The Pharisees ask John the Baptist one of the most important questions of a person’s lifelong spiritual pilgrimage: “Who are you?” or “What is your identity in the world?” This question is so central that we find some version of it in just about all faith traditions, as well as in philosophies, psychologies and self-help strategies. The Hopi People, for example, have a word, Hakomi, that’s difficult to translate, but roughly means “How do you stand in relation to these many realms?” I appreciate that the Hopi word encompasses a relational quality, because it seems like the answer to the question “Who are you?” ultimately brings us into some new awareness of our relationships in the world.
This question is often not very easy to answer, and for John, as for many of us, a good way to get started may be to affirm what we’re not, or what doesn’t feel true to our identity. In response to those questioning him, John declares “I am not the Messiah.” “Well, are you Elijah?” they ask him. “No, I’m not Elijah,” he answers. “So are you the prophet, then?” “No, I’m not the prophet,” he replies.
His questioners might be thinking at this point that John’s just going to be evasive, but he does try to give an honest answer. John starts with quoting Isaiah, chapter 40: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” That line was written in about 540 BCE, when the Israelites were just nearing the end of their exile in Babylon. This was a promise that just as they were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they would be delivered now, and the way home through the wilderness would be made clear. And what’s true of a nation is also true of our own spiritual paths, following the way of Jesus through a wilderness of dying to our old selves into a homecoming of being freed to become new creations in Christ.
A powerful symbol of this process is baptism, and so John is asked why, or by what authority, does he baptize if he’s not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet. John answers by making a very important distinction. He replies that he baptizes with water, while a few verses later, John testifies that Jesus will be the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
This contrast between water and spirit appears again a little later in the gospel when Nicodemus, a Pharisee, seeks Jesus at night to ask about entering the kingdom of God. I wonder if perhaps Nicodemus was among those questioning John, and if what he heard, especially the part about the different baptisms, might have been what inspired Nicodemus to look for Jesus in the first place. Jesus answers Nicodemus by linking the symbols of baptism, death, and birth saying that one must be born from water and again from spirit.
Basil of Cæsarea, a fourth century monk and priest, writes that “Baptism has a twofold purpose: to destroy the body of sin so that it can no longer produce fruit for death; and to live in the Spirit bearing fruits of holiness… This is being born again from above, of water and the Spirit. In the water we die, but the Spirit produces life in us.”
What John seems to be saying then, is that his identity in the world is as a voice in the wilderness leading us from the death of our false selves, a baptism of water, into the salvation of a new birth in Christ, a baptism of spirit. John’s answer to Hakomi, where he stands in relation to these many realms, is that he was sent to act as the mediator of our own answer to that question, and he helps us to lift the veil of illusion between ourselves and God’s Truth. John is the one who leads us, like Nicodemus, out of the darkness, and into our true identity as children of Christ’s Light, a people freed from the slavery of sin, enjoying a new, loving relationship with God, with ourselves, and with our world around us.
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