Thursday, 15 October 2009

Recovering the terror of baptism

This reflection was written and published in 2005.

In late December of last year, hundreds of thousands in Asia underwent a devastating water baptism without precedent. Up till then, I'm not sure we westerners quite appreciated the terror wrought by the oceans upon non-westerners.

In the Bible, too, the image of the ocean evoked demonic, destructive force, hence the mythology of 'Leviathan' found in the Psalms and Job, Jesus' calming of the storm at sea, and John's beast rising out of the sea. Hence also the significance to John's ancient readers of a future earth where "there is no longer any sea". The seas were not an image of picture-postcard tranquility, but the unpredictable agent of evil spirits, a harbinger of death and tragedy.

I don't know why, but until something sparked a thought last night, I'd never tied in this aspect of water-imagery with baptism. The significance of the baptismal waters to me had always been that of cleansing and purification, never terror or destruction. Even with Paul's picture of baptism as a dying and rising with Christ, I never made the connection.

Look at how the baptism metaphor is used biblically, however. Jesus proclaims that he has "a baptism to undergo" (Lk 12:50), but the baptism of which he speaks is fiery and distressing. Paul describes the Israelites' journey through the parted oceans as a baptism (1 Cor 10:2). How frightening must that passage through the Red Sea have been for an ancient people for whom the waters held nothing but fear?

And so back to Paul's dying-rising metaphor, a ritual drowning, a sacramental burial. The baptismal waters, then, are not merely a picture of cleansing, but an ancient picture of the terror of death, perhaps something we in the West today find hard to appreciate, even if the recent catastrophe has brought it somewhat nearer home.

But therein is the irony of the gospel -- that death contains the very seeds of life. That's what gives me hope in the midst of fear, chaos, amid the choppy waters and fierce storms of life.

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