Ever written “Wash Me” with a finger on the window or body of an especially grimy car? For many people, “Wash Me” sums up the nature of the Christian sacrament of Baptism, and there’s no denying that purification is essential to the act. Yet there’s so much more to both the practice and the ideas behind it.

To understand Baptism’s significance better, we need to go back to Christianity’s sacred sources. This means recalling stories that were first shared more than 2,000 years ago. It’s hard to get into the minds and cultures of ancient peoples, but we’re going to try our best.

A quick word about method: Some readers will know these stories well and some may never have heard them at all. Sophisticated Bible readers who practice the historical-critical method of reading scripture may find these essays lacking in interpretive substance. They also may seem a bit too irreverent and anti-intellectual. I’ve chosen to proceed as though my readers have little or no scriptural knowledge because recent biblical literacy studies have shown that a majority of Americans have almost no experience reading the Bible. That goes for church members as well as those without religious affiliation. What’s more, the people in these stories are our spiritual ancestors; do we talk about Granny and Gramps in formal, touch-me-not ways? I don’t think so.

So consider this approach an affectionate, affective way to introduce a serious topic. Let’s dive in (expect more bad puns as things progress. Sorry about that).

For Christians, the earliest concept of Baptism and its application come from a man we’ve named John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer. He’s the guy who gave Baptism its good name in the New Testament (Mark 1:4,5). John himself was probably kind of scary-looking, as biblical prophets often are. The Bible reports that he dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey (something that people in rural African areas still do).

Some versions of the New Testament say John was “like a Nazarite,” a designation meaning “set apart” or “consecrated.” These people drank no wine, often didn’t cut their hair and followed ascetic practices. (The famed strongman, Samson, was a Nazarite until Delilah became his hairdresser in Judges 16:4-19). These days I imagine John like a combination of two British actors, Gerard Butler in “300” (for the ultra-fit body) and Albert Finney in “The Dresser” (for the deep, booming voice).

Luke 1:5-24 tells John’s story. He was the late-in-life son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were of the clan of Levites, hereditary priests of Israel. Like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, Zack and Lizzie had no children, a state that was considered disastrous among Jews because they relied on a high birth rate to perpetuate their covenant with God. Zack had a good gig as one of the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem. Lizzie was a homemaker (NOT a “housewife.” There’s no such thing as a “housewife.” Women aren’t married to houses, they’re married to spouses, and sometimes their occupation is homemaker).

One day, it was Zack’s turn to act as high priest, burning incense in the most sacred part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. This time, however, Zack got the shock of his life: Gabriel, God’s top messenger, showed up to tell Zack that he and Lizzie would soon have a son. What’s more, their son wasn’t just any baby, but the Forerunner of the Son of God. In other words, John was the guy to announce the coming of Jesus.

Zack was skeptical, not surprisingly, which rankled the great angel. (Would YOU have the guts to contradict a messenger of God? Not me, but I guess Zack figured it was a priestly right). Angelically ticked off that Zack would question the message of God’s intentions (although people did it all the time back then, and still do), Gabriel struck Zack mute until his son was born. Only when he responded to the question of what to name the infant by writing “he is to be called John,” was Zechariah able to speak again (Luke 1:63).

One other curious thing happened before John was born. Around the time of Lizzie’s sixth month of pregnancy, her young cousin, Mary of Nazareth, came for a visit (Luke 1:39-45). As soon as Lizzie heard her cousin’s greeting, the baby in her womb “leaped for joy.” In that instant, Elizabeth knew that Mary was also pregnant, carrying Jesus, before Mary said anything. Lizzie then blessed Mary, exclaiming, “why has the mother of my Lord come to me?” I imagine this was a pretty awesome encounter between the two women, and I wish we had more details about it.

Thus John comes to adulthood with a family history of sacred duty and mystical encounters, such as his father’s prophecy in Luke 1:67-79 (look it up; it’s really inspiring). John’s family heritage combined with lifelong instruction in the Jewish faith, including the Jewish concepts and practices of purification. This is significant, because purity was one of the things that set Jews apart from the followers of pagan religions around them.

For example, Jewish dietary laws of kashrut, known today as “keeping kosher,” were strict about which foods observant Jews could eat. Ancient rabbinic texts dealing with Jewish mysticism cautioned those who sought divine encounters to purify themselves for long stretches of time by practices such as avoiding onions and garlic, so that they didn’t smell like humans when they entered into heavenly realms. Unlike their neighbors, Jews washed their hands before every meal. Jewish women were required to purify themselves after their menstrual periods in baths known as mikvahs (that’s why Bathsheba was getting naked on her patio when King David spied on her from his palace).

So John was surrounded by both tradition and contemporary practice of using water for spiritual purification. Fortified with the foreknowledge of Jesus’ coming, it wasn’t surprising that the desert prophet developed a ministry of washing people in water for the repentance of the sins. John was convinced that the Son of God was on his way; he just didn’t know where or when he would appear. As the descendent of a long line of Jewish priests, John was going to make sure that as many of his people as possible were spiritually fit to receive their new messiah.

So far, so good. John’s primary ministry represents the “repent” part of Baptism. To repent literally means “to turn around” or “turn away” from going in a wrong direction. It’s the spiritual equivalent of “wash me.” Today we get that idea, because there’s hardly a person today who passes up an opportunity get clean. Being physically clean is such a good feeling. Getting clean in mind and soul is also a good feeling, but it’s a lot harder, because we often won’t let go of those attitudes and actions that muddied us up in the first place.

However, getting cleaned of past sins was only part of John the Baptist’s task, and it’s only part of the meaning of Baptism. The next part, convincing people to change their behaviors, was a lot harder and ultimately more dangerous, as we’ll see in the next post.

Find scriptural passages online at Oremus Bible Browser.

Gerard Butler photo courtesy of Warner Brothers. Albert Finney photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.