Friday, February 24, 2012

Water water everywhere

First Sunday of Lent Year B

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written at the end of the 18th century. The poem relates the story of a ship wrecked sailor who has returned from a long sea voyage. His story, however, borders on the fantastic. He tells a story of a cursed voyage due to the mariner’s own fault of shooting down an albatross, a large sea bird, whom the crew had assigned the good fortune of leading their ship out of the cold waters of the Antarctica. The crew of the ship experienced one misfortune after another, and they eventually lay the entire blame of their predicament on the mariner’s action. The dead bird is hung around the neck of the mariner as a sign of his crime and atonement for the sin he had committed. At one particular juncture, when the ship was stuck in uncharted waters without any head wind, the crew lamented their condition with this most famous line from the poem:

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The irony of this passage is that finding themselves surrounded by a great body of water, they are denied a drink. The story progresses when the personification of Death comes to visit the crew members and one by one, all of them succumb to his embrace, but the Mariner lives on to gaze upon the death mask of his fellow crew members. He bears the effect of a greater curse – to walk alive among the dead. In a moment of prayer and faith when all seemed lost, the albatross falls from the neck of the mariner and his guilt is partially expiated. Finally, he makes his way back to human civilization where he discovers a new found mission. He wanders the earth to tell his story and teach a lesson to those he meets:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner becomes an apt parable that illustrates the message contained in the readings of the First Sunday of Lent. It is not surprising then to find scripture choosing to use the metaphor of water to describe a deeper and more profound reality. Water is essential for life. Up to 60% of the body is made up of water. A person can survive up to 4 weeks without food but can only live up to 8 days without water. We need water to drink, water to cook, water to wash, water to make our vegetation grow and animals live. Perhaps, we will only appreciate the need for water when we are deprived of it. It is obvious that too little water is not good. On the other hand, too much water is also not good. Excess of water causes floods, destroys crops and exacts casualties among humans and animals alike.

Today, being the First Sunday of Lent, water becomes the symbol that ties together all the readings. The first and the second reading speak of the flood waters that almost destroyed the world. In the gospel, we are told of how the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, the desert, where there is no water. Both of these situations seem to be extremes. On the one hand, too much water nearly destroyed the world. On the other hand, it is the lack of water which nearly destroys Jesus and leads him into temptation.

But in both cases, it is the destructive power of water or the lack of it that leads to salvation. In the story of Noah, God promises to Noah that he will never destroy the world again with flood waters. At the end of Jesus’ experience in the desert, he makes a public announcement of the good news, a message that will quench the desire of everyone who thirsts for the kingdom of God. Just like the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge’s poem, the old sailor emerges from his watery ordeal, a wiser man, a man reborn with a new mission, a man who discovers the goodness of God in all his creatures whom he had earlier disdained.

How are these stories connected with our Lenten experience? These stories point to the need for conversion and repentance. We are often weighed down by the burden of sin. We sometimes experience great guilt as if a dead albatross was practically hung around our necks as a sign of our folly and shame. But it is only, when we turn our hearts to the one who can redeem us, can we then be freed from the fetters of guilt and sin. The way of redemption is the way of conversion and repentance.

During this season of Lent, we must die to our selfishness and to our sinfulness. We must allow our old selves to be destroyed in the flood waters of purification. We must purify our intentions and courageously face our temptations as we journey into the wilderness of our lives with Jesus. At the end of this period of 40 days, we hope to die again in the waters of baptism together with the catechumens who will be baptized so that we will rise again with them to new life in the Spirit. It is at Easter, that the symbol of water becomes clear. St. Peter explains this in the second reading: “That water is a type of the baptism which saves you now, and which is not the washing off of physical dirt but a pledge made to God from a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ …”

Today, our catechumens begin this journey into the desert, into the waters of the flood as they will be presented to the Archbishop in Kuala Lumpur for the Rite of Election. Their facilitators have prepared them for the last eight months. They are now ready to take this step of faith into the unknown. But they will not walk alone. Their sponsors will walk with them. Their RCIA facilitators will walk with them. We will walk with them. Jesus will walk with them.

As we listen to the voice of Spirit leading us into the wilderness, let us take courage and not be disheartened by any temptations which may be placed before us. The Church proposes to us the ancient Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It does so not to add to our burden but through these practices, we may be set free from sin and its effects. As Coleridge reminds us at the end of his poem, “He prayeth best, who loveth best.” Prayer opens the doors of our hearts so that we may be consumed by the love of God. Prayer frees us from the burden of sin which hangs around neck like a dead albatross. Prayer leads us to faith where we come to attest as St Paul does that “Christ himself, innocent though he was, died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God”.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.