Yesterday, the First Sunday after Epiphany, was the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism. In the gospel reading, a particular preposition is used in refrain in Mark 1:9-12. Everyone else is baptized by John in the Jordan, but Jesus is baptized into the river (Gk, eis ton Iordanēn). Then that wild bird descends onto or into Jesus (eis auton). And right after this, Jesus journeys deep into the wilderness (eis tēn ‘eremon), on his “vision quest.”
Our churches usually focus on the baptism as Jesus’ empowerment through the Spirit’s descent “from above.” But we need to realize that he was being also being empowered through a deep and full spiritual immersion into his beloved homeland, from “below” so to speak. These prepositions articulate that before launching his campaign of resistance to the principalities and powers that would define his ministry, Jesus sought grounding. He began not with a consciousness of alienation, focusing on what he was against, but an experience of identification, focusing on what he was for.
God was speaking to Jesus through the land of his people. Baptism is, therefore, a ritual of “re-place-ment.”
At BCM, we’ve been experimenting with re-narrating the Markan baptism text through a hermeneutic of place. (This is not unlike Clarence Jordan’s famous Cottonpatch gospels, which narrates Luke set in Jim Crow Georgia, as was appropriate—and subversive—to his context at Koinonia Farms in the 1950s.)
Here in our Ventura River watershed and surrounding bioregion, we reimagine Mark’s the prologue as it might be set locally:
• John the Baptist becomes the 19th century Chumash shaman Fernando Librado Kitsepawit, who appears in the backcountry up by Mount Piños, telling his people that the whole project of European colonization in California was all wrong, and that they had to turn things back around so that the Great Spirit could give them a new start.
• People from all over Southern California, and from the big pueblo of Los Angeles, go out to Kitsepawit, and undergo a purification ceremony in the Ventura River, washing the alienation right off of them, and realizing how messed up they were.
• Kitsepawit lived in a local cave, and knows how to find food and medicine up in the hills. But he saw a prophet coming who was even wiser and more powerful, and he was just apprenticing to that one. “I have cleansed you with water and sage,” he said, “but the one coming will purify you with Creator’s Spirit.”
• Jesus canoes in from Santa Rosa Island—that place where the old ones lived—and he is cleansed by Kitsepawit in the Ventura River. And Creator’s Spirit descends on him in the shape of a Condor. And a voice comes from the sky singing, “You are my Child, the Beloved; you are walking in the Good Way.”
We encourage you to imagine Mark’s Prologue in your bioregion. Here are some helpful prompting questions:
1. In what natural watercourse might Jesus have been baptized in your watershed?
2. Where is the wilderness where John the Baptist and Jesus might have been dwelling?
3. Who would be a prophetic person and/or movement from your region analogous to John the Baptist?
4. What kind of native bird might have descended on Jesus at his baptism?
And if you want to take the story through the rest of Mark’s prologue:
5. What wild fauna might have accompanied Jesus during his wilderness “vision quest”?
6. Who would be the marginalized workers with whom Jesus might have begun building his movement?
7. Is there a critical historical era or moment in your region into which you would imagine this gospel story?
We commend this exercise, as it challenges us to pay closer attention both to the Markan text and to our own bioregional context!