Painted by Michele Tosini (called Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, 1503–1577) in 1565 at the height of his career in Florence, this work combines the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21) with the three temptations of Christ (Luke 4:1–9). It should be read in a counterclockwise direction. The temptation to turn stones into bread, on the right, shows a hunched-over devil in discussion with an attentive Christ. “Command these stones be made bread,” the tempter says to Christ. In the second temptation, directly above the baptism, the devil leads Christ up the mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. Christ raises his right hand as if prepared to respond, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Tosini draws a contrast between Christ’s humility in the center of the painting toward John and his defiance of the devil. Christ and the devil stand on top of the dome of the Jerusalem Temple in the third temptation. The devil is suggesting that Christ throw himself down and be protected by the angels. Christ responds by raising his right hand in refusal.
Lent began as a time of preparation for the covenant of baptism. The Year B Lenten readings very much ring out this theme of covenant, starting this Sunday with the covenant with Noah and its interpretation in 1 Peter as the covenant of baptism. The coming weeks feature the covenants with Abraham and with Moses and finally the covenant written upon our hearts in Jeremiah 31. Developing the theme of covenant might be an edifying way to let these Lenten scripture readings prepare congregations for Holy Week—especially the high drama of the Easter Vigil, centered on the waters of baptism.
There’s a reason that flood stories are so universal: we fear wiping ourselves out through our own violence. We need to learn to read the flood story through the eyes of the God revealed in the rainbow promise.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism is spare. But there is this: Jesus is baptized in a river, in the wilderness. The baptisms where I preside have been relatively tame. Still, the danger of the river is present.