“(Re)Born from Above…”

“A robe of divine light bestow upon me, You Who array Yourself with light as with a garment.” – Prayer from the Orthodox rite of baptism

Most of us who grew up as Orthodox Christians probably don’t remember the day of our baptism.  Since the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the practice of our Church has been to baptize infants, acknowledging that giving them spiritual food- the Holy Eucharist- is just as important as physical food from a young age.

One of the wonderful benefits of attending baptisms, weddings, chrismations, ordinations and all the sacraments is, if we listen closely to the prayers that are said that day, we remember our own baptism, our own wedding and, in the case of we who wear the collar, our own ordination, and so on.  On the day of one’s baptism, often called the Christian rite of initiation, the prayers the priest says over the child that is baptized are absolutely amazing.  The prayers, all centering around salvation, the expulsion of evil and unity with Christ, include amazing excerpts such as:

Inscribe (his/her) name in Your Book of Life…”

“Wed (him/her) to a radiant angel…”

“Bestow upon (the water) the blessing of the Jordan… that it may be a bath of rebirth, a laver of regeneration…”

“Having been united to Your death through baptism, (he/she) may likewise become a partaker of Your resurrection…”

For all Christians, baptism is a fundamental part of a Christian’s life because, well… Jesus said it was.  In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”  In the final chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ final words to His disciples while on this earth, in what has come to be known as the Great Commission, were “Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:19)

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There are so many, many more direct and indirect references to baptism, either in describing the actions of John the Baptist or one of the Apostles after the Lord’s Ascension, or in a miracle in the Scriptures that is worked through water, usually involving healing or safety, as in the case of the Hebrews of the Red Sea and later the River Jordan.  There is a necessary change that takes place by baptism, a shedding of the old creation and the emergence of the newer creation, according to St. Paul.  If one were to visualize what the prayers of baptism and the Scriptures were describing, it almost sounds like a husk being shed to reveal the true, different core within- like a caterpillar needing to get out of its cocoon in order to become a butterfly.

This imagery of regeneration through water has penetrated many aspects of our culture in the Western world today as well as many artforms, including movies.  When Neo wakes up from his dream world in the Matrix only to emerge in the real, true world offered by Morpheus, he awakes in a pool of water.  When Jor-El in Man of Steel searches for the Codex, the device which gives life to the Kryptonian people and perpetuates their species, he swims through a pool of water to find it, emerging on the other side.  In David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, the latest DC Comics adaptation released last month, we get another such “baptism” scene, this time of Margot Robbie’s now iconic Harley Quinn.

In a flashback, we see Dr. Harlene Quinzel (Margot Robbie), a therapist at Arkham Asylum, gradually falling madly in love with her patient, the Joker (Jared Leto).  Infatuated with the Joker and wanting to be with him and follow him, the film cuts away to show Robbie and Leto standing on a precipice above three vats of chemicals, presumably where the Joker himself fell into and was “born.”  Looking over the edge, Harley is asked a powerful question…

“Would you die for me?”

“Yes.”

“That’s too easy.  Would you… live for me?”

“Yes.”

“Careful… desire becomes surrender, surrender becomes power.”

After again answering in the affirmative, Harley jumps into the chemical vat.  The Joker follows.  Pulling her out of the chemicals, he sees that now she too has pale white skin as red and blue dye patterns float around them.  The two now resemble one another very closely, and a clear transformation has taken place after being immersed in the bath.

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While I wasn’t terribly impressed with Suicide Squad and obviously, while it feels utterly ridiculous to make comparisons between the sacrament of baptism and the imagery of a scene like this, I think we can nevertheless extract a beautiful pearl of a lesson here.  For starters, we actually both die and live for Christ simultaneously at the sacrament of baptism.  The aforementioned cocoon is shed and we die to the “old man” (Romans 6:6) our old self, and we put on the new self, which takes after the Resurrected Christ.  There is a very clear “before and after” taking place in the sacrament. Also, note that Harley resembles the Joker after her immersion, just as we resemble Christ after ours.

Second, there is indeed a surrender that is taking place in baptism.  Even if it is not said by the baby being baptized, it is being said by the godparents on behalf of the baby.  And very correctly, by surrendering to Jesus and allowing Him into our lives, we do affirm that there is a tremendous power that follows!  Truly then, as absolutely bizarre as it sounds, Leto’s words were (perhaps even unintentionally) correct: desire does lead to surrender, which does, indeed become power.  Releasing our will to Christ’s, we experience a tremendous fulfillment that comes from drawing closer to God’s will.

You don’t need me to explain the symbolism of the vat of chemicals as a metaphor for a body of water, pretty straightforward there.  But there is one more aspect of this scene that may be lost on us if we don’t look a little closer.

Part of baptism is being in love.

What leads Harley to the precipice to begin with is that she is madly (in her case, literally) in love!  Every human being knows that this is a powerful motivator, perhaps the most powerful of any we could imagine.  That love gives us strength and leads us to do amazing things for the one we love, whether they be our significant other, a friend, our child…

… or even Jesus.

This is another aspect of Orthodox Christian spirituality which is heavily emphasized in our tradition.  Saint Porphyrios would say things like “I am in love with Christ.”  The Song of Songs refers to God as “My Beloved,” and reads like an amazing love letter.  I’ve even heard miracles described, rightfully so, as “love letters from God.”  Indeed, if we do believe that “God is love,” (1 John 4:8) and that love encompasses every form and kind of love our hearts may feel (for which the ancient Greeks appropriately had a least three different words for!), than it is not incorrect to include this kind of love, romantic love.

When we realize how much God loves us, and cultivate that relationship with Him, we realize that our heart too, craves Him.  Often this happens well after our baptism, and sometime it never happens at all.  Even so, if we believe we have been created in the image and likeness of our Creator, we also believe that our soul naturally is inclined to return to Him.  All love that we feel on this earth, that is, on this side of the Kingdom, foreshadows the love that we will feel in the next life for God Himself, our King and Creator, our Friend and our Beloved.  It is an amazing feeling, and truly a powerful motivator even for our spiritual life.

Many of us are baptized as infants, and as such we may or may not always have that love at the forefront of our lives.  Given that our relationship with God is just that, a relationship, it’s natural that the pendulum will swing both ways, sometimes enamored with and sometimes distant from.  Even so, as we grow in soul and body in the years that follow our baptism, let us always remember that this relationship of love- God’s love for us and our love for Him- is the core of everything.

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Harley is brought to the moment of “baptism” by her love for the Joker.  We too, are brought to Christ by our hearts burning for Him.

Amazing what you can learn by watching comic book movies. 😉

May His love and devotion guide our love and devotion for Him, and may we never forget that He stands always ready to embrace us, from the moment we are born, to the moment we are reborn of water and the Spirit, all the way through this life and the next.  Amen.

“And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” – Mark 1:10-11

 

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