Living in California, I have come to appreciate rain in ways I never imagined I would back in my Midwestern childhood. The first rain of the season here after a long, dry summer is especially astonishing. As a friend of mine often says on that day, the rain feels like a shower of divine grace falling from the courts of heaven itself.
This past Sunday, Western Christians celebrated the baptism of Jesus, as we always do the Sunday after the Epiphany. Prompted by the biblical texts appointed this year, the day seemed devoted more generally to water.
Water is probably the most remarkable substance that can so easily be taken for granted. Without water, life itself as we know it would be impossible. Too much of it, and life itself is in jeopardy. A dramatic example of the latter happened just before Christmas Day, when a tsunami crashed unexpectedly through parts of Indonesia, killing hundreds of people.
As someone who enjoys wading through gentle surf on sandy beaches, I’m often startled by such reminders of how destructive water can be. One cubic yard of water—think of a box that measures three feet on each side—one cubic yard of water weighs just short of 1,700 pounds. Now imagine a tsunami wave rushing ashore with millions and millions of cubic yards of water. As one journalist suggested, we ought to imagine such a moment as row after row of armored tanks rolling over the land at fifty miles per hour.
Perhaps this is why the Psalmist compares the very voice of God to the sound of thundering waters (Ps. 29). That ancient poet would have us imagine the divine voice breaking the cedar trees of Lebanon, shaking the wilderness, making oak trees writhe, and stripping forests bare—not unlike what happened on the shores of those Indonesian islands.
Perhaps this, too, is why the biblical prophet Isaiah offered reassurances about God’s presence when we “pass through the waters”—that’s a way to describe tides of trouble, the depths of dread, a flood of despair. “When you pass through such rivers,” Isaiah declares, the God who formed you will be with you (Isaiah 43:1-7).
These are some good reasons to celebrate the baptism of Jesus, a profound image of divine solidarity, almost as easy to skip past and take for granted as water itself. There Jesus stands in the river Jordan, an incarnation of the great reassurance from Isaiah that God is indeed with us as we “pass through the waters.”
Jesus stands there, baptized by his cousin John in intimate closeness, and I keep thinking about water, its softness and sweetness, as well as its harshness and saltiness, and especially how utterly ordinary water is and still so vital and essential for life itself.
Reflecting this way on water—how it is both so ordinary and so remarkable at the same time—I wonder if this isn’t part of the problem so many people have with religion these days. I mean, how frequently religion is perceived as separate and distinct from the daily routine of everyday life, or more severely, as thoroughly irrelevant for how regular people live—in our homes, working at the office, playing with friends.
Many religious traditions, including Christianity, have unfortunately earned that reputation of exotic remoteness. But religion’s distance collapses pretty quickly in the ancient story about the baptism of Jesus, this year from Luke’s account of the gospel (Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22): water, a river bank, close friends (cousins), intimate touch, a beautiful dove—all this ordinary stuff of everyday life becomes an occasion for divine encounter.
Or as our Christian siblings in Eastern Orthodox traditions would say, these ordinary moments become moments of theophany—visible manifestations of God’s presence, not with neon lights or fireworks, but with stuff you could literally trip over or fall into on any regular, ordinary day.
Eastern Orthodox Christians mark and celebrate Epiphany in some wonderfully peculiar ways, including the “Great Blessing of Waters,” which sometimes means a whole lake or a river but in any case and at the very least blessing vast tubs of it.
Orthodox Christians most often bless themselves with holy water by actually drinking it, so they keep plenty of the stuff around their homes. They might drink a small amount every day with their morning prayers, or bless their children with it before they leave for school. They sometimes put a little bit of that blessed water in their food when they’re cooking.
Clearly, separating religious practice from everyday life would make no sense at all in these Orthodox households, and this is precisely because of what happened in the waters of the river Jordan so long ago. As God incarnate, Jesus was baptized not for the forgiveness of sins but to bless the water, to reveal its sacred character, to demonstrate the depths of divine presence in the material fabric of God’s creative work.
In the weeks following the Great Blessing of Waters, Orthodox priests typically visit all the members of the parish to bless homes, families, and any companion animals that live with them, sprinkling all of them with that blessed water—a visible, tangible weaving together of the human and the divine, the earthly and heavenly, the deeply mysterious and the routinely ordinary.
I’m especially taken with how Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware writes about this:
What we are doing at each celebration of Epiphany, at every Blessing of the Waters, is to reaffirm our sense of wonder before the essential goodness and beauty of the world, as originally created by God and as now recreated in Christ. Nothing is intrinsically ugly or despicable… The Great Blessing of the Waters is in this way a proclamation that the universe around us is not a chaos but a cosmos. There is glory in everything; this is a world full of wonder (The Inner Kingdom, p. 71).
More than just “taken” with that view, I am so very grateful for it these days when our political discourse does seem to me irredeemably ugly, and when (I must confess) I think of some of my fellow human beings as utterly despicable, and when I can see only the whirl of chaos we ourselves have created and forget so easily the essential goodness and beauty of the world that God has created.
One of the many reasons why religion still matters, and why there baptismal fonts in churches, and why Christians gather around a table of a shared meal week after week is not because it’s only in churches that the infinite mystery of the Living God is made visible and tangible. To the contrary, all the religious stuff in officially designated holy spaces is meant to remind us that all of our everyday stuff carries the potential to knock of us off our feet with God’s presence—if only we would notice, see, listen, touch.
The renowned rabbi and theologian of Jewish traditions Abraham Joshua Heschel makes the same point:
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual,” he says, “is to be amazed (for more on this approach to spirituality, go here).
Reading that insight from Heschel, I can’t help but think of my Australian shepherd dog Judah. I’m thinking especially of the beach in Marin County where he loves to play in the water. We’ve been there dozens of times and he never grows tired of it.
I know he remembers the place well; he whines and whimpers and scratches at the rear car door as soon as we pull off the highway and start heading toward the coast. He knows exactly where we’re going, and every time he acts like it’s the first time he’s ever been there.
I watch him run and gallop and bark and yip and frolic in the surf as he chases seagulls—again and again he chases them as we grows ever more salty, sandy, foamy, and gloriously wet. For him, everything is phenomenal; for him, everything is incredible; for him, that beach is a theophany, a visible, tangible manifestation of divine delight. And for me, his wiggling, panting body is likewise a theophany of divine joy.
I also can’t help but think of the priestly ministry of Este Gardner, the vicar at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, where I have been privileged to worship for more than twenty years. One of the many things I have come to appreciate about Este is her use of superlatives.
I admit that I was a bit perplexed by this when Este first arrived to Good Shepherd. Can absolutely everything, I wondered, really be astonishing and gorgeous and stunning and spectacular as she often likes to say?
Yes, I realized, yes it can, especially if we insist on treating the ordinary as occasions for amazement, exactly as Rabbi Heschel proposed.
Exactly as the voice from heaven declared when Jesus was baptized.
Exactly as Christians remember at the Eucharistic table every week, as God presents God’s own self to us in the ordinary stuff of bread and wine.
As all of us at Good Shepherd bid Este farewell in her impending retirement, I’m not only grateful for the grace of the Eucharistic table; I’m also grateful for Este’s reminder that the grace is indeed stupendously amazing.