Sunday, February 7, 2021

I Peter 3.18-22: A Baptism Story

 A baptism story. Noah as a baptism story. The author of I Peter uses it as such to highlight the eight members of Noah's family who "were saved through water." (I Peter 3:20) This text is read on the first Sunday of Lent in Year B. In the early church, catechuments would have been preparing for their Easter baptism. So, a baptism story. Eight people were saved. 

We are used to seeing images of Noah's ark in baby nurseries, children's Sunday School classes, children's book illustrations. Cute giraffes stick their heads out of open windows. Elephants' trunks are visible. Birds of many kinds roost on the roofline of the ark. We've turned this story into a children's story because of animals and rainbows. 

Michelangelo had a different vision of the story. In the story as seen on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Ark is in the background. The focus of the story is the people in the foreground. 

Michelangelo Buonarotti. The Flood. 1509. Vatican: Sistine Chapel. 

People at the lower left are moving to higher ground, trying to escape the rising waters. They are carrying all manner of things. Some are carrying the things of this world: pots and pans, casks, bundles of clothing. In the middle ground at right another group of people are huddled on an outcropping of rock under a fabric shelter being blown by the rising wind. In the center of the composition a small boat begins to capsize.

The ark moves off into the distance, even as additional people stand on the raft base of the ark, imploring Noah to let them in. Noah, dressed in red, reaches a hand out of the right side of the ark, pointing to heaven. 

Where are the animals? Where is the rainbow? They aren't here. 

Michelangelo has made this story about human suffering. How does that fit with the idea of I Peter 3 as a baptism text? How do we acknowledge the saving nature of baptism and the continuing reality of human suffering? Do we baptize out of fear of divine judgement? The story is easier when we focus on the pandas and moose and zebras. 

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