On the very morning that I planned to write this column on the Baptism of Jesus, an article appeared in The New York Times that set me thinking about water. The headlines read: “The water of our oceans came not from melted comets but from asteroids in the Kuiper belt, somewhere beyond the Planet Neptune.” Now I readily admit that I did not understand very much of the scientific material in that article but it jogged my mind a little to think about water. The subject bubbles to the surface practically every day. Of course, why shouldn’t it? Water is that element, at least on our small planet, that gives life to all things. Until last week our West Coast was suffering from the longest drought anyone could recall. This week they are deluged with Pacific storms that began to fill the reservoirs to overflowing.
Writers who delve into geophysical questions are predicting that the next world war may not be over land or borders but who gets the land’s water?
Life-science experts around the world tell us that many of our great rivers and even small streams are being contaminated by human waste or by petroleum byproducts. In other words, we seem to be destroying the very sources on which we depend for life.
Turning now from The New York Times’ article to the Gospel according to Saint Mark, we find the story of Jesus’ baptism by Saint John the Baptist in the Jordan River which at that time surely must have been a clear water stream. (By the way hydrologists working in the Middle East claim that today the Jordan River in its lower reaches is extremely contaminated.)
At any event, Jesus, like many others, came to the Jordan River on that memorable day to receive the penitential washing offered by John. He came, like many of his fellow Jews, to heed once again the warnings of the ancient prophets and to be reminded that they and their nation stood in dire need of purification.
But what follows the washing rite, however, is equally important: Jesus hears a voice out of the heavens: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” From that moment forward Jesus left the waters and ventured into the wilderness to fast and pray. We know now, of course, what eventually followed that time spent in silence — his three-year ministry which culminated in his death, resurrection and ascension.
All of which brings us back to water, the water of our baptism. Even though we were not old enough to realize its impact then, it was at that moment that we were called “beloved” and were invited to go into the world and discover what we could do to make our small planet a place where the waters of God’s peace flow freely.
In some sense, therefore, all life begins with water: all of us once rested peacefully in the water of our mother’s womb until it was time for us to come forth into the world and be welcomed by the community of Christians through the pure waters of holy baptism. Like Jesus, therefore, we are invited to be attentive to the voice from heaven calling us to find our proper place in the human community and to thereby unleash heavenly waters of beauty, holiness and goodness.
Scriptures for Jan. 11
Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Acts 10: 34-48
Mark 1: 7-11
The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives in Notre Dame, Indiana.