27 February 2012
Jump In! The Water's Great!!
First Sunday of Lent
For many young children, and this was certainly true in my own life, there’s nothing quite as fun and as scary as water. Right now we’d all probably love it to be a little warmer, so let’s think about a pool or a lake in the hot summer sun. The adults are all in, splashing around, swimming, maybe diving if it’s safe. And the little kid is waiting on the shore or on the patio, wondering if it really is ok to jump in. All the adults say it’s fine, that you’ll naturally float. And yet, it’s hard to trust that water.
Water for the ancients was a sign of chaos and death. In the beginning of the Book of Genesis, God separates the land from the water and orders the earth. But the waters were still chaotic. Imagine an early mariner trying to navigate the seas, when storms seem to pop up from nowhere, and currents take you places you do not want to go. Even those who wanted to enjoy the water for recreation had to beware of the undertow and strong waves that could do real damage.
This idea of the danger of water was reaffirmed in the story of Noah and the Great Flood. Water becomes the agent of God wiping out the evil of the earth, and from which Noah and his family are saved by the ark. And this is why St. Peter sees baptism as prefigured in the story of the Great Flood: in baptism, the elect go down, under the water, symbolizing the death of Christ, and then they rise to new life as they are pulled up from the water. Just like Noah, Christians are saved from the destruction of chaos, this time not by a boat, but by Jesus Christ.
With all this talk about baptism, you might think we’re celebrating the Baptism of the Lord. Even our Gospel passage is situated immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Baptist. But that was over a month ago in January. We’re still in Lent. So why all this talk about baptism?
This Lent is a microcosm of what happens to us after our baptism. Just like with Jesus, as He was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit after His baptism, so, too, after our baptism do we begin a time of wandering in the desert, guided by the Holy Spirit, waiting to come to the end of our penitential pilgrimage to the joys of the heavenly Kingdom.
After we are baptized, we have grace from God to follow him, which is why we often baptize children: because we know they need the grace so they can eventually make it out of the desert and into the oasis of heaven. But let’s be honest, there are a number of times where, unlike Jesus, we fall to the temptations of Satan. Still, our entire lives are trying to pass through the desert of a sinful world and make it to the oasis, the garden of heaven, after the example of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert.
And, just like Jesus, who had angels ministering to him among the wild beasts, we, too have angels helping us on our way through this Valley of Tears. Our post-baptismal time is not only a time of suffering and self-denial, but is also a time of joy as we celebrate happy occasions. But, even with these happy occasions, the fact remains that we’re not at the destination yet, and that is the source of our sadness. As St. Paul says, while we are in the body (here on earth), we are away from our eternal home (where our body will be free from all that limits us and drags us down).
So how do we make it through this desert? How do we come to the oasis? We progress in the desert as we progress in the spiritual life. The more we say yes to God and no to sin, the further along we are. Sometimes we’re like the Israelites, who were not far from the Promised Land, but who, because of sin, had to wander around a while because they lost their way by not trusting in God. When we sin, we start walking away from God and away from heaven, and start walking to hell, which is exactly the place we don’t want to be.
So through our penitential practices, we’re trying to train the body to recognize the signs of approaching the Promised Land. By denying ourselves good things, we train ourselves to recognize the One who is Goodness Himself, and from whom all things, which are good, get their goodness. Through increased prayer, whether increasing the time with the Lord, or increasing the quality of time we spend with the Lord, we get directions for how to arrive quickly to that Promised Land and start receiving some of its goodness even here on earth.
The good news is that Jesus has gone before us and blazed the trail for us through the desert. If we follow His path, then we know we’ll arrive at the same place he did. Of course, on that path is the cross, and some of us would rather avoid that. But the only way to get to the resurrection is through the cross. So if we want to share in the Paradise of Heaven, then we have to pass through the Desert of Suffering and unite it with Jesus’ own sufferings. But, we’re not alone; we also have myriad of saints who can help us along the way, both by seeing where they went and how they arrived at heaven, as well as by their assistance through our prayers to them for their help in our own pilgrimage.
We, like the saints who help us, are called to help the catechumens as they prepare for baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist, and the candidates as they prepare to make their profession of faith, and are then confirmed and receive the Eucharist. (At this Mass, we will send them to Bishop Boyea with our prayers as their desires for union with the Church are accepted by our local Good Shepherd). In the back of the Church we have an opportunity to take a slip of paper with a name of a catechumen or candidate so that, as they prepare for full initiation, they know that we are supporting them as they prepare to join us on the straight and narrow road that baptism provides to the Kingdom.
Jesus Christ has shown us the way, because He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. During this Lenten season of penance, let’s remember and recommit ourselves to following His Way, so that we can pass through this desert, this Valley of Tears, and come to the Paradise promised to those who follow Him faithfully.