Mark’s story of Jesus’s baptism is like a storm front. The brightness of the baptism and the descent of the dove is met, almost immediately, by the darkness of the temptation in the wilderness, and the whole story seems to exist in that liminal space where warm air meets cold air and a storm begins to brew. It’s unsettling to have baptism and temptation so close together. It seems to bring the very nature of baptism into question. If baptism is meant to make us into new people, to free us from our sins and fill us with Christ, then what is it doing in such close proximity to temptation and emptiness? It’s as if Mark is telling us to be wary of any pleasant theology of baptism, any belief that after baptism everything in life will be good and easy.
In Mark, baptism doesn’t automatically make the world anew. And this is more true, I think, than any hope that we can become new people in one moment, through the completion of one act. In the past week I’ve heard two people describe churches that seem to be happiness-centered. These churches seem to believe that becoming a Christian should free one of all doubts and that baptism is a way out of sorrow. Because of this, they get impatient with doubt, but more than that, they refuse to admit to their own occasional sorrows. They believe that admitting to sorrow is the same thing as not trusting in God.
But in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus trusts God and is brought immediately into a wilderness of sorrow and temptation, as if the true sign of trusting God is a willingness to be sent anywhere, into any domain of loss or joy. If that’s true, then what is God up to in baptism? What is baptism supposed to be, or do? How is it supposed to help us? Again, it was my friend Laurie who provided the answer. She suggested that baptism is a blessing – that God prepares us for life as a Christian, not by transforming us utterly, but by blessing us so that we can experience that full transformation in the minutiae of every day, in spiritual quests that can take years, if not lifetimes. Baptism prepares us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to paraphrase Saint Paul. It affirms that the wildernesses are navigable with the aid of God’s blessing.
And the truth is that the wildernesses are really amazing. The Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness as a kind of pioneer. He’ll struggle with demons and defeat them, and reclaim the wilderness for human use. This is what the desert fathers (Saint Anthony, Saint Symeon Stylites, Saint Martin of Tours) were doing when they went into their own wildernesses. They were reclaiming the spiritual landscape and making it fertile. With the blessing of God, they didn’t hesitate to venture into any combat, and found their demons in odd and surprising places, but by finding and defeating them, reclaimed those places for us.
If anything, the proximity of Jesus’ baptism to his wilderness sojourn should be a clarion call to our own pioneering spirits. Enter the wilderness, with God’s blessings, and transform it. I had a moment of serendipity when I was thinking about the pioneering spirit this week. I was listening to Radiolab (a terrific podcast which you can find here), and they had a story about Voyager 1 & 2, the two exploratory spacecraft that NASA launched in 1977. For the past thirty-five years they have been moving through the solar system, photographing the planets and taking measurements. Much of what we now know about Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune is due to the work of these two little unmanned ships. Their cameras were turned off on Valentine’s Day, 1990, but before they were, they turned back and took one last picture of earth, which from that distance was nothing but a pale blue dot against the backdrop of a band of solar light. To quote Carl Sagan, that dot represents: “Everyone you ever knew, everyone you ever loved, ever superstar, every corrupt politician, everyone in all of history, everyone, the sum total. Think of the rivers of blood that have run so that one indistinguishable group could have momentary domination over a fraction of that pixel.”
That’s part of the wilderness that the Voyager spacecrafts have already reclaimed for us. Against the immense backdrop of space, our petty ambitions are put in devastating perspective. If we are to thrust ourselves into wildernesses of ambition, we will never be able to do so again in the full believe that we’re engaged in an important cosmic act. We are small, the picture tells us. We should act humbly.
Fourteen years after taking that picture, the two spacecraft reached the edge of the solar system. The solar wind died away, but readings sent back to NASA revealed that the ships weren’t out of the solar system yet. They were still caught in the magnetic fields of the sun. So they are in a liminal place, not quite in the solar system and not quite out of it. It’s like they are traveling through the shell of an egg. Scientists call this place the “stagnation layer.” Voyager 1 & 2 could move beyond it any day now. When they do, they will be the first human made objects to leave the solar system, and move into the far greater wilderness of interstellar space. Who knows what they will be able to reclaim from that wilderness, what they will show us and teach us as they move ever onward.
When we are in our own private wildernesses, it may feel like we’re trapped in stagnation layers. Whatever lessons we have to learn, whatever tasks we have to complete, seem impossible, and sometimes even forgotten. And we may feel like we’re in a storm front, buffeted about by spiritual combat, fighting our own demons and the demons of the world. How do we live in stagnation layers and storm fronts? That is largely up to us. But God has given us a gift that will bring us through them. As we sit, stagnate, waiting, we have the memories of our baptisms to uphold us. As we battle, are wounded, and struggle within ourselves, we have the memories of our baptisms to uphold us. We have been blessed and sent out as pioneers, reclaiming spiritual space in our souls and moral space in the world for God, and in those moments when the struggles of the wilderness might seem overwhelming, we only need to remember the descent of the dove.