Bible Waters

I’m thinking about the Baptism of the Lord, which in some churches is celebrated on the Sunday following Epiphany. Of course, Jesus approached John to be baptized, and according to the scriptures the Spirit appeared like a dove and proclaimed the blessedness of Jesus, who came to John not to be served but as a servant.

When I was a kid, my relatives who belonged to a denomination that practices only adult-baptism by submersion saw in this story proof of the correctness of that rite. Jesus came up out of the water; John didn’t sprinkle him!

Also, my relatives cited this verse in Colossians:

…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2:12).

When we’re buried, we’re not buried with a little dirt on our heads. We’re buried all the way under!

I disliked that argument but didn’t know why. I was relieved when a United Methodist pastor pointed out that the thief on the cross was not baptized by any mode and yet was promised salvation. Eventually, I read a little further in Colossians:

[W]hy do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (2:20b-23).

While I wouldn’t call baptism a “human command,” the author worries (in this and the whole section 2:8-23) that we need to be careful not to substitute the living Christ for rituals and practices—not to substitute the goal for the means to the goal, so to speak (see also Gal. 5:16-26, 6:14-15).

But my older relatives are long passed away. I’m not sure I could’ve argued doctrine with them anyway, for they were quite set in their views, and I’m not really a debater.

One of my great-aunts expressed mild horror when we joined the United Methodist Church—a “sprinkling” denomination! I wonder what they’d think if they knew I was enjoying an Orthodox Christian prayer book this feast day.

A former Honors College student who is now a Byzantine Catholic nun commented on Facebook about the beauty of prayers in the Eastern tradition. Unfamiliar with that aspect of the tradition, I asked her for a recommendation of a prayer book and she recommended The Festal Menaion. This edition is translated by Mother Mary of the Orthodox Monastery of the Veil of the Mother of God, Bussy-en-Othe, France, and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware of the University of Oxford: South Canaan, PA, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998. For the past few days I’ve loved exploring this beautiful book with its Orthodox liturgical texts, and praying some of the prayers during personal quiet times.

I had been listening to some of Benjamin Britten’s operas recently: in Peter Grimes and Death in Venice, returning to the sea becomes symbolic of the cycles of life, the redemption of returning to waters, the vast unknown into which we’re ultimately cast. As I delved into this prayer book, I thought more about water—the reality of God’s power over water, God’s presence in the power of water itself, the scriptural connections of water with salvation, and water’s significance in the rites of churches—-as I encountered several readings and tones for the Eastern feast of The Holy Theophany (January 6). These scriptures give me much to reflect upon in the overall context of Christ’s baptism:

* The power of the sea over the Egyptians, who perished once the split sea returned to natural course (pp. 339-340).

* The day the Jordan River split, allowing dry ground to form as the Israelites with Joshua crossed over into the land, and they “were passed clean” (Joshua 3:7-8, 15-17: p. 341).

* The power of Elijah’s mantle that also split the Jordan, allowing him and Elisha to pass on dry ground (2 Kings 2:6-14: pp. 341-342).

* The story of Naaman, the captain of the Assyrian armies, who through the miraculous power of God evoked by Elisha, could bath in the Jordan and become clean from his leprosy (2 Kings 5:9-14: pp. 341-343.).

* The saving waters of the Nile that carried the ark containing baby Moses to safety (Ex. 2:5-10: 344-345).

* The dew that appeared on Gideon’s fleece, signifying God’s favor (Judges 6:36-40: p. 345).

* The story of Elijah soaking the altar and its trench with abundant water, which would not quench the heavenly fire (1 Kings 18:30-39: pp. 345-346).

* The healing of the waters by Elisha at Jereicho (2 Kings 2:19-21: pp. 346-347).

* The blessing of water in the post-exilic prophesies of Isaiah (55:1-13: pp. 349-350).

* Paul’s connection of the waters of the rock at Meribah in Exodus 17, and Christ the Rock with his spiritual drink (1 Cor. 10:1-14: pp. 350).

After thinking about these readings, I loved this prayer for The Holy Theophany by Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem (pp. 353-355). Here is a portion:

“O Trinity supreme in being, in goodness, and in Godhead, almighty, who watchest over all, invisible, incomprehensible, Maker of spiritual beings and rational natures, innate Goodness, Light that none can approach and that lightens every [one] that comes into the world: Shine upon me Thine unworthy servant….

“Today the glittering stars make the inhabited earth fair with the radiance of their shining. Today the clouds drop down upon making the dew of righteousness from on high. Today the Uncreated of His own will accepts the laying on of hands from His own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Master, but stands before Him with trembling, seeing the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions …. are washed away by the waters of the Jordan. Today Paradise has been opened …. and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us. Today the bitter water, as once with Moses and the people of Israel, is changed to sweetness by the coming of the Lord…..

“Today earth and sea share the joy of the world, and the world is filled with gladness. The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid. The Jordan turned back, seeing the fire of the Godhead descending bodily and entering its stream. The Jordan turned back, beholding the Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove and flying about Thee. The Jordan turned back, seeing the Invisible made visible, The Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of a servant. The Jordan turned back and the mountains skipped, looking upon God in the flesh; and the Light of Light, true God of true God. For today in the Jordan they saw the Triumph of the Master; they saw Him drown in the Jordan the death of disobedience, the sting of error, and the chains of hell, and bestow upon the world the baptism of salvation….” (pp. 353-355).

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