This is the point in the Lenten season when the vista changes, the vision of the desert yields to the anticipation of passiontide, and the inevitability of the clash between Jesus’s Kingdom of God movement and the religious and colonial authorities of his day.
This opposition will be starkly drawn on Palm Sunday. Around the time that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, or within a few days, the imperial Procurator will have decamped from his official residence on the coast at Caesarea Maritima and set off for Jerusalem. His name was Pontius Pilate. Every year he would move into Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover with enough soldiers to make sure the peace was maintained. Passover contained all the elements for an uprising. It was an annual rehearsal of the moment in history when the national god of the subjugated Judeans overcame the imperial might of the Egyptian Pharaoh. It is the re-telling of a time when these downtrodden people were liberated from imperial power. It was Pilate’s job to ensure that the festival passed peaceably and without incident, and his column of soldiers and horses would arrive in Jerusalem amidst dust, the glint of metal, the smell of leather and imperial banners flying through the western gate.
On or around the same day, another procession will enter the city from the east, a parody of the imperial procession, not military horses but a donkey, not imperial banners but palms. Crowds of people will line the streets and praise their god for their anticipated liberation. Their cries will invoke a former national king who had ruled in their nation’s finest hour, and the central character of this procession, Jesus of Nazareth, will be named as his heir.
The outcome of the opposition of these two processions will be played out in the week that follows. This resistance would form the seed of a movement which will follow the inevitable death of Jesus, in the years which follow, and will find its way to the imperial capital, Rome itself.
The path to enlist in this movement will quickly crystallise into a particular initiation ritual, a ritual which will combine the acceptance of death and the promise of new life in a higher authority than imperial power. Immersion in water will symbolise transition from living under imperial power to the freedom of life under divine power. It will be called baptism.
Baptism will symbolise both dying to being subject to the empire of Caesar, and the new life under the rule or the Kingdom of God. As this resistance movement spreads, so the forces of empire will inevitably move to eradicate it, and the loyalty of the movement will be tested by the threat of death, even as it had been for Jesus. While the signature prayer of the movement prays that followers will be spared the ‘time of trial’, many will be executed in the cause of asserting imperial sovereignty.
When the accounts of Jesus’s life come to be written, many years after the original members of the movement had been martyred, the significance of baptism as an declaration of resistance will be incorporated into his story.
In the accounts which survive, Jesus speaks of his baptism twice. In Mark 10:38 Jesus responds to two followers who want status in this new rule of God by asking them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Baptism, the passing into death with the promise of new life is a dark path. The promise alone of new life is what will enable him to resist, even at the cost of his life. Baptism will empower him to go down into the dark places of human conflict, even into his own deep fears and anxieties, as will become apparent in the hours before his arrest. Baptism will enable him to go into his own interior darkness, as it will for those who will follow him.
Again, in Luke 12:50 his baptism carries the vocation that, to assert the rule of God over the rule of Caesar, will be both a catastrophic and divisive one, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Although the church will rightly assert baptism to new life as it celebrates resurrection, it does us well to remember, as we draw near to the last days, the days of that head-on collision, that it is baptism which empowers us, as we are faced with the cost of being part of that Kingdom of God movement. The hope is resurrection and acceptance of death to self is held in baptism.
Andrew Spurr is the Vicar of Evesham in the Diocese of Worcester.