Text: Mark 10: 35-45 (other baptisms)
How do we imagine the course of a lifetime? Sometimes it might look like a straight line on which we successively pass through the stages of infancy, school, career, and retirement. At each stage, we learn new things and grow in our ability to live out our sacred values. Each stage has its rituals – baptism, graduation, marriage, and so on – and we move along the path in a logical procession.
A competing image is to think of life as a spiral. This one suggests that we circle through life, perhaps repeating the same mistakes at different stages; perhaps encountering new challenges that remind us of old ones not yet mastered, and yet somehow ascending closer to a life lived within the heart of the God who is Love.
The image of life as a spiral came to my mind this week in thinking about Jesus’ remarks on baptism to his friends James and John. In this reading, Jesus has just told them for a third and final time that he is going to be arrested and killed.
James and John don’t still don’t get it, and so they ask to sit his right and left side in his glory. As we learn later in Mark’s Gospel, the position of sitting to Jesus’ right and left will soon be given to two thieves who are crucified along with him in Jerusalem. James and John don’t see the irony in their request. They remain in the dark about the path to which Jesus calls us.
Jesus says that even though they do not understand what they are saying, James and John (and by implication all of us) will drink the same cup that he will drink and be baptized by the same baptism.
In the church, baptism is said to be an unrepeatable sacrament. Freya, having been baptized this morning, is forever and always a member of the Body of Christ in its many incarnations. But at a deeper level, Jesus is suggesting that baptism is not a one-time thing. In every life there are moments of crisis that initiate us into a new stage and which we often describe as baptisms by fire.
These later baptisms can be welcome events – things like falling in love or achieving success at school or work – or they can be unwelcome ones – things like illness, failure, or the loss of loved ones. And beyond these trials, there is the final cup that we drink at the end of life.
Any of these baptisms can remind us of earlier ones. Each is a crisis that is also an opportunity to wake up on the path, an opportunity to taste again God’s forgiveness and love, and an opportunity to grow in wisdom and compassion. Each one is a chance to be born again within God’s Spirit.
Rebirth is about waking up to the realities of Love. But waking up is not all that we need as children of God. Beyond wakefulness we also need practical wisdom. Beyond light we also need warmth. Beyond enlightenment we also need comfort. Beside Spirit we also need Soul.
None of us can stay awake to life’s glory and awesome mystery for very long. After mountaintop experiences of baptism or rebirth, we inevitably sink back into routine and tradition.
The image of the spiral helps me remember both sides of the spiritual path. We may feel discouraged to find ourselves cycling over the same ground as an adolescent as we did as a child; the same ground as a parent as we did as an adolescent; the same ground with our second spouse as we did with our first; or the same ground as a senior as we did as an adult in our prime. But I also find some comfort in this spiral. We may be children of God, but we are also humble mortals who are not capable of travelling too far from our roots.
We make progress in our life, but this progress is circumscribed by the concrete reality of the family, body, and particular time and place into which we have been born. We learn and grow, but it is always as mortals who stumble and fall. We strive upwards, but find we can’t wander too far from our past.
In my own life, I see the spiral in things to which I keep coming back. Church is a good example. I left church as an adolescent impatient for social change. But I stumbled back into church 14 years ago. And I was grateful to reclaim the weekly rhythm of worship and mission. It has helped to ground me and renew a quest for the God who is Love.
I see echoes of my return to church in the life of one of my heroes, Karen Armstrong, who is a London-based religion scholar and media commentator. As a 17-year old Roman Catholic, Armstrong entered a convent where for seven years she lived as a nun. When she left the convent in 1969, her heart and mind were broken in several ways, and so she turned her back on the church and God.
But in the subsequent decades as she struggled with school, career and relationships, Armstrong found herself cycling back over the territory of her childhood and youth. In 2004, she wrote about this in a memoir of her life after 1969 called “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.” She gets the image of a spiral from a poem by T.S. Eliot called “Ash Wednesday.”
I love her book, and reading it helped cement my return to the church. Here is how Armstrong ends her memoir. She writes:
“My life has kept changing, but at the same time I have found myself revolving round and round the same themes, the same issues, and even repeating the same mistakes.
I tried to break away from life as a nun in a convent but I still live alone, spend my days in silence, and am almost wholly occupied in writing, thinking, and speaking about God and spirituality. I have come full circle. This reminds me of the staircase in (T.S.) Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, which I picture as a narrow spiral staircase. I tried to get off it and join others on what seemed to me to be a broad, noble flight of steps, thronged with people. But I kept falling off, and when I went back to my own twisting stairwell I found a fulfilment that I had not expected.
Now I have to mount my staircase alone. And as I go up, step by step, I am turning, again, round and round, apparently covering little ground, but climbing upwards, I hope, towards the light.”
In the book, Armstrong tells of her many painful baptisms by fire: things like illness, failed relationships, and career disasters. Through them she grows even as she remains rooted and constricted. Her life is a spiritual ascent but a spiral one that often seemed laborious and frustrating. On it, almost without knowing it, she moves ever closer to God.
Not all of us can be famous writers and media commentators like Armstrong. But we are all fated to climb the spiral staircases of life, I believe. When crises erupt on the path, we may find ourselves repeating the same mistakes as in earlier stages and learning the same hard lessons over and over again.
We spiral through life, learning a bit at each turn, perhaps not as much as we would like, but making progress in spite of ourselves. On the spiral, we may experience brief moments of waking up, brief glimpses of the glory that lies beyond our ambitions and strivings, brief tastes of the reunion with Love that will be complete when we have drained the bitter and gracious cup of life to its dregs.
Who knows how many baptisms by fire await any of us? My prayer for Freya on this, the day of her baptism is the same one I have for us all. May Freya grow strong in body, mind, and soul. May she weather all the many baptisms by fire that come her way. Through each one, may she grow more aware of her connection to the Source of Love, which we call God. And may she be confident that it is to that Source that we all return at the end of life’s long upward spiral climb.
Thanks be to God.