In the spirit of pilgrimage – whether meditation or the life quest – we repeat things so as to better understand the meaning of what we remember. In doing so we re-present the past as a dimension of the now we are in. Time is thus telescoped and the peace we feel in doing this shows that we have, at least for the time being, passed beyond the fear of time which is essentially always the fear of death.
In trying to follow Jesus in all aspects of our life, as teacher, friend and embodiment of truth, we remember key moments of his life. This is not to fixate on the historical Jesus: ‘what would Jesus do if he were here’ is not really a question of faith. Faith says he is here. We re-member ourselves to the historical Jesus in order to become more acutely aware of his Resurrection presence. So we felt one morning when we renewed our baptismal promises at the River Jordan.
As Mark Twain was quick to point out, the Jordan is not the Mississippi. It is a very modest little river, which has an imaginative presence in many biblical stories far beyond its actual size. Similarly the field of Armageddon, which is part of the American Christian Right’s Middle-Eastern politics, where the final battle of good and evil is to happen when the Jews have all returned to Israel, is about the size of a football field. When I returned to a childhood home after many years I was massively disoriented by how small it was, as if I was a giant in a dolls house.
Religious imagination needs to be controlled, which is why an apophatic, non-image based kind of prayer is an essential ascesis in a healthy religion. The fact that Jesus was baptised by John seems to have been difficult to explain for some early Christians. How could the Messiah, the Son of God, need to be baptised? For us it is obvious why, when we renew the ancient promises and bow our heads to let another person pour water over us. Because we need others. That Jesus bowed his head as we do, reinforces his humanity and illuminates ours.
Physical pilgrimage, which is a dramatic form of lectio, brings home to us what the Word becoming flesh means. It is not only the descent of the divine into the human, but a revelation of what humanity is capable of and destined for. God became human, as the fathers of the Church oft repeated, in order that human beings might become God.
That this does not require a cosmic battle or the destruction of our enemies is evident in the glorious ordinariness of the life of Jesus. The one in whose footsteps we are walking knew the life of a village, enjoyed the company of friends and family, went to a wedding party. The significance of his sign is that the divine is fully alive within all the human experience of life from birth to death and everything in between.