First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 7 January 2018
During our last Life-Long-Learning series, Father Michael Oleksa described the Iñupiat blanket toss. I was familiar at least with the practice of doing it, although before a month ago I would have been at a loss as to where its origins were.
When I first heard about it, I thought about it from the perspective of the person being tossed, and if you look it up on most Alaska visitor websites or even presumably official writings about the practice of blanket tosses, they will usually describe it in a similar way. The person being tossed is the one looking.
They will say that it gives the person being tossed the ability to see farther for hunting. This sort of makes sense to my own brain formed on the Plains of Kansas. If you get just a few feet up in the air, I suppose you can see better.
But you can see pretty far anyway. I have stood in places where I could see the horizon formed by the curvature of the earth in every direction. No trees, no hills, no buildings. Just miles of curved earth
Father Oleksa then described the practice in a different way. Instead of helping the person being tossed to see farther, the elevation is instead for the animal, maybe the whale being hunted, to see the person, and therefore to know where to offer itself to be killed.
This way of looking at a blanket toss places a particular weight on doing it. It means that if it is done well, a living creature is also participating, and maybe even offering its own life for the people’s survival.
But I have seen people doing it far from Alaska, far from any hunting grounds or oceans. It is sometimes part of celebrations and festivals. I would imagine that it happens in many places around the world where it was not originally intended to happen.
I think of the small shift from living in the open spaces of Kansas to living in Saint Louis, among the trees and rolling hills of the Northern Ozark Mountain range. You could toss people all day from a blanket in Eastern Missouri, and they will never see anything new, nor be seen by anyone or anything new, except maybe a confused bird or two.
It would be strictly for the person being tossed and the people tossing. It would be a practice, maybe with cultural and religious significants for the people doing it, but within the trees, it will not function as it was first intended.
This then got me thinking about how many of us shift locations over the course of our lives, but still often retain habits and practices that we gather along the way, even liturgies that are from a different place and time. We might not even know why we do them, yet they retain meaning.
But after all, this is exactly what ritual is. Humans reenact behaviors that in themselves have maybe lost the original meaning. I think of baptism this way. Just as Jesus was baptized, so most of us have followed. And even when Jesus did it, it was in ritual response to something else; a reenactment of memory, yet everyone who saw it knew exactly what it meant.
I could tell you all about the ritual cleansing practices of Jewish people living in the wilderness around the time of Jesus, but really, what’s the point? Would that make your baptism any different? I doubt it. As a matter of fact, if I put some effort to it, I could probably discover that blanket tossing evolved from an earlier practice, and it’s meaning might even have been largely borrowed from something else.
I can say that I have seriously wondered why we continue to baptize. It has largely lost its direct cultural meaning. We could stop doing it. And honestly, a different practice could replace it. But replacing it would miss the point, at least for me.
What baptism does, what ritual does, is connect us back to something. In the image of Jesus being baptized, it reminded those present, and us through time, of the moment when creation was formed. Not in the literal sense, just as baptism with water is not literally cleaning your soul. It reminds us of our myth of origin. It reminds us of the story from where we came, of the waters of the deep out of which life arose. It tells us a truth about God as well as being human.
Baptism retells the story of the stirring of the wind of God, and the forming of light in Genesis. Just as the image of the dove tears at the very fabric of creation in Mark’s gospel, unleashing the creative chaos of God, much like the chaotic moment of creation, so does baptism reform us and call us to join in this work of creating and recreating, tearing off the old, breaking through barriers that hold back life in any and every way, and join in the making of something new.
Most of all, the story of Jesus’ baptism connects back the dots of God being revealed. Our own baptism connects back the dots. It puts us in relationship with images and practices of being human, and even with the humans themselves. It even has the power to connect us back to the divine wind that first stirred upon the deep.
It is this connection back that makes the difference. And here is where we return in our day. The baptism of Jesus is part of the promise that God wants to be in relationship with creation, even ripping open the fabric that would appear to maintain order.
Our own baptism is the forming of relationships, both with each other and together with God. It is this practice which centers what we do, and compels us to tear at the fabric of our own lives when it is needed. Baptism is an act of deep faith. It points to the first lines of our story.
And this connection is very important. If we are not connected to something deep, to something grounding our memories, then the tearing of the heavens talked of by Mark will likely appear to be a problem. The reintroduction of creative chaos, without a framework for seeing it for what history it holds, may even cause great anxiety.
On the other hand, if baptism is not grounded in redemptive and caring relationships with other people and with the created world around us, creating something along with God, then the urge create all on our own will likely be nothing more than the breaking of things.
It will be a flailing attempt to make something new without taking into account how it affects all the other parts. This is why individualism and corporate capitalism are often so destructive. If it all boils about me, then in order to make my experience better, I cannot give that much attention to how it affects other people and the world around me.
Creating something new, being baptized even, when it focuses on how it looks from my perspective alone, as some cosmic or divine insurance policy, it will become a problem. Baptism then ends up looking a lot like our troubled cultural individualism. And it cannot really care about anyone or anything else, except maybe as a means to a particular end.
What if baptism was instead a marker that signaled something to other people, maybe to borrow a symbol for just a moment, as if we are being tossed in the air for someone else to see that life has the possibility of deep connection, even deep connection with the source of life itself.
That would be inspiring. That might even tear a whole in the current order of things, causing us and everyone around us to see better possibilities through the living out of this old ritual. It could teach us to measure the world differently, dare I say, even live differently.
Jesus is baptized, creation is bursting forth, the Spirit of God is tearing at the seams, and we stand witness through our own baptism that God is bound with us in relationships of redemption, in covenants of great care.
All of this from a few drops of water, or maybe a river, or even a horse tank, but maybe with the right imagination and dreaming, this story of baptism is the stirring of the very waters of creation itself. And God said, It is good, blessed child.