An American Lady travelling to Paris 1913 asked Ezra Pound what art is for. Reply: What is a rose bush for? If someone asks me what is baptism for, I might reply with the same.
Water as we have seen only too often in recent weeks is regularly the means of destruction, often violent extreme and dramatic. Yet strangely without it we cannot live, it is also the stuff of life.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. We are told the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and there is also a voice from heaven. Don’t forget that these writers were not writing eyewitness accounts. It was certainly written after Jesus’ death.
Contrast this with the baptisms we often see today:
Maybe the cynic would say Some form of cultural social engagement, An excuse for a party, letting the hair down for a moment in the madness that is bringing up a child. Showing off the baby to friends and family, an excuse for a gathering. Hedging our bets, just in case.
Perhaps a more charitable offering might be: Trying to do the best for the new child. Enlisting help of Godparents for later in life, sharing parental responsibilities.
And then contrast both of these with our baptism liturgies which speak in superstitious ways of freeing from sin and death, the world and the devil.
Why? Baptism isn’t about being good? Somehow without it will a child burn in the fires of Hell.? Are we freeing a child from something? Pronouncing a blessing? Somehow removing original sin? Was the quest for knowledge sinful? I don’t believe there is a need to free anyone from anything. Are people innately good then? all possessing the possibility of good and evil. So perhaps we are setting a child on the right path at Baptism?
I feel the problem is that we are trying to say something of mythos, Myth & Story in a world of logos, Truth and Reason and it makes no sense. We cannot speak of the spiritual in terms of logos. This used to be possible as in the depiction of the baptism of Jesus in the biblical narrative, but they are becoming harder to find and when we do find them, harder to understand.
An Exhibition of art took place some years ago in the chapel at the university in Bangor. Local sculptor John Meirion Morris held the exhibition of his work which drew much of its inspiration from the Mabinogion. The art filled the chapel and was installed for two weeks in 2004. Subtle background music, Tavener’s The Lamb added to the atmosphere. The effect was beyond words, the experience was very dramatic. The pieces of sculpture were almost alive, sleeping, but still breathing as you moved amongst them. At the step of the chancel lay a sculpted head. The face was haggard with lines, the hair was wild, the expression one of torment. It was as if looking at the face of God as God considered the world. A moving and strangely spiritual experience.
Baptism should be like that, but we are unable to describe the experience in the words we use. Meeting God or having that spiritual experience has been domesticated by the church and we deny the power of such mysterious experiences at our peril.
We should try more often to engaging with the mythos story and myth rather than giving in to the temptation to forget. Jeanette Winterson writes in the Guardian. This piece from some years ago on Art and God:
Art is a different value system. Like God, we have legitimate doubts about its existence but, like God, art leaves us with footprints of beauty. We sense there is more to life than the material world can provide, and art is a clue, an imitation, at its best, a transformation. We don’t need to believe in it, but we can experience it.