If we had eyes to see what really happens in baptisms, we’d treat them as R-rated acts of violence. Not only is a person about to be killed. Not only are we about to witness a drowning. Horrific monsters writhe in the water. Dragons of the sea lurk therein. And a bloody battle, with crushed heads and butchered bodies is about to go down. To treat baptism as cute or sentimental or symbolic is a lie. Abandon all such foolish notions. Every baptism is war.
It doesn’t matter if your church uses a gallon of water or a lake. At the bottom is an unseen drain, a trapdoor, which opens to suck down the person into a black sea teeming with evil, chaotic monsters, fanged and fiery and fierce.
When we baptize, we plunge a human being into the liquid front lines of a war.
When we baptize, we plunge a human being into the liquid front lines of a war. A world of evil is arrayed against them. They are captive to the chaos, hearts chained to an inherited death. This child, or this adult, is entering an ocean known by many names: the primordial waters, the Red Sea, the Jordan. And they are about to endure the most intense conflict of their lives.
To grasp this, we need to enter the Old Testament mind, ancient pagan mythology, and the shared waters of creation, the exodus, and baptism.
Pagan Mythology and Biblical Reality
The prophets and psalms pull us into a submarine. They take us down, down, down, far beneath the surface of the waters, to witness the war. They use the images, well-known in their culture, of mythology. In Canaanite stories of creation, Yamm personifies the chaotic sea that the god Baal conquers. In the Bible, God divides the sea [Hebrew: yam] with his strength (Ps. 74:13). Again, in mythology, Baal slays the sea dragon known as Leviathan. But the psalmist sings that Yahweh crushed “the heads of Leviathan” (74:14). He also broke “the heads of the sea monsters in the waters” (74:13).
God, in fashioning the world, brings order out of the formless and void waters that he initially created. For creation to be as God intends it, war must happen. So, he’s killing the monsters. Slaying the water dragons. Crushing heads.
Creation’s waters are evil’s liquid grave.
But there’s even more. The crossing of the Red Sea is like Creation #2. Isaiah, again echoing mythologies well known in the culture, says to the Lord, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way, for the redeemed to pass over” (51:9-10). At the Red Sea, God cut Rahab in pieces. He pierced the dragon. Not only the Egyptians drowned there; their corpses floated in a sea of carnage, reddened by the blood of dragons, shed by the razor-sharp sword of the Lord of hosts.
Creation and the Red Sea; dragons and sea monsters; blood and gore and war. What does all this have to do with baptism? Everything.
War in the Water
The entire biblical story of water and war comes to a head when Jesus steps into the Jordan to be baptized by John. As the crossing of the Red Sea was a replay of creation, so when Israel crossed the Jordan, it was a replay of the Red Sea. The narrative river flows from creation to the Red Sea to the Jordan. This river, though physically shallow, is unfathomably deep. When Jesus steps into the Jordan, he enters the vast black sea, churning with monsters, where Leviathan, Rahab, and the dragon lurk.
There stands John, the embodiment of the Old Testament, the last and greatest prophet, who pours the water of war upon head of Yahweh incarnate. Creation is replayed. The Red Sea happens once more. The Creator yet again, though this time as a man, crushes the heads of Leviathan and smashes the skulls of the sea monsters in the waters. And as he did at the Red Sea, the God of war cuts Rahab in pieces and pierces the dragon.
In one swift movement, as God stands in the Jordan, dripping wet, he unsheathes and swings his mighty celestial sword to behead evil, smash monsters, execute dragons, and thus wring order out of chaos. In response, the heavens open, the Father bears witness that this is his Son, and the Spirit alights upon the one who brings peace by ending war.
When people are baptized, time is transcended. They go back to the Jordan and the Jordan comes forward to them. In a single splash, or a single dunk, they enter the war. All rolled into one liquid moment is creation, the Red Sea, the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan, his life, his death, his resurrection—all in one moment it happens. In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, they in Christ and Christ in them sever the dragon’s head, they’re rescued from chaos, and recreated as co-victors with Jesus.
We the baptized emerge as the sons of God, the daughters of God, surrounded by cherubim, wearing the crown of victory, and dragging behind us the dead and waterlogged bodies of defeated dragons.
It’s beyond amazing what happens in baptism. This is a violent, life-altering altercation between chaos and order, good and evil, the Creator and all the forces of darkness in the watery deeps. We the baptized emerge as the sons of God, the daughters of God, surrounded by cherubim, wearing the crown of victory, and dragging behind us the dead and waterlogged bodies of defeated dragons.
That’s what happens in baptism.
***Much of what I’ve described here is depicted in the icon of the baptism of Jesus, where sea monsters are seen in the waters of the Jordan. For an excellent treatment of the icon and mythology, see “Theophany and River Gods” by Father Stephen De Young.