HomeCommentaryThe conversion of Jesus (and ours, too)

The conversion of Jesus (and ours, too)

Baptism has never been about celebratory self-assertion; it has always been about conversion

There are curious practices during a child’s baptism in the Philippines.

The “Ninong (godfather)” and “Ninang (godmother)” should be one of the wealthier or more powerful individuals of the community. Purpose: they can help the child’s needs when s/he grows up.

The baptismal sponsors should be more than just a pair; it should look like the whole village. In some parishes, their number can fill the whole long pew or two. Reason: the more social connections, the better.

And this is the most curious of them all. After the baptismal rite, the parents (or sponsors) who hold the baby, shall rush to the church door with the newly baptized infant. In no time, there is no one in the sanctuary. Reason: so that as the child journeys through life, s/he goes ahead of the rest.

Bottom-line baptismal expectation: a journey of a good social network, effective political influence and power over others and the whole of reality. The big party that follows with everyone in attendance is meant to symbolize these wishes for a “good life.”

This looks like a total opposite of Jesus’ baptismal story. Self-assertion and influential power were never part of the equation in Jesus’ life. Baptism was about following, willingness to die to self, being converted, being tested. In short: kenosis.

When Jesus felt he was called to a life different from the usual, he decided to follow John the Baptist. John’s radical life attracted him. This “man of the desert” lived simply, dressed crudely and ate “locusts and wild honey.” It was a penitential life — one in preparation for conversion. When Jesus came to the wilderness, there were already many others there ahead of him — sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, poor people — confessing their sins, begging for God’s mercy and feeling the need for radical change and conversion, seeking for God. Jesus followed the same crowd and became one of them.

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John’s baptism was a “baptism of conversion.” When Jesus decided to be baptized by John, it signals the “conversion of Jesus” himself — as one theologian describes it. In the Jordan, Jesus had a “deep spiritual experience” that totally changed his life direction.

Jesus joined John’s penitential crusade and was swept by the conversion spirit of the whole movement. In short, he did not hesitate to be one with the people who longed for personal change and social transformation because he also desired it for himself and for his society.

Scripture scholars tell us that Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the most difficult narratives to recount since this means that the evangelists had to acknowledge that their Lord was once baptized by someone lesser. But it is a fact they could not deny at all. They embellished the accounts with fine apologetic trimmings — that the Spirit came down from heaven “like a dove” and a strange voice came from nowhere said “You are my beloved son;” or that the Baptist initially protested saying that it should be Jesus who should baptize him not the other way around, etc.

All these narratives written decades after the resurrection were intended to prove that Jesus is greater than John. But regardless of this Christian re-reading, the undeniable fact is that Jesus, now considered by his followers as God, once submitted himself to John’s baptism.

Beyond the ritual was the life Jesus started to live after baptism — a truly converted life. His baptism had real life consequences: he left Nazareth and followed the radical lifestyle and work of the Baptist. It was a real turn-around.

Accepting John’s baptism means Jesus needed to leave his carpentry shop, embrace a life of uncertainty and follow the Baptist and his group in the desert while proclaiming repentance and God’s forgiveness. It also meant adopting for oneself the Baptist’s austere lifestyle, spending long nights in communing with God (Jesus must have learned this from John) or being tempted by one’s devils in the wilderness. Not much record can be found on how Jesus lived as John’s assistant, as a member of his band. It was for only a short time. After sometime, Jesus started a new path for himself in his preaching of the Kingdom. But this earlier life with the Baptist—of listening, of wrestling, of questioning and conversion — was very decisive in Jesus’ discernment of his own mission.

I once attended a baptismal celebration. After the church rites, we entered a big hall. There was a band playing, balloons decorated around, well-dressed guests chatting, sumptuous food served, a program prepared, the rich politician-sponsors roaming around shaking people’s hands, tarpaulins and stampitas with the pictures of the infant and their proud parents printed on them being posted and distributed, the newly baptized child ushered into the center, and everyone — as prompted by the loud emcee — shouted: “Welcome to the Christian world!”

I am not allergic to celebrations. But I am afraid Christians have gotten it all wrong.

Baptism has never been about celebratory self-assertion; it has always been about conversion. And if it was about resurrection, it was first about dying and crucifixion. As in was in the beginning (from the time of the Baptist and of Jesus) is now and ever shall be! All the way to our own baptism.

As Paul once wrote: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6: 3-4).

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.

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