In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11
We all live with rituals. When these rituals are changed or deleted, we feel off balance and out of our centers. What rituals are you most accustomed to doing?
Most of us begin with rituals of getting up in the morning; going to the bathroom, cleaning our teeth, and tongues, letting the dog outside, doing exercises, meditating, reading some sacred literature, writing in our journals, recording our dreams. We end the day with rituals.
When we meet together here or in any place, we have orders, rituals, routines to what we do or are trying to accomplish. We like to sit in the same seats or area, hear familiar music, follow familiar steps, and leave feeling a certain sense of satisfaction.
Often in sacred worship we include special sacraments, or rituals, which highlight and dramatize a key element of our faith journey. Presbyterians have just two of these, Baptism and Holy Communion. Roman Catholics have seven as did many groups in the earlier, pre-Constantine, 4th Century church. In the pre-Roman church they were called “Mysteries.”
What do these special rituals or sacraments do for us? They remind us in visual and dramatic ways of spiritual, unseen conditions of our souls, or of our very essence as beings. A sacrament is defined as an “outward sign of an inner transaction.” It is a pointer to an inner spiritual reality by using tangible, outward symbols.
Today is designated as “The Baptism of Jesus” Sunday in many churches around the world, including the Presbyterians. Baptism is associated with the symbol of water as in our early Jewish/Christian tradition. John the Baptizer may have been the originator of the ritual as part of his desert association with the desert Essene community. Some theorize the Essenes had replaced the rite of circumcism with water Baptism as the early “rite of purification.” Water baptism was more inclusive as it included women and devoid of the connotation that sexual activity was dirty or sinful. (Inner Christianity, Richard Smoley, Shambhala, 2002)
What then does the ritual of baptism mean or teach? It teaches and reminds us of our original, pure state of being sinless and pure. Our original essence I believe is Spirit, one with God the Father or Creator as He created us, or She if you please. This state, our True Self or Higher I, is pure, sinless, inviolate, indestructible and as eternal as God.
The epistle of 1 Peter, chapter 3 verse 21 is translated, “And baptism, which this prefigured (the saving of Noah from the flood waters by entering the ark), now saves you—not by a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”
Here we see water not as a body cleansing but the reminder of our essence as Spirit purity in oneness with God the Creator. Entering the Ark is entering the awareness, the knowledge of where the Presence resides. (The Ark over history has often been taught to represent the church.) In the little book called Titus we read; “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”(3:5) The “washing of regeneration” points to our awakening through the symbol of our baptisms. It is a sign of what we are, but so often forgot, or do not even know, or further, seldom experience.
Such rites of reminder or purification can be found in other religions and cultures. Native Americans do it, Hindus and Buddhist do it, Muslims do it with an “absolution” ceremony. All practice it with the idea of purification and cleanliness. Most do not practice it as a way to remove “original sin” but as a way to awaken the consciousness of guardians and recipients to their “original Oneness with the Divine Creator.”
In the early church, and recently returned to our Presbyterian rituals, there is included a “Renunciation of the Devil” or evil. It is the acknowledgement of our attachments to mortality as being great and very natural as young children. Parents and sponsors then make this renunciation as a way to vow the renunciation of all the negative and destructive ideas and feelings which the child and we encounter. As adults we know how easily negative thoughts can take over our thinking and attitudes. I often have said to my wife on such days, “I feel as if the Devil has me surrounded!”
When giving the renunciation, the candidate or sponsor in many congregations faces toward the west in giving his or her answer, symbolizing the setting of sunlight into darkness. When giving the affirmation to stay conscious and centered on the Spirit of Light, candidates would face east, the rising of the sunlight.
Many believe most baptisms in the early church were done by emersion, going down into a body of water connected to a larger source. Such a setting was symbolic of our being connected to God the Creator. As in India, the great Ganges River flows out of the great Himalayan Mountains, across India, and emptying into the sea. As people bath and wash in it near Benares, it symbolizes our purity from being within the flow of Spirit from its fountainhead into the Ocean of life.
As the Hindu Rig Veda goes:
Wash away, Waters, whatever sin is in me, what wrong I have done.
What imprecation I have uttered; And whatever untruth I have spoken.
Today I have sought the Waters, we have mingled with their essence;
Approach me, Ani, with thy power, and fill me, as such, with brilliance.
Baptism often concluded with the anointing of fragrant oils. Anointing was also considered another sacred sacrament. The application symbolized the healing presence of Spirit, the fragrance reminding one of the beauty of peace and love flowing out of our bodies from Spirit.
Yes, we quickly forget our Oneness with God in what the ancients called “The Christ-Self.” We sin so quickly by losing our vision and focus as adversity surrounds us daily in our lives and through the endless media. Baptism is one of those important sacraments, “mysteries” as they are called in the Eastern Church, which visually can help remind us of our identity. They help bind together our lives, as the word “religion” means.
Daily rituals are integral to all our lives; getting up in the morning, eating meals, working, playing, loving. Let us see the rituals and sacraments celebrated in this sacred place and in our lives as important reminders and renewals in remembering ourselves as the sinless Creations of God the Creator.
Talk offered on January 8, 2012 at the 1st Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, by Rev. David Persons, Weekend Pastor/Worship leader.