to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lent, day 26: Baptism and the Gift of Death

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe (ta stoicheia tou kosmou), why do you live as if you still belonged to this world? Why do you submit to regulations (dogmatizō), “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and teachings? (Col 2:20-22, RSV)

I confess I’m a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan (and think it even edifying). In the fifth season of the TV series, Buffy learns that her gift is death. She initially understands this to mean that her gift is killing; she is exceptionally talented at dispatching not just vampires but many assorted (and just plain sordid) demons. As the season develops, she experiences the loss of her mother and comes to wonder whether her gift is to have to endure the death of those she loves. It is only at the climax of the season, when her sister is on the verge of being sacrificed by demons to usher in a hellish apocalypse, that Buffy realizes that her gift is to die in her sister’s place, saving both her and the world. The season finale ends with this shot of her tombstone.

Baptism gives us the gift of death, but like with Buffy’s gift, ours has several nuances. It is the gift of Jesus’ death, wherein he overcomes the hostile forces that held sway over us - using a tool of shame and derision (the cross) to shame and deride those forces (see Col 2:15). At the cross, Jesus assumes our debt, marking it paid in full and nullifying its obligations that weighed us down (2:14). But baptism also marks the overcoming of our own spiritual death; before baptism, we were dead in our sins and in the uncircumcision of our flesh–what we talked about yesterday. At the same time, to receive baptism is to die with Christ; Christ’s death is given us for our own and what he accomplished is made our own accomplishment. Since he vanquished the cosmic forces by his death, so have we. Since he was faithful to the covenant in his death, so we are duly marked as faithful (2:11).

The practical implication of this is found in today’s passage, which asks why, if we’ve died with Christ, do we not live like it? Why do we still cower before forces he has vanquished? Why do we still try to meet the debtors’ obligations (dogmata in 2:14; dogmatizō in 2:20)? Why are we opting for worldly remedies for what ails us when a heavenly remedy is not only available but has already been applied. Interestingly, the rite of baptism prompts us to inspect our rituals and ask ourselves just what we think we are trying to accomplish.

The baptismal gift of death means more than just putting an end to human efforts at saving ourselves, what I’ve called religion from below. It also means we are now capable of putting to death those things that are a part of us and within us that are of the old order, the vices that Paul associations with the old self. See Col 3:5-11 - we’ll talk about this more next week.

Today, let us enjoy (in the best sense of the word) the gift of death.

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