While on retreat one year, the priest-leader meandered his way into a side-musing on John the Baptist, the prophet and priest who — we may presume — had left behind the Temple in order to wander the desert bereft of his robes of office, or any of the privileges that might have then been enjoyed by the priestly class.
“Even though John clearly had no problems with working outside the system,” the priest said, “he still understood the priorities and what truly mattered. So when Jesus presented himself for baptism, John objected, saying, ‘It is you who should be baptizing me.’ And at that point, Jesus just kind of shrugged, and said, ‘Ah, it’s in the liturgy, so you might as well do it.’”
We retreatants all laughed, and Father found his way back to his original topic. I can’t actually tell you what his original topic was, in truth, because while I do recall his presentations being “good” overall, it is only that joke which I remember all these years later. It has stayed with me, I think, because I found it strange enough to ponder at some length. Would Jesus just do something because it was customary — make a bored and acquiescent nod to “the way it’s always been done”? He was an observant Jew, of course, but He was also one capable of breaking and eating grains of wheat on the Sabbath; of talking to Samaritan women; of eating with sinners and tax collectors and driving money-changers from the Temple — all acts which flew in the face of what was customary.
When the retreat broke for the night I pulled out the old Jerusalem Bible I was using to look up precisely what Jesus had said. While all four Gospels mention the baptism, only Matthew provides dialogue, and in Chapter 3 I read Jesus’ words: “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands” (v. 15).
In the New American Bible, the translation is similar, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
It seemed to me that the priest’s seemingly flippant joke, that Christ had made a resigned nod to custom, was not entirely wrong. The NAB translation implied (and the Jerusalem pretty much spelled out) that Jesus considered custom as both worthy of observation and subject to revision.
Lately, I again have been revisiting that dialogue between John and Jesus. We often forget that through his lineage John was a priest. It is not unreasonable to imagine that at some point he, like his father, Zechariah, served within the Temple.
But John had also, from the womb of Elizabeth, been given a gift of prophecy; it permitted him to leap in utero in recognition of the Christ being carried by Mary of Nazareth. At some point the priest was called out to the desert, all custom burned away from him in preparation for his role as the voice meant to cry out “prepare a way for the Lord” (Mt 3:3).
He was born to announce change and had to — at the appropriate time — be changed himself in order to prepare for that important role. Jesus, of course, was born to be that change, and He, too — when the time was right — had to abandon one role, as a local rabbi and carpenter, to lay the ministerial groundwork for what was to come.
In both cases, it must have seemed unimaginable to those around them: To give up serving in the Temple in order to live in the wild and shout at the priests while prophesying? His cousin leaves a community and wanders about with fishermen and tax collectors? Jesus observed tradition — He healed lepers and told them to take the ritual baths and show themselves to the priests — yet He also broke laws under the noses of the high priests and healed the servants of Romans. Unsettling stuff, indeed, but all meant, in the fullness of time, to bring about God’s great, unknowable plans. Since Christ’s resurrection, the Church He established has been as startling as that conversation at the Jordan, in its saints and teachings, and in every iteration of Peter, too.