God In The Depths Of Chaos

From “Being Christian:
Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer”
by Rowan Williams, b.1950

In the tradition of the Christian East especially, when the baptism of Jesus is shown in icons you will usually see Jesus up to his neck in the water, while below, sitting under the waves, are the river gods of the old world, representing the chaos that is being overcome. So from very early on baptism is drawing around itself a set of very powerful symbols. Water and rebirth: rebirth as a son or daughter of God, as Jesus himself is a son; chaos moving into order as the wind of God blows upon it.

So it is not surprising that as the Church reflected on what baptism means, it came to view it as a kind of restoration of what it is to be truly human. To be baptised is to recover the humanity that God first intended. What did God intend? He intended that human beings should grow into such love for him and such confidence in him that they could rightly be called God’s sons and daughters. Human beings have let go of that identity, abandoned it, forgotten it or corrupted it. And when Jesus arrives on the scene he restores humanity to where it should be. But that in itself means that Jesus, as he restores humanity “from within” (so to speak), has to come down into the chaos of our human world. Jesus has to come down fully to our level, to where things are shapeless and meaningless, in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness, if real humanity is to come to birth.

This suggests that the new humanity that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of chaos, to be touched by the hand of God. And that means that if we ask the question, “Where might you expect to find the baptised?” one answer is, “In the neighbourhood of chaos.” It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy. Christians will be found in the neighbourhood of Jesus, but Jesus is found in the neighbourhood of human confusion and suffering, defencelessly alongside those in need. If being baptised is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptised is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.

I am inclined to add that you might also expect the baptised Christian to be somewhere near, somewhere in touch with, the chaos in his or her own life, because we all of us live not just with a chaos outside ourselves but with quite a lot of inhumanity and muddle inside us. A
baptised Christian ought to be somebody who is not afraid of looking with honesty at that chaos inside, as well as being where humanity is at risk, outside.

So baptism means being with Jesus “in the depths” (the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need), but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be.
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