Friday, January 11, 2013

Water spells God

The Baptism of the Lord Year C

Deep waters have never been appealing to me. Well, I do love to linger in the showers and the occasional therapeutic soak in my portable bathtub (now you know), but swimming pools and the sea are off limits. A traumatic near-drowning incident as a child is to be blamed for this. I never took to swimming after that experience. For some, the sight of water immediately conjures images of fun and games. For me, it simply spells ‘death’!

The Israelites had a similar aversion to waters. They were not a ‘sea-lubbing’ lot. The waters of the sea represented the chaos that had to be subdued by God’s creative act. In pre-biblical myths of neighbouring nations, for example the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation, the sea was the dwelling place of monsters, the backdrop of an apocalyptic clash between the forces of order and chaos. Likewise in the Bible, the most fearful of monsters dwelt in the depths of the waters. If you remember the story of creation in Chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis, God gave birth to creation by bringing shape and order to watery chaos. This is an important point often missed. Take note that the watery chaos was already present prior to God’s act of creation. It reinforces the theological point which the biblical author wishes to stress – God is not the author of chaos. But God is a God who can bring order, peace and glory out of chaotic, confused and hopeless situations.

But the story of watery chaos does not end with Chapter 1. We would encounter it again in the story of the Great Flood. The story provides the last piece to our puzzle: What is the origin of chaos? The story of the flood symbolises the effects of humanity’s sin: God’s ordered universe, where the waters of chaos are kept at bay, is now shattered by man’s wickedness and disobedience. Man causes his own destruction. Together with God, in harmony with his Creator’s will, man was destined to be co-creators. But separated from God, man is only capable of manufacturing destruction. As the waters receded, God undertakes once again a new creation by repopulating the world with Noah’s descendants and the animals that issued forth from the ark. The waters had symbolically swept away evil. Here, the story narrates a simple truth: man’s sin is the cause of disorder and chaos. When man chooses to set his will against God, the harmony of God’s ordered universe is once again disrupted and everything descends into chaos. But God has not abandoned man. He does the seemingly impossible and unexpected. Once again, God brings life out of chaos.

Through God’s intervention, water now holds diverse connotations. On the one hand, water still represents the chaos that signified the realm beyond God’s control but when subjugated to God’s will, it becomes a source of life, a means of cleansing and renewal.  Thus, we find in the symbol of water a paradox of seemingly opposing themes: Chaos and order; Death and rebirth; Sin and purification. These themes are also primary in today’s gospel.

In complete obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus began his ministry by stepping into the murky waters of the River Jordan, diving into the chaos of humanity caused by disobedience. Why did Jesus, the sinless one, subject himself to this ritual washing of sins? St Maximus of Turin provides the answer: Christ is baptised, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy.” When Jesus came up from the water, the heavens opened and the spirit of God descended upon him “in bodily form like a dove.” Once again, the voice of the Lord is over the waters. Yes, in the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are meant to see the opening of a new creation story, in which, as on “the first day” of creation, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters”, and we are reminded of the  “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark. Out of the waters rises a new humanity: having identified fully with our sinfulness in an act of repentance, Jesus opens the possibility of our identifying with him as God’s new creation.  In one of his sermon, Saint Proclus, beautifully describes the significance of this event, “Christ appeared in the world, and, bringing beauty out of disarray, gave it luster and joy”

Through the event of Jesus’ baptism, God is restoring the original work of creation and repairing what was damaged by sin and man’s disobedience. God is inaugurating a new creation, a new humanity which will be defined not by His wrath and anger, but by his favour. God is stepping in once again to clean up the mess caused by our sinfulness, he is bringing order out of our chaos. In the first volume of his exegetical studies on the life of Jesus in the gospels, entitled “Jesus of Nazareth,” our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Therefore, the Baptism in the Jordan presents yet another truth: that Jesus has started a new creation. He is the second man (1 Cor 15:47) or the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45), that comes to repair the first Adam’s guilt… Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon His shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners."

Today, you may find yourself in a state of chaos, when things don’t seem to go according to plan, your plan that is. It is somewhat consoling to note that you are not alone. We live in a world of chaos; the result of man’s rebellion against the will of God. Man continues to seek his own way, shape his own truth, do his own thing, and follow his own path. Ironically, man does so in an attempt to impose order in his disordered world. The story of creation and Jesus’ baptism provides us with a timely reminder that order comes only from our total and complete submission to God’s will. The essential truth is that the more we attempt to shape our destiny, right the wrongs in this world, find solutions to our multiple problems, as if God was not part of the equation, the messier the trail we will leave behind. Only God, the Master and the Creator of the Universe, can bring order out of chaos.

Whenever we come to Church to celebrate the great sacrifice of Jesus during mass; whenever we make the sign of the cross; whenever we come humbly as penitents to confess our sins; whenever we recite the creed, the symbol and summary of our faith; whenever we touch and are blessed with holy water, we are reminded once again that we are redeemed from the chaos of sin through our baptism and inserted into the order of God’s Kingdom sacramentally made present in the Church. Baptism is the sign that God’s authority has triumphed over the chaos wrought by sin. As St Hippolytus reminds us, “whoever goes down into these waters of rebirth with faith renounces the devil and pledges himself to Christ. He repudiates the enemy and confesses that Christ is God, throws off his servitude, and is raised to filial status. He comes up from baptism resplendent as the sun, radiant in his purity, but above all, he becomes a son of God and a coheir with Christ.” He becomes a new creation.

Yes, you may find yourself in a state of chaos, but do not despair. God majors in taking care of chaotic situations. He can bring peace and order where confusion and disorder reign. In baptism, Christ has already overcome the world, the devil, sin and death.

Recently, a good friend and former parish priest, Fr Phillips Muthu, who pastors in the East Coast posted a message on his Facebook a day after New Year, the day many parts of Terengganu and other areas in the East Coast were inundated with flood waters, thus crippling life and business. For many, these were clearly bad omens for the year. But Fr Phillips chose to disagree. He did not see the author of chaos and disaster in the deluge, but the Lord of order, the Lord who continues to care and watch over us. He writes: “DAY 2 ... one may wonder: How can I achieve anything this year? Some say it’s a bad start; whilst others say it’s a good start, newspapers say it’s a wet start. But God says: “'I made the firmament, the vault, the sky ... remember it’s the 2nd Day of Creation....God separated the waters to make way for the heavens..and therefore (see His) protection...look at the sky and know that God watches over us...”  Fr Phillips reminds me and I believe all of us – water doesn’t necessarily spell ‘death’ or ‘destruction’ or ‘chaos’; it spells ‘life’. Indeed it spells ‘God’!

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