As a linguist, I revel in the language of the New Testament, and try to work out ways to bridge the gap between the Greek I’ve spent a lifetime learning to understand, and the imperfect mechanism of expressing it in ways an English speaker might appreciate. Luke’s baptism narrative (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22) brings my excitement about the New Testament’s language right to the fore. What makes Luke’s account special, and what can we learn from pausing over it? I think about the Catholic practice of lectio divina, a process of prayerful reading and re-reading. The cliché of peeling layers of an onion seems true here. These are a few of the layers I’ve explored.
There are a lot of people present in this narrative, and I think it helps to think of ourselves as a film director, managing a busy set. How does translating words into image sequences and actions help us to reflect on the Gospel story?
We start off told that everyone is wondering in their hearts whether John is the Messiah. First of all, the grammar there is highly structured, using features very typical of Luke; the content is shared with Matthew, but the language is special. It’s a shared story, made unique in its expression. Second, that “all” is echoed in verse 21, when everyone is baptised. Who is everyone? How big a scene of witness is this? Luke makes it grand and inclusive, but if John’s going to get through everyone, there can’t have been that many. It’s both public, and intimate.
What about the details? John says he is not worthy to untie the strap of Jesus’ shoes. It’s a tiny thing, but there’s only one strap. If our film director has John imagining untying Jesus’ shoes to wash His feet, then we are reading that as each shoe having one strap, so only one need be mentioned. If, however, it’s the metaphorical reading “I’m demonstrating my status as servant next to Jesus”, then we can imagine just one shoe being symbolically untied. The text gives room for a practical and physical reading, as well as a more symbolic and spiritual one. It feels to me like an important combination of pragmatism and prayer.
Such a physical engagement with the text feels like it’s encouraged by the description of the Holy Spirit as coming “bodily” upon him. This is unique to Luke’s reading, and makes the scene feel that much more embodied. Jesus is made flesh, and so here is the Holy Spirit. But what has the Holy Spirit come down as? We all say “dove”, but the word in Greek “peristera”, could also be translated as “pigeon”. Some languages have two words (like English), but many, like Polish, Dutch, or German, have only one. Imagining Jesus being dive-bombed by a pigeon in Trafalgar Square is very different to the gentle white dove so often depicted. It’s a reminder of how culturally contingent translation is, and how much we need to work on communication in order to bear witness to our faith in a multicultural society.
Reading this passage, therefore, is a gentle prod to make space for multiple layers of understanding, motivating us to play out our own baptisms in multiple ways, in dialogue with each other, so that we can all continue to learn and grow. This to me is a key part of Prison Fellowship’s ministry, as a Letter Link volunteer in particular, living out the fruits of my faith in my correspondence. I might not write about Greek in my letters, but I can write with both mind and heart open to whatever it receives.
Cressida Ryan is a Letter Link volunteer, Prayer Line coordinator and a member of PF Bicester.
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