In the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons depicting the baptism of Jesus have him up to his neck in water. Rowan Williams, in his little book, Being Christian, reflects on that as an invitation to immerse (or baptize) ourselves in the chaos and messiness of the world, not just dip in and out of peoples’ lives in forays from the sanctuary. The invitation is to be ‘out of our depth’ in order to be ‘near where Jesus is … being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.’ (2014, p5)
For some of us, especially those in Christian ministry, getting enveloped in the neediness of others is simply an attempt to escape from the chaos within. The grateful response for our compassion and service, we hope, will quell the deep sense of uselessness which accompanies us every day. Perhaps, just perhaps, one of those words of kindness will open the prison of self-doubt and drown out the condemning heart.
Henri Nouwen spoke of compassion as asking that ‘we share in the other's vulnerability, enter with him or her into the experience of weakness and powerlessness, become part of uncertainty, and give up control and self-determination.’ But our experience shows us that an encounter with vulnerability in others often drives us to cling to the rocks of certainty within. It is a destabilizing encounter, as it calls us to accept our own ‘uselessness’ rather than overcome it.
For those of us who live with (or struggle against) depression, we know all too well the internal and external battles we face with uselessness and vulnerability. And it is only in the slough of despond that we begin to see that our battle is not with uncertainty, but with the desire to control and seek dominance over our life and our environment. In the quest for the perfect, we destroy the good enough and even the great, and rob ourselves of the joy of fulfilment.
The beginning of healing is the realization that much of life is unpredictable and beyond us. It is the learning to give up, let go, seek interdependence and not self-sufficiency, that offers a path to any sense of well-being. So we are profoundly grateful for those who, in Nouwen’s words, ‘offer us comfort and consolation by being and staying with us in moments of illness, mental anguish, or spiritual darkness often grow as close to us as those with whom we have biological ties. They show their solidarity with us by willingly entering the dark, uncharted spaces of our lives. For this reason, they are the ones who bring new hope and help us discover new directions.’ (from Compassion, 2006)
For Christians, baptism is a profound act of solidarity, speaking eloquently of the God who is immersed in the life of the world and in critical solidarity with creation. A God who draws us into solidarity with ourselves and one another, for we are made part of the community of the baptized. It is easy, in a place like this, to become obsessed with the ministry of the ordained. According to liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino & Juan Hernandez Pico:
‘Solidarity is another name for the kind of love that moves feet, hands, hearts, material goods, assistance and sacrifice toward the pain, danger, misfortune, disaster, repression or death of other persons or a whole people. The aim is to share with each other, to help rise up, to become free, to claim the human dignity and justice that all people are entitled, to rebuild.’ (from A Theology of Solidarity, 1983)
But equally profound, for me, is the need to be attentive to that voice that calls us ‘daughter’ or ‘son’ and declares us pleasing. For the struggle of discipleship remains one of learning to live as those who know they are truly and completely loved.
for you Christ Jesus came into the world;
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered death on the cross;
for you he triumphed over death,
rising to newness of life;
for you he prays at God’s right hand:
all this for you,
before you could know anything of it.
In your Baptism,
the word of Scripture is fulfilled:
‘We love, because God first loved us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, 1999)