In the opening of Mark’s Gospel we find a story that is common to the first three Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of John the Baptizer.
John is, as his title describes him to be, baptizing in the wilderness. Many are coming out to John to receive this baptism, and, as we know very well, Jesus also comes out to be baptized by John.
While all three of the Synoptic Gospels speak of Jesus coming out to be baptized, and all three tell of a voice coming from heaven, there is a stark difference in the ways that Matthew and Luke tell about the opening of the heaven, and the way Mark narrates this cosmological phenomenon.
While both Matthew and Luke tell us that the heavens opened, Mark uses a word that is more vivid and expressive of what he believes about the coming of Jesus.
Mark tells us that when Jesus comes forth from the baptismal waters, the heavens are torn apart.
The verb that Mark uses communicates that the heavens were not simply opened, only to close again. No, the heavens are ripped apart, which implies that they can never be closed again.
What does he mean by such a dramatic picture of what happens at the baptism of Jesus? What is Mark trying to tell us about the coming of Jesus through his colorful narration of what happens to the heavens when Jesus comes out of the baptismal waters?
To begin to answer these questions, we need to have an understanding of the way the ancients saw the world.
The ancients had a different topographical perspective of the world than we do. They saw the universe as existing in two realms. Humans and other created things existed in the world of the physical earth.
However, beyond the realm of earth, in the firmament, or what we call the heavens, God lived and reigned.
God, being holy other, could not exist among sinful humans, and thus God remained separate and distinct from the rest of creation. And, it would have been unheard of for God to cross the boundary.
Indeed, such ideas about the boundaries that separated the holy from the profane characterized much of Judaism at the time of Jesus.
The Pharisees, as we see them in the Gospel narratives, were enforcers of the law to the extent that they enforced strict interpretations of the law.
This is why Jesus raises their ire when he does things like healing on the Sabbath or eating with tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus’ actions passed over and even tore down the boundaries between that which the Pharisees saw as holy and pure and that which they viewed as profane and unclean.
We can also see boundaries in the temple. The temple was set up with physical boundaries that were intended to keep the temple sacred, but in reality those boundaries separated and left out many folks from the temple and its religious significance.
This is the reason that Jesus storms the temple, calling it a den of thieves, when its purpose is to be a house of prayer for all people.
In fact, in Mark’s narration of Jesus’ death, the veil, that grand boundary marker that hung in the temple to separate the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple, a place that no one but the high priest could enter and only once a year, was torn apart when Jesus takes his last breath.
The word used to narrate this tearing of the veil is the same word used to describe the tearing open of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus.
The veil is ripped from top to bottom, never to be repaired again. The tearing of the veil opens the way for all to enter into the holy presence of God.
Mark’s purpose in all of this is to say to his readers, including those of us who still long for God to be near, is that God cannot be found in heaven, hidden behind the clouds, and God certainly cannot be found in a temple, hidden behind a veil.
In fact, God cannot be contained in any bordered area of existence. God will not be closed in. God has crossed over. God is now on the loose.
Where is God on the loose in our world? In a world that seems torn apart by the chaos of evil, where is God on the loose?
Has God returned to the safety of heaven, where God can choose to ignore the chaos that evil causes in our world?
As Christians, we hold to the belief that in the coming of Jesus, God has come to our world. Jesus is called Emmanuel, “God with us.”
And the same spirit that descended from the tear in heaven onto Jesus has been given to us.
God is not in heaven. God is here. God is in you, and God is in me.
God is on the loose in the faithful and radical living of the followers of Jesus, who refrain from controlling God, and who are open to God’s continual and unexpected movement in our world.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.