Spirit That’s Heavier Than Matter

By Johnny Ljunggren (Given to Helga at Norwegian Wikipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

As a pediatrician-in-training, I observed many physicians as they interacted with patients.  I watched what they did—how they spoke with patients, the questions they asked, the information they gleaned from them.  I was especially fortunate to get to spend time with a well-known pediatrician who worked with children and their families on developmental and behavioral issues.  These were often families for whom everyday life had become filled with disappointment, conflict, and despair.  And one question he asked has stuck with me to this day.  It was this:  If you were to wake to wake up one morning, and during the night something wonderful had happened and everything were different, what would have changed?  What would things look like now?  Sometimes the children would think for a minute and say something along the lines of:  my mom would be happy, we wouldn’t fight anymore, I wouldn’t have to go to school, or school wouldn’t be so hard.  It was a glimpse into the deep desires of a child.  And later, when I had my own practice, I found myself asking this same question.

But what struck me about this question, in addition to the gut-wrenching answers that followed, was the idea that during the night, almost unnoticed, everything would become different.  I had this peaceful image of children and parents bedded down under warm blankets, snow falling to the ground just outside the window, and a perfect, still hush over everything.  Maybe it’s too many sentimental Hallmark movies, but it seems romantic and almost magical that such powerful, life-changing events would happen quietly, almost unnoticed.

Well, we see this same kind of phenomenon with the baptism of Jesus.  We hear in the gospel of Mark that John the Baptist was out preaching and baptizing in the wilderness, and all the people from the whole Judean countryside were coming to be baptized, confessing their sins.  And so in slips Jesus, maybe one in a long line of folks waiting to be baptized.   In the gospel of Matthew it’s a different picture; there seems to be some recognition by John of who Jesus is when Jesus comes to be baptized.  John says to Jesus in Matthew, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”   But Mark speaks of no such acknowledgment, saying only that Jesus was baptized by John.  And while Jesus sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and hears the voice from heaven, Mark is strikingly noncommittal as to whether anyone else present that day is privy to this amazing revelation.  And so I have this image of Jesus taking his place in line, being baptized with other Judeans both before and after him, coming up out of the water, and leaving the bank of the Jordan—those around him none the wiser about the change taking place in the world right in their midst.

If this is when Jesus receives his commission, if this is the start of his ministry and the inauguration of the reign of the kingdom of heaven on earth, then what does it say that such a powerful time in the history of the world begins in such a seemingly quiet, ordinary, and unobtrusive way?  In truth, this event was anything BUT ordinary and unobtrusive.  The heavens are torn apart—a channel between heaven and earth is opened up for all eternity.  It’s the gospel story encapsulated in one event.

According to Karl Barth and put into words by a contemporary theologian, the astonishing claim that takes place when the heavens are ripped open, the Spirit descends, and God proclaims Jesus as God’s Son is nothing less than this:  that “God does not will to be hidden in the heights of heaven but descends to the depths of earthly life in order to be seen and heard by us as finite creatures.”[1]  This astonishing event happens almost unnoticed in the gospel of Mark—there are no genealogies, no romantic birth story, no glamorous visit from the Wise Men in Mark.  God the Son just slips in line and is baptized.  The extraordinary happens through the ordinary.

Maybe that’s how the Spirit still works in the world.  We tend to think of “spirit” as being light, as floating up to heaven.  But it’s been reported that C.S. Lewis once said that for Christians, “spirit” is not lighter than matter, but heavier—in other words, the Spirit doesn’t float, but sinks, descends, and comes to settle on and in the ordinary things of this world.  Elton Brown put it this way:

Spirit is the real substance of God acting in creation and redemption and final reconciliation.  And yet Spirit is always tied to material—real water, real bread, inexpensive wine, beautiful baptismal dresses for our children, or soaking robes for our adults.  Spirit fills us in the church and then drives us from church (as it will drive Jesus from the Jordan to the wilderness).  There, outside the walls, we wrestle with the beasts and pray for ministering angels….angels heavier than air.[2]

See, far from having a God hidden away in the heavens, we have a God who is here with us in the ordinariness of life, often at work in almost unnoticed ways, reconciling the earth to himself and making all things new.  And if that’s who God is, then like Elton Brown said, it tells us a lot about who we’re called to be.  We come here to worship, to meet God in the bread and wine, to experience God in all the concreteness of our liturgy, to remember our own baptisms and the Spirit that rests on us.  And then we’re called out into the ordinariness of the world—to settle in, to be like unnoticed granules of yeast that gradually makes the whole loaf rise, to bring the kingdom of heaven about in very earthly ways, to bear witness to a God who tears apart the heavens to be where we are, to be spirit that’s heavier than matter.

 

[1] Lee Barrett in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1.  Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, page 238.

[2] Elton W. Brown in Feasting on the Word, page 240.