: to begin the column of air that every Christian would breathe from when he or she went under the water – not just in baptism, but every time we find the water coming up around our necks, and we know that soon we will be under the surface.
Saint Paul put it this way: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him.” What on earth does this mean?
It means that the first place we go to die with Jesus is under the water. And there we discover that it is not death that awaits us, but his column of marvelous, billowing bubbles, from which we are to breathe new life, when we purse our lips together, lean into the stream of air, and breathe!
These days there are plenty of people who don’t see the point in following Jesus, and can’t see the purpose in being part of his church. One reason is this: because part of life, for most of us, is lived under water. And you want to know, when you are falling deeper and deeper in the water, that there is some air to breathe, and you want to have had someone around to show you how.
The very first time I descended with SCUBA gear to the quite moderate depth of twenty-five feet below the surface, after initial success I very quickly became nervous. Nothing was going wrong, per se, and nothing was even deviating from the plan, but as I looked around, I was gripped by the sense that I should not be able to do this, that there was something terribly wrong with breathing under water, that I might drown if I stayed there. My nerves got the better of me, and I did the worst thing I could possibly do: I raced up toward the surface as fast as I could, in a blind panic, gasping for air.
It’s dangerous to do this. And in deeper diving – or in real life - it may be impossible to do it, which is why they teach you that it is generally better to try to address your fears, to fix your problems, to find a way to breathe under water, and then, once you have found a way to breathe, then to find a way to return safely to the surface.
Jesus is the way to breathe under water, which is why I think, all those years ago, he spent a few moments blowing bubbles in the Jordan River, to create a column of air that is mystically linked to every place a person has ever been dunked in or drizzled with water in his Name, and in the Name of the Father, and of the Holy Spirit…
… so there would be air to breathe, even when everything else has stopped working, and you feel that you should not be able to breathe, and the water is dark and cold, and life is in peril, and you just want to run or swim away as fast as you can, which might very well kill you if you did. And you start to panic.
Until you see a column of bubbles rising in the water, and you purse your lips, and you lean into the stream of air, and you breathe in the new life that Jesus has prepared for you. And you find that it is surprisingly easy.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Baptism of our Lord, 12 January 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia