My sermon this week was based on Matthew 3:13-17.
To download an audio of my sermon, click here.
As far as I know, I am an adult, but the funny thing is I don't when that happened.
I have Jewish friends who had Bar and Bat Mitzvah's where they were told explicitly that they were no longer children. They had become adults, were responsible for their own actions, and they were to leave childish things behind. This is concerted, purposeful ritual that draws a clear line between childhood and adulthood. It propels the child from one psychological or spiritual state into another.
I never had that, and I suspect that many people reading this might not have had that either. Although I suspect I am an adult, no one has ever told me so, and I have had no ritual or rite of passage to propel me from one stage of life to the next.
When did I become an adult? Was it when I was Confirmed? When I graduated high school or got a degree? Was it when I lost my virginity, got my driver's license, got my first car, my first job, my first apartment? Was it when I got married? Bought a house? My wife and I are expecting our first child in a matter of weeks, will I be an adult then?
Many people bemoan the immaturity of my generation, and although I am not trying to blame society, perhaps it is because of this lack of ritual in my culture. Never underestimate the power of ritual, is what I am trying to say. Ritual can fulfill us, prepare us, empower us, ground us, root us.
Jesus takes part in a ritual in today's Gospel passage, a ritual he had no need or no business taking part in, but that I think he saw the need to take part in: he was baptized.
Christianity did not invent baptism, of course. We adopted it from our Jewish ancestors. If you were born Jewish, no rite of initiation was necessary, you were part of the People, but if you converted to Judaism from another faith, baptism was necessary to cleanse you literally and figuratively from the impurity of your past lifestyle, and to welcome you into the People.
We know Jesus was Jewish: he was born of Jewish parents, he was circumcised, he followed the Law. The question then is why would Jesus present himself for baptism?
I think it is because Jesus understood and valued ritual.
Ritual marks the end of one stage of our lives and the beginning of the next. It draws a line between who we were and who we are becoming. It is a sending off, in a way. I think Jesus felt a deep need to be baptized. We know that both he and John preached a baptism of repentance, warning people not rely on their lineage or their religion to save them.
In my interpretation of Scripture, Jesus and John were both advocating that you had to be a good person, that fulfilling all the Laws and remaining ritually pure was simply not enough if you had no love for God or for your neighbour. I think Jesus saw this ritual of baptism which he submitted to as an act of humility, a pledge between him and God that he was going to embark upon and follow the path that had been set before him. I think he saw it as a necessary step, a preparation and starting point for the great journey was about to undertake.
We all have our rituals, whether they are religious or whether you just have a "morning ritual". They help get our day or week started, they are things we turn to for nourishment and directions. They are touchstones, they are a footpath, but the downside is that they can also be hollow cyphers, devoid of meaning perhaps because we don't put the proper emphasis on them (like baptism and confirmation) or because we do them so regularly (like communion).
I invite you to reflect on the rituals in your own life, whether they be religious or not. Why do you do the things you do? What do they mean to you? What do you get out of them? How do they prepare you? How do they propel you from one state to the next?
Far from being stifling and empty, ritual can be rich and dynamic. I invite you to reflect as Jesus did on the value of ritual, and let ritual nourish your life.