Dueling lessons – Wise men or baptism?

by Demi Prentiss

In many Episcopal churches this past Sunday, preachers faced a daunting choice: “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” or “This is my … Beloved.” Matthew’s story of the visitation of the Magi (Mt 2:1-12) or his brief account of Jesus’ baptism by John (Mt 3:13-17).

For many of us, it’s hard to connect the visitation of the wise men from the East with Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Just last week, I ran across a question that has had me pondering most of the week: “What happened with Mary and Joseph as they raised the child Jesus, that they raised a devout Jewish boy who looked beyond the Chosen People to include Gentiles and outcasts as he proclaimed God’s good news?” Of course, there was the trip to Egypt (Mt 2:13-15). There was living in Nazareth near Sepphoris, a cultural crossroads of the Middle East.  There was Mary’s song about a lowly handmaiden, called blessed by a God who exalts the humble and meek (Lk 1:4-55). There was Joseph’s refusal to allow Mary to become an outcast (Mt 1:19).

The question’s author (whose name I’m still trying to rediscover) offers a striking answer: “the wise men.” Pondered nearly all her life by Mary, the foreigners who brought magnificent, prophetic gifts heralded the reign of God displacing the reign of Caesar. They foreshadowed a new way of ordering the world. 

That same holy reversal is at work in the baptism of Jesus. Blog author Herb Montgomery, writing for Patheos last week, offers a challenging way of seeing Jesus’ baptism – not as cleansing him from sin but as ending “his participation in the structures and values of society. It concludes his involvement in the moral order into which he was born.” [1]

From that position, Montgomery asks,

So what difference does it make for us as Jesus’ followers, as we start this new year, to interpret Jesus’ baptism not as repentance for personal sins but rather as rejection of the injustices of the current system? Jesus’ baptism was a cleansing with water, a preparing the way for something better to take root and spread.

What new ways of ordering our world are our baptisms preparing us to engage?

How does Jesus’ baptism – and the renewal of baptismal vows that are traditionally part of the observances of that day in many Episcopal churches – challenge us to denounce and turn away from the injustices we encounter in our world? How might we embody our baptismal calling in our daily lives?

[1] H. Waetjen, The Construction of the Way into a Reordering of Power: An Inquiry in the Generic Conception of the Gospel According to Mark, quoted with permission by Ched Myers in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Marks Gospel, p. 129. From “Jesus’ Baptism as Social Protest, Part 3” by Herb Montgomery.

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