At the Festival of Lessons and Carols we had last Sunday, one hymn that really caught my attention was Hymn 112, which is entitled “In the bleak mid-winter”. The first verse goes:
In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow, In the bleak mid-winter, Long ago.
I’ve always liked this hymn not only because of its melody but more so because of the lyrics. All four verses are loaded with deep meanings and are worthy of serious reflections. The phrase that I thought I’d use for today’s reflection is that part that says: “earth stood hard as iron”. My reason behind my liking lies in the observation that the phrase is so descriptive of how some places in other parts of the world have literally turned so hard. Thus, they have figuratively become “hard as iron” and have lost their ability to sustain its role in the interdependent process of most land-based production.
While that may look like a hopeless case, it does not have to end that way. For a reversal of such degradation; for the earth to no longer remain “hard as iron”; for the earth to breathe and become full of vigor and life, one thing needs to happen. Water. Not only the availability of water needs to be secured but also have it in abundance as well. The arid parches of land need water. It’s water that hopefully will infuse life to something that had become virtually dead.
My grand daughter Kloey talks a lot nowadays and yet some of the things she’s saying our household seems to find difficulty understanding. For example, she would say, ”My wallah” and at first I didn’t understand what she wanted. But to her, “wallah” is water and when she gets it, she really drinks it with gusto.
Water gives life; without enough water the “earth will continue to stand like iron”. Albert Szent-Gyorgia, a Hungarian biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937, says it well: "Water is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water." The wisdom behind the connection of water to life has been with mankind way prior to written history. No water, you die! There’s no doubt that even those who foster an evolutionist mindset affirm the correlation between water and life.
So it’s not unusual that such observation is also present in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is an integral part of the literature of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The renowned Creation Story, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, reminds its readers that, in the beginning, it was God’s wind, the Ruach, the Holy Spirit that swept over the waters (v. 2) and later separating waters from waters (vv. 6-7) and from this process came life (vv. 9-11, 20). Some biblical scholars suggest that "water" as used here, refers to chaos, the “Nothingness” out of which the world was made. Thus, the intimate correlation between Water and Creation could not be emphasized any stronger. Just as water can undo the “hardening of earth like iron” so with water, as described in the Holy Writings, life came into being. Water and Life has that intimate relationship.
Thus far, I have attempted to establish a great relationship between the two and today, it is even made stronger by the relationship it has with the theme of today’s celebration — baptism. Today, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. It is on this holy day that many baptisms occur as well. Quite obviously, an allusion to water is present; both in the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist and water, being that singular element present at the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism.
We Christians affirm that in Baptism new life is given. In this sacrament, faith communities are reminded: “we die unto sin and rise to newness of life” (cf. Romans 6:4). This is also what Paul’s Letter to Titus tells us. “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (cf. Titus 3:5). The “rising to newness of life” and “washing of regeneration” can be viewed as both alluding to water as deeply connected with life, regeneration and rebirth. Water, Baptism, Life – a unique triangulation of some sort that seems apropos in today’s celebration!
Just as water gives physical life today, as in the softening of the earth that has once “stood hard as iron”; just as God gives life through water in Creation, so God continues to give spiritual life to Christians through water. Baptismal water.
Lest we get the impression that plain water makes it “tick” be it made clear that it is only with God's Word that the baptismal water does any good.
The African theologian Tertullian (c.160—c.220 CE) once articulated this when he noted that as the waters brought forth life as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters from the beginning of Creation, so does it continue today as the Spirit hovers over the waters of baptism to give life (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, p. 670).
The baptism we receive gives life. This is the very same thing we say over and over again when we speak of baptism. And it is for this reason that we usually have the baptismal font placed at the entrance of the nave to constantly remind us of the rebirth we had at our baptism with water. It is also for this reason that we do this ritual called Asperges, a ritual where the congregation is sprinkled with baptismal water in order to remind themselves how baptism first gave them life.
My dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, as we gather today celebrating the Baptism of our Lord and as we get reminded of the significance of water in sustaining both physical and spiritual life through God’s word, it becomes for us another reminder of how we could further walk our faith journey.
As the new year begins to unfold before our very eyes, we need to take time and see where our journey could lead us and a good starting point is a review of how life had been in the past and how it might look like in the immediate future.
At times there is that sense of chaos, aimlessness or nothingness about life that seems to steadily creep upon us. Looking back at the year that just passed, some of us might have been visited by unforeseen events and circumstances. There may have been the gloomy pictures beginning to be painted with the broad strokes of employment, financial, marital or plain relational issues. These would usually lead us to feel that there is nothing left special about life or in believing in God, enough to give us a picture of hopelessness.
But there is good news. If our lives have had any semblance of the “Chaos” that Genesis talks about; or if our lives had become “hard as iron” as alluded to in the hymn “In the bleak mid-winter” then, perhaps, it is about time that we remind ourselves of its flip side, which will show us that life could get exciting.
Just as water, poured over on a parched land, brings forth new life and restores it to its place in the cycle of productivity; just as a glass of “wallah” (Kloey’s water) tastes so good in quenching thirst, so the baptism we have enlivens a virtually dead spiritual life.
Early in December last year, I attended this series of workshops called “Training the Trainer”. One module we addressed was our Baptismal Covenant as a faith community. We also had a time to talk about our own individual baptisms. At sharing time, I told the person I was paired with that I have no recollection about my own baptism; after all, I was baptized as an infant. I also told him that my parents said it was a great gathering; lots of people, lots of food, lots of godparents, and lots of presents too. We then agreed that both of our baptisms became the window for our entrance to a different world; one that is supposedly modeled after the One we sought to follow. Indeed, baptism understood as new birth launches us on a life of commitment to Jesus.
Today, and each time we sprinkle ourselves with baptismal water, we are reminded of our mission in our faith journey, mission that we envisioned when we made or made on our behalf, at our Baptismal Covenant. It is my prayer that we continue to cherish the new life each of us baptized had been given and to live it out in some Christ-like fashion. It is my prayer that at those junctures in our life when we feel spiritually drained, or the next time we thirst for some peace of mind, remember the water — the water of baptism. Bear in mind that water has changed us; has helped foster in us an appreciative attitude towards life and to lobby for a safer and cleaner life's interconnections!
God used water in bringing forth Life at Creation and continues to use water to give life today, in every way! May our lives be richly filled with the blessings that come forth from a loving and generous God enabling us to become blessings to others!