Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism. So let’s talk about what baptism means, or can mean, especially in Advent.
“To baptize” means “to dip,” “to plunge” or “to immerse.” In the early church, sprinkling and pouring were permitted when there wasn’t enough water around for a full immersion, but immersion was the preferred practice. That has always been the case in Eastern Orthodox Churches, and of course there are several Protestant churches that insist upon immersion. Even where sprinkling and pouring have become the norm, these are supposed to symbolize immersion.
Nowadays, when we’re trained in some sort of practical skill, people like to speak of having an immersion experience. It involves plunging you into all the upheaval of some real-life situation, where you have to discern how to move forward. There’s no rulebook, just some rules of thumb. It’s like teaching people to swim by throwing them in the water. There are things you learn from an immersion experience that you can’t learn any other way.
That’s a good way to think of baptism. It’s an immersion experience. It may start when we are either literally dipped or sprinkled, but that’s just a start. It actually lasts a lifetime. That’s why we renew our own baptismal vows at anybody else’s baptism—we’re still living through our own immersion experience.
John the Baptizer says “I’m immersing you in water, but the one coming after me will immerse you in the Holy Spirit,” in the very breath of God, the very life of God.
In baptism we are not just dipped in water but plunged into the very life of God. It’s beginning our immersion experience with God.
Baptism also joins us to God’s immersion experience with us. This is what we look forward to in Advent. With Jesus’ birth we believe that no less than God becomes fully immersed in our humanity. Jesus‘ birth is God’s baptism. And like our baptism, it’s still happening. That’s what we remember at Christmastide and what we look forward to in Advent. We do both—remember and look forward—because it happened, it’s still happening, and it will continue to happen in ways that will always surprise us.
We and God are immersed in each other’s real-life situation. Maybe you don’t remember when you were baptized. Maybe nobody ever officially dipped you in water or sprinkled you. But you are still immersed God’s very life, just as God is immersed in yours. And because it’s a real-life situation, there’s always some upheaval involved.
These days we’re facing more than just “some” upheaval. If the year 2020 doesn’t count as an immersion experience, I don’t know what would. It really is like being thrown into water when you don’t know how to swim. We’re practically clinging to hopes that we can at least come up for air in 2021. But there’s no rulebook for how to get there. Our nation, and maybe even our families, remain divided over who should lead our nation, over the insidious staying power of white supremacy, over how to respond to COVID-19, even over whose facts are really facts. We’re immersed in all this.
But so is God. You’re not alone. When you’re immersed in all the upheaval of this real-life situation, you are still immersed in God’s real-life situation. And with God there is always a way forward, though discerning it may take time, and it’s always challenging.
So this Advent let’s cling to the promise contained in the hymn we all know, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” After all, it means, “O come, O come, God-with-us.” We and God and Jesus are sharing in a common baptism, and no matter how deeply immersed we are, we are not going to drown. O come, O come, God-with-us.