Under the Cross: There's No Shame in Baptism
By Harrison Goodman
So I guess this is where I make you feel guilty so I can talk about Jesus. At least you were expecting it. We talk a lot about guilt. Way more than we ever talk about shame.
It makes sense, though. Guilt is louder. Shame burrows deep down inside. Guilt won't shut up. Guilt has to deal with fault. It will argue all day about why it's not my fault. Guilt is a contest. I'll talk long enough until I convince myself you have more of it than I do.
Shame. That goes deeper. Shame honestly doesn't care whose fault it is. Shame is when you actually start to believe your own dumb arguments about why it's not your fault, but you still feel like garbage. Shame cuts so deep that even when it actually isn't your fault it still doesn't matter.
Shame is the secret weight around victims' necks. Abuse. Assault. Rape. You can find people who wear these burdens like scarlet letters. We tell them all the same thing: "It's not your fault." They know that, objectively. Still, shame is so heavy they need support groups just to try and carry it together.
Shame hides so deep that there doesn't seem to be a way to get rid of it so it won't come boiling up every time you see something that reminds you of the thing you don't even want to name. Call it "the incident." Don't call it anything at all. Still, it only seems to take a face. A car. A smell. It rips open old wounds that won't heal right. That's because talking about whose fault it is doesn't help with shame. It's not that simple.
Mary's Encounter with Shame
So here's Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos (God-bearer), blessed among women. Except more people are concerned with what happened in her bedroom than any other human being alive. Today's atheists didn't invent the jokes about her lying to Joseph. She heard them all.
You can tell me she never spared a thought for any of them. She just smiled serenely like every painting we've ever seen. You can claim that she had perfect self-esteem while people called her every disgusting and degrading word for a woman they could think of. That reminding herself this wasn't her fault made those words hurt less. That she never lost sleep over it. That even though she didn't want this or ask for it, an angel said it was hers to bear so she never once wavered or sinned. But I doubt it.
Maybe it's because the Scriptures say all have sinned. Maybe it's just that I know I don't deal so well with shame myself. I just can't help but wonder if Mary didn't feel the same way. I'll never know though. The Bible doesn't say she felt ashamed. Then again, neither do we admit it when we feel it. Shame traps things down. That's what's so demonic about it.
Shame traps the Gospel in this room. Shame is the wall the devil builds between Gospel promises spoken to you in church and the rest of your life. You can hear God-given, potent words: "In the stead and by the command of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Say Amen. Fine. I'm forgiven. But still you think about it all day. Still, you won't sleep tonight. Still, you'll dwell on it years later. Bottle it up. Shove it deep down. Carry it.
So while we can't stop talking about guilt, we'll do almost anything to avoid talking about shame. We are so content with hiding it that to have it exposed again is a fate worse than death. I actually mean it. There are some things we would rather die over than have ripped open for the world to see. It's a fate worse than death. Shame is the hell we drag around inside us on earth. Who do you really think deals in shame? I don't think the point of this religion is to leave you feeling dirty about your body and worse about your soul.
I think God knew everything that Mary would bear and sacrifice. Every hurt she'd feel. Every shame she'd carry. And I think He wanted something else for her. It's found in the promise He made to her through the prophet Isaiah, 700 years before she was born. "Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy" (Isaiah 61:7).
I think this promise is so potent that the Holy Spirit who called Mary to faith wrote a hymn so full of peace she sang it even as everything fell apart around her. We call it the Magnificat: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name."
The hymn isn't about how great Mary is. It's not that Mary considered herself so humble or even that she considered God so gracious. It's that God regarded her. In favor. In mercy. In love.
Which honestly sounds terrible. When it comes to shame, that's our worst fear. I don't want anyone to see it. I'd rather talk about looking humble. I'd rather talk about why it's not my fault. I still feel like trash, but I can at least pretend that nobody sees it. Except God does. He rips it open for all to see. He hangs it on a cross for you. Jesus bore it there for you. He died for you. Not just for your sin, which He calls forgiven, but for your shame, too, which He calls cleansed. He bore all of it for Mary, and for you.
God's Ultimate Answer to Shame
He made a promise to you, too. "Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion." This is His promise, His everlasting covenant. He will erase your shame and give honor and justice.
Just don't start from your shame and work backward to God. You'll never be clean enough to approach Him. Start from the cross. He made Himself low enough to approach you. To save you. To bear you. Even your shame. "I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation."
This is who you are now. Baptized. You are what He has made you to be. Holy. Worthy of love. If you are what God says you are: holy and precious, work forward from there. God says His holy ones deserve a double portion because they were bought with such a price. Not gold or silver, but the blood of God which washes away that which you'd rather bury. You don't need to carry it around anymore. Leave it at the cross where it hangs naked. It's finished. You wear white robes now.
You are baptized. Whatever anyone would say, God speaks louder. So even now, Mary is truly blessed among women, and alive in Christ. Even now, you are not the sum of what you hide, but the same thing that blesses her: Jesus. When old Adam can't sleep because of shame, drown him daily in those waters so that the new man may rise and live before God righteousness and purity forever. Find peace in these waters that daily make you clean. Holy. Worthy of love. Amen.
This article was originally published in the winter 2018 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
Rev. Harrison Goodman is the associate pastor at Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas.
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