The sky didn’t just open, as if the clouds parted and the sun started shining through
. It was torn apart. And the Spirit of God descended. Anybody who knew anything about the Roman and Greek gods would have been terrified at this moment. After all, the best place for the gods was up there in heaven, away from us. But if now they were coming down, something awful was about to happen, as it almost always did. But what came out of that torn sky was not a vengeful, sulking, vindictive god of the Romans or the Greeks, but the Holy Spirit, coming down upon the Son, announced by the Father: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.
Very different from the expectations of the pagan world in the centuries leading up to and at the time of Jesus. We have only to look at the first words of the greatest epic poems of both cultures to know their expectations of the gods. For the Greeks, Homer’s Iliad begins with the exhortation: Mēnin aeide, thea, Pēlēiadeō Achilēos, “The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’s son Achilles.” It begins with wrath, a wrath described by Anglican Biblical Scholar, N.T. Wright: “Designating a wrath both human, as here, and divine: sulky wrath, vengeful wrath, a wrath sometimes appeased by sacrifice and sometimes merely overtaken, as in the case of Achilles, by a greater wrath over a different matter. Lingering jealousy, ancient spite, offense easily taken but less easily averted: this is the constant theme of the world’s first great poem.”
Then, we hear in Rome’s great proclamation of the gods, Virgil’s Aeneid: Arma virumque cano, “I sing of arms and the man.” We don’t hear first of the wrath of the Greek gods and warriors, but of the weapons used to try to appease that wrath. This was the pagan Gospel. This was the announcement of the coming of their gods.
So Wright concludes:
“But it is no accident that the greatest and best-known poems of pagan antiquity begin with the words “wrath” and “arms.” That was the world everyone knew, even if they reacted against it: war and violence, and the human and divine rage that smoldered or flamed beneath them. Wrath and arms! With the gods themselves sharing in the wrath and urging on the violence, what escape could there be?… If you wanted “salvation,” it meant being rescued from that kind of thing. All this was still true several centuries later when people went out from the Jewish into the pagan world with the news of a different lord, a different empire, a different salvation—and perhaps also a different wrath.”
So when the sky tears open, Mark uses the word σχιζομένους/schizomenous, which is where we get our word for schism, something being torn apart; or even the word schizophrenia, (schizo—torn, -phrenia—mind). And what’s most incredible about this word is that the only other time that Mark uses it, it is at the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross, when the Temple veil is torn in two from top to bottom, something only God Himself could do. This Temple veil, hiding and protecting the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in all of creation, where God Himself promised to dwell among His people, was no longer needed. It was no longer needed to protect humanity from God’s holiness. And it was no longer needed to protect God from our sinfulness. The sky was torn and God came down and spoke of the love of the Most Holy Trinity at Jesus’ Baptism. Then the Veil was torn and God entered into death to defeat it from the inside. There would no longer be anything separating us from God or God from us, unless we once again set up the veil and we hide from God.
We are invited into the water with Jesus in our own Baptism. We are invited to go beyond the Veil. We are invited to share in Jesus’ death on the Cross by giving ourselves completely to God and to one another. We are adopted as God’s sons and daughters. And there is a beauty in throwing ourselves into the water and in a certain sense losing control. We cannot control God, we cannot change His mind. The beauty of prayer is to let ourselves be transformed by the Lord, to be His children. To give the Lord permission, dare we say, to pour out a new wrath upon our sins, for the sake of us, His children.
But perhaps we are afraid to give ourselves completely over to God because we are afraid He will act like the false gods—taking away everything we love, bringing suffering for suffering’s sake. Rather, He tears into creation to make us His sons and daughters.
The words are spoken to us. The words change us and make us new.