Marked for life
January 8, 2012 Baptism of the Lord
It wasn’t the only thing that marked Harry Potter but it was the one thing that he couldn’t hide; unless, of course, he put on his invisibility cloak, but that came much later. At his birth, Harry was marked on his forehead with a wound shaped liked a lightening bolt. Much has been made of the symbolic importance of this distinguishing mark that cannot be hidden and through which he feels acute sensitivity to the presence of evil. In fact, the Evil Voldemort was present at Harry’s birth seeking to destroy him and in the ensuing battle was nearly killed when the lightening bolt curse rebounded on him. In JK Rowling’s wonderful saga, the permanent wounding mark on the child’s forehead becomes the symbol that Harry is wounded for a purpose: to defeat evil and restore what is good to human life. He is literally marked for life. What is intriguing is that this mark on his forehead becomes the very spot where he feels sharply the pain of others as well as the lurking presence of Voldemort. The Scar also signifies that Harry is the Chosen One of the Prophecy, the one to vanquish the Dark Lord. Here is the physical place where compassion and spiritual discernment enter his body and form his life calling. This is why Harry’s birthmark is so important to his human vocation.
Stay with me.
When Jesus comes to John the Baptizer for baptism it is a cataclysmic event. He is not struck by lightening, but the heavens do rip apart and as he rises from the water the physical sign of the Holy Spirit descends upon him as a dove, while the voice of God the Father identifies Jesus the beloved Son of God. Jesus’ baptism is quite a Trinitarian splash upon creation marred with sin and destruction. As if to make it all the more emphatic, the divine voice proclaims simply: listen to him! Jesus is literally marked for life – though it remains hidden from our eyes.
For centuries, the early Church struggled with the question of Jesus’ baptism. After all, John’s baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and repentance; it’s a cleansing ritual much like other cleansing rituals of the time. Why then Jesus? But the better question is why not Jesus? Surely it is no accident that Jesus the Jew from Nazareth, the Beloved Son of God, wades into the muddy river; where else could he be? Jesus is God’s Beloved Son who stands in the river with sinners, not against us, but for us and with us. We call this the incarnation: God with us!
For what purpose is this mark of baptism? Nearly before he has dried off, Jesus is confronting the Evil One in the wilderness who continues to assault him throughout his life. One could say that this baptism marked his vocation in the world: defeating evil and healing the wounds of the world. He is marked forever as God-With-Us, in whom humanity finds salvation. And before his life is over those marks will be visible on his wounded hands and feet.
Still with me?
On the border of Ethiopia and Sudan live the Nuer people who are known for their rituals of symbolically scarring the body to mark their identity. When I visited with them some years ago, I spoke with a man who had a horizontal wound across his forehead. It marked him as a member of the tribe, but he had recently become a Christian and wanted to be marked differently. He wanted a way to indicate his changed life and his inclusion into a company that was much larger than his Nuer tribe; the universal company of God’s people of every race, nation and language. He tried to remove the horizontal scar with various painful methods but that proved impossible and only made his scar more visible. He was marked for life – but he wanted to be marked for a different life. He asked if a vertical mark could be cut into his forehead that would form a cross.
The Church leaders said no, there is a better, wholly different way that Christians mark their lives as a new people. We are baptized into Christ, as those who live in Christ, by whose death and resurrection we find new life. Then he recited to me the words that he had memorized from his baptismal service when the pastor had poured water on his forehead and gently touched him with the sign of the cross: you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. As he said those words he made the sign of the cross on his own forehead over the scar as if to say I now belong to the tribe of Christ with you.
Are you with me?
In baptism Christians are marked for life. This is the sign of our human vocation as God’s people who are now set apart for a purpose: life! It is not a physical scar on our foreheads that marks us it’s the abundant waters of baptism and the sign of the cross. Our old lives in the tribes of this world are dead; we now live in the Body of Christ whose members span every race, tribe and language. As the Apostle Paul put it: once you were no people, now you are God’s people. Once you were dead in your sins, now you are alive in Christ.
Today we will ordain people to the office of ruling elder and deacon. This ordination will set them apart for the service of Christ. We will lay hands upon them as ancients have done for centuries and bless them for this calling. Yet, we remember that the original ordination for Christians is our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the sacramental wound – the mark – through which the compassion of Christ enters our bodies and shapes our lives. Let us then remember our baptism as we celebrate the ordination of these persons today.