The evangelist Mark tells us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4).
It feels odd to be talking about John during Lent, for he has traditionally been associated with Advent. The Advent association is for a good reason: John was sent to prepare the way of the Lord, and Advent focuses on the coming of Jesus to earth. But John’s story is for Lent also, for Lent is a time of being renewed in our baptism. What John did in his baptismal ministry is not exactly what we do in the Sacrament today. But thinking about his words and actions helps us think about our own.
John’s baptismal ministry emerges out of the Jewish practice of ritual washing, a concept that is something of a puzzle to contemporary minds. Professor Jodi Magness writes: “Jewish ritual purity is not well understood by most modern Westerners—and that includes most modern Jews. The Torah describes certain categories of things and certain natural processes that cause ritual impurity. However, the causes of ritual impurity, according to biblical law, appear to us today to be quite random.” (Jesus and His Jewish Influences, page 84)
The purpose of these washings was to purify oneself to enter the presence of God. They were repeated as many times as possible and were administered by the individuals themselves.
This ancient practice of ritual washing is the forebear of John’s baptism. But there was another influence, too. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.
Holy and Pure God: Our ancient spiritual ancestors sought your presence. They recognized their sin and separation from you, and so they sought to be cleansed by the waters of the Spirit. We are grateful for their commitment to you, and for their desire for faithful living. While we do things differently today, keep us always mindful of your holiness and purity. In your Son’s name we pray. Amen.