By Catherine Johnston
My church practiced baptisms last week. As I watched friends accept the waters of new beginnings, I thought of the first baptism in the New Testament: Jesus’ baptism under the warm hand of his cousin John.
John was a wilderness prophet. He cried for a reexamination, a reawakening, a returning to the ways of God. John used a culturally-familiar Jewish ritual to embody this transformation: ceremonially washing in water. John baptized many in his movement, but when Jesus stepped into the river that day, the heavens opened, the Spirit sat on Jesus like a dove, and a voice spoke, “This is my child. I love them. I am pleased with them.”
A transformation took place in this moment, not so much a change in Jesus’ status but a growing recognition of what has always been true: That we are held in the cradle-waters of love.
We are birthed in these waters. We are nourished in these waters. We are led through life’s unceasing change in these waters. Water surrounds us in the atmosphere as vapor and infuses every cell in our bodies, just as divine love both surrounds and inhabits, interwoven in the threads of our existence.
John knew this. He reminded his followers to live this love in a time of political turbidity. But John, still waist deep in his own calling, saw on the sparkling horizon how Jesus’ light would eclipse his own. He said, “Listen, I baptize you with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Spirit and with fire.”
Water, fire, and spirit. Three elements. And a fourth element, assumed in the “I” and the “you” and the “Jesus”: the material bodies that participate in these baptisms. Water and fire seem like opposite pairs in a dual relationship, as do spirit and body. Baptism thins the veil, bridges the gap, merges the separateness of body and spirit. It reconnects us to the reality that everything is interconnected, everything originates from the same source.
Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when the earth’s axis tilts closest to the sun. This doesn’t mean much where I live. We’re so close to the equator, we barely notice solstices, unless you track the sun on your Apple watch, like me. But in other climates, the sun is a welcomed gift. My friend is backpacking in Alaska right now, and I can only imagine how good the warm sun feels in that tundra. (Except at night, when he sleeps under the midnight sun—I hope he packed a good eye mask.)
Ancient Celtic cultures welcomed the sun, too. They believed it was healing. Summer solstice celebrated the goddess of the sun, who provided and protected life. When Christianity colonized Ireland in the 5th century CE, the church linked this pagan festival to the birth of St. John the Baptist and created St. John’s Day. Kerri ní Dochartaigh notes this in her book, Thin Places.
On St. John’s Eve, some believe the veil between worlds is lifted. This sacred night becomes an in-between place, a thin place. Just as the heavens opened during John’s baptism of Jesus, the material and spiritual worlds co-mingle.
Within Christian theology, John made an opening for Jesus to enter, to reveal the co-mingling of divine and material. John was the opener. Jesus, the headliner. I always wonder what that felt like for John. Here he was doing the work of justice and love and along comes his younger cousin, doing it better and getting a voice from heaven, of all things.
In John 3, Jesus and John baptize followers in adjacent bodies of water, but Jesus attracts a bigger crowd. Someone says to John “Hey, everyone’s leaving you for Jesus!” If they were trying to stoke a rivalry, it didn’t work. Jealousy and competition were not in John’s emotional inventory that day. John replies with this wisdom: “He must increase. I must decrease.”
John knew. A decrease is also an increase. A movement from is also a movement toward. John knew. Every transformation begins with a letting go.
The word transform means to form across, a form that changes, or a form that moves across.
We see transformation in the sun as it moves across the sky and in the waters of baptism moving across our bodies. Maybe John was moving through his own transformation, too.
I love ancient calendar celebrations like the summer solstice. They root me in the earth. They remind me that to be alive is to change. We arrive at the longest day of the year only to move immediately toward what’s next.
This movement is transformation. This movement across and through and toward and from is what makes us alive.
Life moves us across. Across boundary into boundlessness and back to boundary again.
Life moves us through. Through contraction and expansion and through contraction again.
Life move us toward. Toward change, love, awareness, compassion, openness, oneness.
Life moves us from. From increasing light to diminishing light and to increasing light again.
Every movement belongs. Boundary and boundlessness, contraction and expansion, light and dark. All are necessary. All are wise teachers. All are animating forces in cycles of change.
When we meet cycles of change with acceptance rather than resistance, we move in the direction of love.
John understood that loss can be a movement toward love. He understood the paradox that watermarks the gospels: a decrease is an increase, a loss is a gain, a death is a life. Even dual opposites are interconnected wholes.
This summer solstice, I’m looking for this acceptance. In the sticky heat and sticky children, in buzzing mosquitos and dripping popsicles, in early sunrises and blazing sunsets and the long stretch of burning sun in between.
This summer solstice, I’m listening to this loud, silent sun, cradling us in orbit, feeding our plants with metabolic energy, writing a love note every day in a burning arc across the sky.
We are birthed in this light. We are nourished by this light. We are led through life’s unceasing change by this light. It surrounds us in the gravitational pull of the sun and infuses every cell in our bodies in the metabolic energy that originated from the sun. A fiery light interwoven into the threads of our existence, just like divine love.
At the end of this Summer Solstice, the days will begin to diminish, darkening little by little until December. John was in a season of diminishing, too. Remember his wisdom:
When something decreases,
it only makes space
for something new to increase.
In every change, you are held in the cradle-light of love.
Summer Solstice Prayer
i promise if you
sit still enough
breath deep enough
listen long enough, your
shoulders will eventually stop
crawling up to your
ears and you’ll
hear again your heartbeat and you’ll
see the sun warming your brow for what it
is: a love note