Wednesday, January 13, 2010

01-10-2010: Baptism of the Lord

The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11/ Pslam 104 / Titus 2:11-14;3:4-7 / Luke 3:15-16,21-22
Today’s gospel passage regarding the baptism of Jesus by John is oft employed to highlight Jesus’ divine identity. It’s used as a proof text, so to speak, to back up the Church’s understanding of Jesus as having both a divine and human nature; his unique being which the Greek-speaking Church of Late Antiquity would call the hypostatic union. After all, what could be more to the point than the voice of God the Father addressing Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.” But the Bible, not unlike Afghan politics, is often a victim of corruption. And there’s no doubt this text is corrupted; the problem is no one can agree on what the original text said. We have the older text, but we know that the early church fathers quoted another version: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” For monks copying the ancient texts centuries after the church’s doctrine on the hypostatic union was formulated it is easy to understand why they might change (corrupt) the text: Jesus being the Son of God from eternity - not “adopted” by God at the moment of baptism. On the other hand, the phrase today I have begotten you is a direct quote from the Psalms which would indicate that the New Testament writer, and not some later redactor, had put it there.

Adoptionism was a long-lasting Christological heresy which (if I follow it) claimed that Christ could not be both the adopted and the natural son of God; therefore, it was anathema to refer to him as God’s “adopted” son. None other than the famous Abelard held the heretical view, claiming that if the union of the divine logos with a human nature was in fact substantial, and not merely accidental, it would make the Trinity itself into a finite entity; thus, as man, Jesus could not be the natural but only the adopted son of God. It’s easy to fall into this either/or dichotomy and people in bygone days got really hot and bothered by it all. These days, no one seems to care much – or do we?

How we identify others and ourselves is rather problematic – just ask anyone involved in making up the questions for the upcoming Federal Census. Identification tells us a lot: not only about whom we’re observing but about ourselves as well. One thinks of the relatively recent insight that race is not based in biology but is merely a social construct. The phrasing – with the use of the word merely – reveals the bias of those who understand biology as more important than any social construct. The problem is that for those who see race as an on-going issue in modern society it doesn’t matter if it’s biologically based or not. Indeed, if it is merely based on a social construct, then one could conclude that social constructing is a mighty powerful thing.

Recently there was a legal case in which a woman arranged for the fertilized embryo of another woman to be implanted in the womb of a third woman (the surrogate or gestational mother) who would bring the child to term, at which time the first woman would then legally adopt the child. Things went wrong and the surrogate (the gestational mother) appealed to the court for custody; the court subsequently granted parental rights to the gestational mother. Talk about complicated social constructs vis-à-vis biology!

Those of us of a certain age who took Pysch 101 in college had to read Erik Erikson, the “Father of Identity Formation.” Not many know, however, that Erikson never knew his biological father; indeed, his mother had continually misled him regarding the identity of his “real” father. Seemingly fed up with all the lies, Erik traveled to America where, at customs, he dropped his legal name (Homberger) and reinvented himself as Erik Erik-son. Now that’s identity formation!

Regarding Jesus and that hypostatic union again – these examples - used analogously, of course - can help us appreciate the immense complexity of personal identity which seems to roam, and at times trespass, the boundaries between biology, social construct and even spiritual or metaphysical categories, and help us realize that none of us, Jesus included, can be limited to the sum of our parts. In other words, although Jesus is from eternity the Son of God, the real mystery may well be how exactly was he the son of Mary as well. We are all mysteries when it comes to identity, each greater than the sum of our many parts.

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