Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled 'unable to conceive' is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God." Then Mary said, "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be with me just as you have said." Then the angel left her. Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. She entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:36-41, CEB translation)
My mom had a lot of brothers and sisters. A lot a lot. Like, more than 20. That means I have some cousins. A lot a lot. I used to say it was dangerous for me to date in Oklahoma, because I could be first cousins with someone and not even know it. I kid you not, I was sharing in my fourth grade class that my grandma had died, and another girl had shared that her great aunt had died, and it turned out we were talking about the same woman. I had a cousin in my class and we didn’t find out we were related until February. Now we are friends on Facebook (hi, Daphne).
I was close to several of my cousins on my mom’s side. But there were two cousins on my dad’s side that I only saw once every couple of years. Laurie was a few years older than me, and I looked up to her as a model for success. Now I just love visiting with her and being a friend to her. And because I know her so well, I know that what I am about to say is going to irritate her to no end. Her brother LD and I, who were much closer in age (just months apart), have one of those relationships that no one can understand. Literally. When he and I get to really talking, it is almost as if we are speaking some other language. His sister and my brother would just roll their eyes, or tell us to shut up because we were keeping them from getting to sleep.
I think about that relationship when I think about Jesus and John the Baptist. I guess technically we do not know that they were cousins. The Greek word describing Elizabeth’s relationship to Mary, syngenis, seems to just mean kinswoman. Mary and Elizabeth were related some way to one another. That being said, cousin does not seem to be an outrageous assumption (which the King James Version actually made in its translation), because if they were sisters, one would think the author of Luke would have said “her sister” instead of “her kinswoman.” But even if they were sisters, then that would still make Jesus and John cousins. Cousins can have all sorts of degrees – first, second, third, etc. – so it seems likely that these 2 boys who were birthed by different mothers who were related somehow would most likely be cousins of some sort.
Let’s think about what it means to be cousins. Cousins are not siblings, which means they have some distance from us. We can ignore cousins we don’t have an affinity with more easily than we can ignore brothers and sisters. Likewise, we can choose to be closer to some because there is that connection. Cousins sit in that perfect position of being our blood relatives, having a different (sometimes deeper) tie to us than friends, but are more optional in our lives than siblings. In some ways, we get to choose our cousins.
I have been rethinking the interactions between Jesus and John the Baptist as adults. The way it reads in the Bible, it is almost as if they do not know each other. John talks about one who is coming after him, and then when Jesus comes on the scene John recognizes him as the Lamb of God. Well, at least that is how it reads in John (John 1:28-36). In Luke, there is not even clear interaction between Jesus and John. It looks a little like John gets arrested before Jesus gets baptized (Luke 3:16-22). If John did baptize Jesus before John was arrested, Luke does not see a need to mention it. Mark barely covers it, though it does mention that John baptized Jesus (Mark 1:5-11). It is in Matthew 3:13-17 that John objects to baptizing Jesus because he is not worthy, but Jesus insists on it to fulfill righteousness.
All of this interaction gives us a rather stiff interaction between Jesus and John. Scholars will tell you this probably points to some tension in early Christianity between those who had followed John and those who had followed Jesus, and the Gospels are making sure we are all clear that we are supposed to follow Jesus.
That is a fine theological claim that I am happy to support. But what happened to a baby who leapt with excitement that his cousin was coming to be? John was just a few months older than Jesus. And Mary obviously had a bond with Elizabeth that transcended normal human experience. I would think they would spend more time together than just the days of their unusual pregnancies, which would mean John and Jesus were around too. Something in me says we are not getting the whole story about these cousins.
Something tells me that they grew up together. That they played in the dirt together, which may be where John picked up his love of wilderness living. Maybe they grew apart as they got older, as John found himself without parents (who probably died when he was young) but also without other siblings to raise, while Jesus found himself without a father (Joseph may have died shortly after the incident in the Temple when Jesus was 12) but with younger siblings that he had to help raise. But they never forgot the cousins they were. They never forgot the language only they could speak together. They never forgot that their loving rivalry pushed them both to be the people they became.
So when it came time to inaugurate his public ministry, Jesus could not think of a better way to do it than to have his cousin baptize him. Jesus didn’t need baptism. In fact, the fact that Jesus was baptized has caused undue theological struggles for many folks. The thing about baptism, which I never forget as a pastor called to do this for others, is that it is an important, intimate moment that links the one who baptizes with the one who gets baptized forever. So maybe Jesus needed to have this moment with his cousin. This person who had always understood him, from the very moment they were in their mothers' wombs, to the moments when they would both realize they would give their lives to make sure people knew God.
That’s the thing about cousins. They go where you go, and they get who you are, even when no one else does. There is no one else like them.