Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Paradox of Water: A Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
The Baptism of the Lord

January 11, 2015

It might seem rather obvious, but have you ever stopped to consider just how important water is in our everyday lives? We drink it…we wash with it…we cook with it…we grow with it...we create power with it. Our bodies, depending on our size, are about 2/3 water. And 71% of our planet’s surface is covered by water. It’s so essential to our well-being, our livelihood, and our survival, and yet it is so easy to take it for granted. With the turn of a knob or the flip of a switch we can have it flow in our homes for hours…and we can control its pressure and its temperature and its other qualities. We can go to Hannaford and easily buy gallons and gallons of it to drink. Human ingenuity has figured out how to harness this essential resource, allowing it to bring its life-giving properties to remote deserts and barren lands. But yet, as life-giving as water is, it is also amazingly deadly. Many oceans and seas have enraged themselves, swallowing up countless ships…and many rivers have flooded, destroying homes and crops. Torrential rains have caused devastating landslides and powerful storms have thrust deadly amounts of snow, sleet, and hail upon unprepared communities. Perhaps the greatest symbol of life on earth is simultaneously one of the greatest symbols of death. And today, on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we find the God of Heaven and Earth immersing Himself into this great paradox.

At first glance, to even speak about the Lord’s baptism seems an absurdity. As the Baltimore Catechism makes abundantly clear, baptism is a sacrament which cleanses us from original sin, makes us Christians, children of God, and heirs of heaven. Now any child with even a modicum of training in the faith can tell us that none of those things apply to Jesus. So what was going on in the Jordan River that day? Why did Jesus step into its waters if He had no need to be baptized? The early Church Fathers considered this question at great length and their conclusions are pretty much unanimous: Jesus entered into the waters of the Jordan to undergo baptism by John not so that He could in anyway be changed by this water, but so that this water might be changed by Him.

Historically and religiously speaking, the Jordan River was hugely significant. For thousands of years, the Jordan River has been the main water source for the land of Israel, and has thus become the great symbol of life in the region…bringing fertility and life to what would otherwise be a desert. It was the very site where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for 40 years, taking on the even greater symbolism of being a sign of God’s covenant. And yet at the same time, the very waters of this river have been a great source of death and destruction in the region. Its rapid torrent and sudden violent floods have, throughout history, brought devastation to the people who have relied upon it.  The waters of this great river have, with today’s feast, by infiltrated and stepped into by God Himself. The waters of this river flow over Him, saturating Him…but this water, try as it might, has nothing to offer its Creator. It cannot give Him life…and it cannot bring Him death. But by plunging Himself into it, Christ the Lord gives it new meaning and new purpose. His divinity and power flow into this water, sanctifying it, making the life and death it brings divinely ordered to His death which brings life to the world. By going down into the waters of the Jordan, Christ Himself makes the waters of baptism the first Sacrament…the first place where we encounter the redemption accomplished by His death on the Cross, the first place where we encounter the new life of His resurrection. And by His own example, He propels all of us who would desire to follow Him to meet Him in this water. It’s risky business to go into the water…where life meets death and where death meets life…but we trust that because He Himself has entered into it, these waters of paradox become the very means of our salvation.

Water cleanses, water nourishes, and water destroys…and this is precisely what the waters of baptism accomplish in us through the grace and power of Christ. It destroys us…it strips us of all that we once were…it drowns the sin and the guilt right out of us. But it simultaneously rebuilds and brings to new life what it destroys…but not just any new life, the very life of Christ. We become so uniquely and truly one with Him, the Divine Son of God, that the Heavens open and the Father’s voice is heard over us: “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter…in you I am well pleased.” God the Father looks upon us and sees in us His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ...and He loves us as perfectly and as infinitely as He loves the Son. This is what it means to be redeemed in the waters of baptism…this is the paradox of water, and this is why Christ immersed Himself in the waters of the Jordan.

The waters of the Jordan River, sanctified by Christ, symbolically but truly flow into our midst at our own baptism and throughout our lives. Christ continues to sanctify water through the ministry of His priests, making it abundant and ever available for us to wash in and to be nourished by. Every time you come into the church, you are presented with an opportunity to plunge your hands into this sanctified water, recalling the power and miracle of your own baptism. And you can take this water home, sanctifying yourselves and your families with this powerful and precious symbol. But every time you do this…every time you make the sign of the cross with the water, remember that you are ever being plunged into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. This water, you must realize, will destroy you every time…stripping you of all that you are…and will then bring you to newer and newer life with Christ. Today and all days, let us pray for the grace to continuously drown in these waters, to die to ourselves, so that Christ can raise us to new life with Him, so that the Holy Spirit can descend upon us, so that the Father’s voice might be heard: You are my beloved son…you are my beloved daughter…in you I am well pleased.”

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