Standing with (New Year’s) Resolution

In Ravenna, Italy, there is a building that was built to house baptisms – a baptistery. It was built in the early sixth century, and it features a luminescent mosaic, made of thousands of small glass tiles in its ceiling. At first look, it’s an illustration of the baptism of Jesus. Jesus stands in the water in the center of the scene. To his left John the Baptist stands on the river bank in the act of baptizing. He’s recognizable by his animal skin robe. Above Jesus, a dove descends. And on the other side, an older man sits and watches it all happen.

Yet, there are a few things in this image that are out of step with the story as it is presented in the Biblical text, things that are inventions of the artist, made for the purpose of making a statement.

We will start with the white-bearded figure on the left. At first blush, we might assume that this is the first person of the Trinity but that interpretation is problematic. In the Biblical account, the first person of the Trinity – God the Father – is present only as a voice from the heavens. What’s more, the first person of the Trinity is almost never depicted in the art of this era. The first person of the Trinity was regarded as unseeable and therefore unpicturable. Then, as we look closer, we see that behind the seated figure, an amphora or jug of water is pouring out water. It is the water that pools around Jesus and becomes the water for Jesus’ baptism. Finally, the figure is carrying in his right hand a flowering reed and he’s crowned with red crab claws! These objects signal to us that this is a personification of the Jordan River in the tradition of the pre-Christian Greek river gods. What is a pre-Christian Greek deity doing in a presentation of Jesus’ baptism? I think he’s a geographic label identifying the location (and factuality) of this event.

But the odd image choices don’t stop there. Jesus himself is pictured not as a bearded man in his 30s but as an unshaven and unclothed youth. The people of Jesus’ day would never have removed their clothing for such a public event as a baptism in the Jordan, but it was typical in the sixth century that candidates for baptism would be completely unclothed. Further, John is carrying a curved bishop’s staff and he’s laying hands on Jesus, just as the bishop would have done as the baptismal candidate came from the water. (Women would have been baptized by a deaconess and both men and women would have been clothed in white baptismal robes before being presented to the bishop, so the artist is conflating the events to help us see that the figure of John is presenting the role of the bishop.) That leaves Jesus to be the representation of the one being baptized.

This luminescent mosaic, which would have sparkled with the light of oil lamps, functions as a mystical mirror for the one being baptized. The mosaic is saying to the newly baptized: “See yourself in this.”

The way Jesus is presented, just standing there, recalls Matthews’s account in which a curious exchange occurs between Jesus and John the Baptist. John tries to thwart Jesus’ request for baptism, but Jesus responds with an enigmatic statement. “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  We can start to understand Jesus’ statement by recognizing that in his baptism, he is joining in humanity’s need for repentance before God, but I think there’s more. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry. For the next three years, he will go about teaching and healing. His being and behavior will be the presence of the rule and reign of God. We all know how the story is going to end and so does Jesus. It will end in Jerusalem on a cross. 

I think it’s best to understand Jesus saying, “Let’s get on with the work that I came to do. Let’s do this whole thing.” His baptism already anticipates his crucifixion and as he rises from the waters with the blessing of the Father and the presence of the Spirit, he is already anticipating his resurrection. So he speaks to John, not with hesitation or anxiety, but with a calm resolution that neither minimizes the struggle nor faints before it.  He knows how things will go. He already has experience. This also, the baptistery in Ravenna seeks to mirror to those who look at it. 

If you’ve been baptized, I invite you to join in this looking that recognizes this image as a sort of mirror. You are united with Christ in his death and in his resurrection. Jesus stands resolutely in this image, echoing the resolute tone that he displays in the gospel according to Matthew. You who are baptized can also stand with resolution at the beginning of this new year confident, not that your plans will go exactly as you plan them but confident that this mirror is true and that you are bound to the death, and resurrection of Jesus. May this provide you with a resolution that will really last. 

If you haven’t been baptized and would like to be, please talk with Pastor Kate or me; we’d be honored to help you prepare for such a great gift. 

Blessings to all as we begin the semester.

Pr. Jim

Jan. 11, 2023

Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as university pastor at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions with University Pastor Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay.