By James W. Perkinson
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure (Ps 40:2).
I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel. (Jh 1:31)
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (Jh 1:36).
So we sit today in bit of snow here in Motown, while our news feeds show weekly pile-ups of cold precipitation elsewhere across the land—and pile-ups, as well, of twisted metal in our stupid infatuation with cars and speed—as the Great Stream of Jetting Air bends south and brutal, from the Arctic Circle to Arizona, in announcement that Change, with a capital “C’ is not future, but here. And we wonder about the upheaval of an entire planet. Australia become a living kiln, cooking up a billion-fold of living flesh, involuntary offerings to our wanton refusal to heed! In Puerto Rico they sleep outside, as the fracked Earth, heaving from a thousand cuts, here, there, in Oklahoma now grinding Her teeth in warning hundreds of times per year where She used to rest soft and fecund and quiet, but in our little cousin island to the south, slipping and sliding the soil into great fear and one more sheer nightmare. Last time—it was the sea and sky as Maria roared through. Now it is rock and sand, all serving notice they do not plan on being raped and plundered, forever. But it is the poor who are first forced to hear and bear the pain. The rest of us sleep-walk in daylight and pull the covers of night over our oblivious heads. But our time is coming as well, I am afraid. And we are far more culpable.
Meanwhile in my wife’s home land, beautiful Luzon of the 7,000 isles, Pearl of the Orient fame, a little berg of cone, sitting water-bound in Her mother’s ancient volcanic lap, is registering Her own sign of the times. Speaking Her lava-speech some 34 times in the memory of our calendrical counting, Taal, as She is called, is once again on flare, belching smoke, threatening broader blast, saying listen up! But how shall we hear? We think “wow, volcano!” and leer from afar through our I-phone pornographies, thankful we have no such Underworld conduits troubling our Detroit sense of control!
But I have had to learn over the years of late, how deep this persistent “Ring of Fire” experience has etched the Pacific soul of the Filipino. My wife calls the Power “Bathala na” in her people’s eloquent tongue, a Force Irresistible, over eons, reminding that our own tiny species is but a brief dream on the face of this Magnificent Blue Marble, come into being late in the planet’s four billion-year-experiment with breathing. Despite my own people’s “white” conceit otherwise, Filipinos know in their toes we humans are not supreme. And their ability to laugh and dance and flash florid and fluid in the very face of disaster is a long-tested capacity, compared to which, Western colonial oppression, in their more recent history, which brought my wife to me, falls flat and impotent. White supremacist aggression? Ha! Their resilience has been forged in the heat of volcanic eruption! And in that huge Earth-Smithy over the last 10,000 years, they have found an incarnate Deity. But Bathhala na is not alone a Divine name for a volcanic reign over the islands. It is an epithet you claim when Adversity is so huge there is nothing you can do, but shrug, make a joke, and keep on walking. My wife is a multi-toned maven of indigenous-intuition and platform-healed exclamation, making her mark again and again with beauty and erudition. But don’t be fooled. Inside that soft skin is an internalized volcano!
But all of this is mere introduction. I want to talk today about sheep and goats and water. And do so in full view of the memory of the only “King” this country has ever birthed worthy of the title. Despite our current so-called President’s bloviating pretension to be somebody worthy of adulation, it is the likes of Martin and his movement of African American affirmation, pushing the country to own its history and aspiration, its violence and calamity, that approaches whatever incipient notion of royalty we may entertain. Martin’s movement—and all the kindred movements from Tubman to Turner, Douglas and Truth, Abolition organization and Populist cooperation in the mix, AIM and the Farm Workers, Stonewall and marching women, Occupy and Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise insistence and Standing Rock protection and a thousand thousand anonymous actions of resistance and witness un-named or -known save by tiny cohorts and collaborators over the course of our short experiment in democracy and justice—these I note and celebrate. But I also want to push us to imagine larger and remember deeper. And in so short an exposé as a sermon, I can but hint.
To wit. In the Psalm of the day (40:2), we find present a brief jubilation: invocation of a peculiar salvation. God has pulled “me” out of a desolate pit, freed feet from mire and clay, and set hoof on high cliff with secure footing. “But it doesn’t say ‘hoof’” you would correct if paying attention. “Yes, you are right—but the image is concrete and specific,” I would rejoin, probably culled from an ancient mode of hunting savvy found in Eastern and African and Polynesian practice, where a goat was sometimes placed as bait in a dug out pit, branch- and leaf-covered, awaiting big game, which on hearing the plaintiff bleat of the captive little one, would presumably leap in the night-dark, fall through the foliage cover, and be trapped. So the narrative here, in its literal reference, speaks in the voice of goat, recounting a Divine deliverance given a vulnerable herd animal, when the “bait” about to be sacrificed to our own designs for a bigger haunch of meat, is instead placed back on its home-base cliff-height where it is fleet and secure. And this image in fact, intersects with the oldest rock art etching of divinity extant in the Near East region from whence the biblical tradition derives.
Indeed, the evidence is pretty clear that Abraham from Ur and Haran originally, would have known God primarily in the form of a caprine ibex—a wild goat, with magnificent huge horns curving from head to mid-back, like a crescent moon headdress, understood in its own wilderness domain as a Great Mystery, ascending the craggy mountains at dusk to commune with the denizens of the Heavens and then descending in daylight to bring provision and milk to hungry humans. Indeed, in the Negev of Moses’ sojourning, Divinity was a Moon reality, associated with the vast canopy of astral mysteries whence came the rains in due season, once again gifting life with resurrection inundation and relief from the blazing drought of summer heat and its death-dealing siroccos.
There is enough association here for an entire year of sermons; but suffice it for the moment to note that early Israel was in fact saved by its pastoral animals, who alone enabled the escaped slaves walking out of Egypt into the desert to eat and survive. Israel came into existence as a pastoral nomad band of wanderers of the Sinai lands, relying entirely on the wisdom and provision of their goats and sheep and (their) wild cousins of the outcrops. Yet even desert nomads such as Moses joined, when on the run as O.G. from Pharaoh’s authorities, whose clan he embraced and whose daughter he married and whose herds he tended and lifestyle he learned and then transmitted to the Hebrew escapees—even these savvy sand-dwellers with their four-footed companions were entirely dependent on the October rains that finally came marching in from the Mediterranean with their life-saving blessings of wet. Rain was all in the ancient Near East. It was associated with the Moon’s tide–pulls and cycles governing conception and birth. And it was supplicated from Heaven in the form of the Sky-Deity’s animal incarnation, the ibex, who was at times apparently thought to be a shaman-visitor from the Spirit World. The Ibex Divine signified the Moon and was Giver of Rain.
Over time, though, a shift took place as Israel settled into Canaan’s hill country spine and took up the hoe to tease wheat and barley and fig and vine from the soil. Rain associations shifted as well from the Wild Goat denizens of the Mountain-Heights communing at Night with the Moon and bringing the longed-for Showers in Season (as the Ibex-Deity was imagined to do) to a more domesticated animal-mediator of the rains. Sheep in general—their curly white fleeces resembling in farming eyes the storm-fronts whose tumbled clouds appeared like Sky-Dwelling herds of wool—became the new guardians of life-giving rains, in the biblical tradition. More than once the new association peeks out from the pages—especially in connection with “young sheep” or lambs. Samuel, for instance, at one point will offer a lamb to provoke a storm and rout the Philistines threatening the people (I Sam 7:9-10). The Lamb-Rain association is not alone Israel’s possession— showing up in indigenous imagination across the globe. But it figures suggestively, if hidden, in Israel’s subsequent development.
Fast-forward to the gospel. Camel-clad John, hill-country-birthed, going feral east of the Jordan in search of the Spirit his ancestors knew (Jh 3:23, 26). Where Rachel’s cry yet haunts the wadis from Ramah to the Rivers—mapping Israel’s exile to Babylon of old like an ancient “trail of tears” (Mt 2:18, Jer 31:15; 40:1). Where Jacob journeyed after his dream-stone revelation and long sojourn with Laban and herds up towards Haran, returning south to his own clan and the Esau-encounter he so feared, and then grappling with the Night-Wraith Border-Guard at the Jabbuk, testing his resolve and gifting him with the wound that saves (Gen 28-32). All of this ghosts the sands where John goes to hatch vision and claim vocation. He then comes back to Jordan, having learned from Bedouin camel-herders how to eat from the land, and dress from the herds (Mk 1:6). And he calls the entire country to come out to the river and cross back to the ancestors, letting the waters open a portal to the Other World (Mk 1:4-5; Mt 3:1-12; Lk 3:1-21). It is there in the deep past, that Balaam had experienced his own tongue suddenly twisted in blessing for the very herders he was hired to curse (Num 22-24); there Elijah had been summoned, learned weather-as-weapon, and leapt into heaven on a lightning-storm chariot (I Kg 17-II Kg 2); there Elisha had visions, donned a mantle, received a double-portion of Spiritual animation (II Kg 2). Geography mattered and was alive and populated with Spirit—but only, apparently, where the border of empire ended and the wild began. John had learned and returned. And now awaited another prophet to convene a new movement. But he knew not the sign of recognition.
And the gospel is here strange. John is emphatic. The Pharisees and other leaders do not know the one who is to come, who even now stands among them (Jh 1:26). John himself does not know (Jh 1:31). But he comes baptizing with water that such a one might be revealed. The implication is that the waters know. Yes, the waters know! The wild knows! Jesus will arrive incognito and go under and come up wet and seeing. And the dove knows! And hovers, like a return to Genesis, Spirit as Wind-Bird-Brooder over the Waters. Sculpting Dark into a Womb. Bringing Shape to the Deep (Gen 1:2). Winged-Shaman-Tutor, as so often experienced in indigenous cultures across an entire planet—the Great, Feathered Message-Singers, like Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs or Eala of the Celts (perhaps even Ibis-headed Thoth of the Egyptians), driving this special one to be schooled by stone and sand and sun, east of Jordan, as had so many before. But not only that.
There is a last detail—implied in John, explicit in the Synoptics. Jesus went into the waters and came up. The Heavens opened and the Dove came down (Mk 1:9-11; Mt 3:16-17; Lk 3:21-22). Elsewhere in the corpus “heavens opening” is typically a Cloudburst or Storm Outbreak (Gen 7:11; Mal 3:10; Is 45:8, 64:1-2; see also Joel 2:23-29). The Waters Above rejoining the Waters Below. As Omen and Augury. Rain on terrain, thirsty and waiting—after summer’s Drought and the reign of Death. If this reading is right, indeed the Waters knew and responded! And if the synoptic material ventriloquized from Ps 2—the Heavenly “Thunder Voice” naming Jesus as “son” (Mk 1: 11)—is any hint, the implication may be that the baptism took place around Succoth. The latter fest was an autumnal Rain-Rite, when a royal ritual of enthronement chanted the Ps 2 lyric and conjured “Rain-on-Time” as the primordial enshrinement of kingly majesty (Ps 72:6), blessing community and land alike. No surprise then—given all of this subtle but telling suggestion of a baptismal rainstorm—that John names Jesus “Lamb.” The Lamb is offered up. And the Rains fall. And this gift in the unfolding narration is not alone for humans. Perhaps not even alone that of a human!
The synoptics offer food-for-thought. John goes further. For this gospel writer Jesus is no mere mortal, but Logos incarnate. In the beginning was the Word (Jh 1:1-18). And the leap from synoptic focus on merely “human” attributes could not be more stark or quantum! The Nazareth prophet is “tenting” (Jh 1:14) something Primal, large as the universe itself, primordial in Jewish thought as Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 8, a quasi-divine Female-Force accompanying Divinity from before the beginning, before seas met their boundaries or land surfaced from depths, a Demiurge Figure in Greek conceit, a Creator-Medium for the Hebrews—One through whom all things were made (Jh 1:3; Col 1:15-17). It is not far afield to suggest that Jesus, for Gospeler John, embodies not just full humanity, but full ecology and hydrology. Full galaxy! The “man” is more than meets the eye! (And in Hebrew ken, as channeling a Wisdom Crone, may even be doing drag). Here lies a hologram of the entirety. The universe incarnate in the prophet! But just as certainly, God incarnate in the universe! And in each drop and feather thereof! The clue was, “the waters knew.” Of course! Because they are part of the Logos-Glue that holds the whole together! They are God incarnate as fluid. As Ocean and River and Current. Like the Dove, as Luke states, incarnated Spirit (Lk 3:22). And Wind and Air, we would add.
And now, I know, I have gone off the deep end for many. So be it! High time we “jail-break” Jesus to embrace his incognito presence outside Christian captivity to creeds and formulas and fear. Time to see “Jesus” as already present in indigenous witness and practice long before the missionaries arrive—and not bound to conform to either their story or naming. There and ready to teach, if only we would listen. And maybe even to save. But if so, we need face clearly, that much of what the planet needs saving from, is the mainstream Christian conviction of having a monopoly on the truth and all things righteous and a mandate thus “to convert.” There has never been a more damaging—and damnable—conceit yet embraced. But that is another sermon.
We end where we started. Martin’s movement is not the only one to note this morning. Nature has Her own. The biosphere is speaking back. The climate is shouting. The waters are raging. The Wind is circling. The Ice is exiting. Our kin in the form of plants and wingeds and four-legged and finned are returning to the Spirit-Womb out of which they came. They know. And we too may well disappear, as an evolutionary experiment gone awry. But there is this, still tucked just out of sight, just under the surface. Wild nature has untold surprises in her papoose. Taal is erupting, with dire consequence for my wife’s peoples sheltered in recent decades in Her shadows. They are having to flee. But a strange thought also shows in the news feeds just now. If She goes full bore in her explosion and expulsion, it could slow global warming. Rock and ash and magma and a saving cloud of sunlight refracting aerosols (in the form of sulfur dioxide). At least for a second. Nature remedying Her own revenge, arm wrestling Herself into a standoff for a planet on the brink. Even a volcano may incarnate hope. Or even Divinity. Indigenous folks already know that Divinity’s name, even if we don’t. But I wouldn’t bet on any respite She may offer as more than a pause to think. And repent. Change directions. Embrace limitations. Learn the respect our ancestors once knew.
John came baptizing with water. I think it is because the Waters knew. High time we re-learned how to know them! And all their other wild kin on the planet!