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Not long ago a classmate of mine introduced the Greek Orthodox celebration of Theophany in a doctoral seminar we shared. He presented it as an equivalent to the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration with which the majority of the class was more familiar. Here in Boston, his community begins their celebration of Theophany with a blessing of the water in the church. This provides the holy water for the rest of the year. Next, the priest and congregation move down to the Charles River. There, the priest blesses the river—the water that winds through our city.
I grinned when I heard this. I walk along that river nearly every day, and I knew I could never look at it the same way again.
It wasn’t until recently that I dug deep into the history and theology of baptism in the Catholic Church. For days, weeks even, I’ve been struggling to wrap my mind around the struggles that have constituted this defining practice in my church: What is the central aim of baptism? What does baptism do? How do we understand grace to work in this sacrament? Somewhere between theologians Karl Rahner and Aidan Kavanagh, I was captured by a moment of clarity. An epiphany, even. Contrary to what many assume, baptism is not a moment in which the baptized suddenly attains grace she or he had previously been without, like a once-empty vessel suddenly filled to the brim. Baptism is the special signification and realization of the grace that one already possesses—the grace every creature possesses as a creature of God. Baptism makes real, in a new way, the grace that was always already there. Once I thought about baptism like that, I wondered how I could have thought about it any other way.
Later in the afternoon after that doctoral seminar–under the first 70 degree sunshine we’d had in Boston this year–I sat on a bench near the river bank. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “All this time it was holy water. All this time it was holy and I never knew it.”
When we think about baptism’s connection to the grace that is already operative in our lives, knowingly and unknowingly, it brings new perspective to the renewal of our baptisms, a practice we carry out throughout the liturgical year and especially during this Easter season. Karl Rahner explained, “When we work hard and unselfishly in the service of our neighbor, when we are courageous and control our moods, when we remain cheerful, even when it is far from easy, but especially when we make the great and heavy decisions of life in a Christian way, we also come nearer to God (even though we do not always explicitly think of God), and the grace of our baptism keeps growing….All of this is properly already a renewal of baptism.” We’re exercising the grace of baptism all the time.
I can’t stop thinking about this lately–when I’m walking along the river, when I dip my fingers in the holy water at Church–I can’t stop thinking to myself, “All of it is holy—the river, baptism, all of this is holy.”
Mother, Washing Dishes by Susan Meyers
She rarely made us do it—
we’d clear the table instead—so my sister and I teased
that some day we’d train our children right
and not end up like her, after every meal stuck
with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us: gummy plates
in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.
Or did she guard her place
at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss
of the magnolia, the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
On Holy Thursday, I kneel down on the cool hard floor of the sanctuary before a small basin of water. I take a stranger’s feet into my palms. With my small hands I tip the heavy pitcher of water, and with great care, I wash these feet. I dry them.
And every year when I am through, I look up at a warm, humble smile. And for a brief, still moment, I offer one too.
I would never want to give that up.
“I haven’t written on the blog in so long,” I told my partner a few weeks ago. “I feel bad about it. But it just wasn’t coming to me–and lately, when the words come, I simply can’t get myself to sit still and write them. I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”
“No reason to feel bad about it,” he said, matter-a-factly. “Even God took a break.” Even God took a break.
Indeed, at the conclusion of the first creation narrative in Genesis 1, God takes a break–a seventh day sabbath. Surely, God’s break warrants my own respite from the creation process, right? This was consoling for a time…until the guilt began to encroach upon my psyche again. “God took a break after doing something,” I told myself. “I haven’t done any writing at all lately! And what’s more, God didn’t just create something. God created something ‘very good‘!” This logic only brings me right back to where I began.
This swirling mess of self-justification and degradation so often frames my daily reflection on life–not just my blogging life. If I’m not bemoaning my lazy writing practice, then it’s my inability to keep up with my growing email inbox or to-do lists, or my desire to work harder or fast or better, or harder and faster and better. The more I indulge this mindset, the more I find myself trapped in a world of insatiable demands. This cannot be the “very good” world that God created…right?
“I feel like I’m drowning,” I recently said this to someone on a particularly overwhelming day of tasks. It’s something I have said a hundred times before on a hundred other days like that one, but on that day the figurative image flashed before me: my arms flailing about, splashing water everywhere, grasping for air. Suddenly, I said to the drowning image of me, “Don’t you know that once you stop, you will float?”
It takes great courage to float–to believe that our survival does not depend on our own capacity to sustain ourselves. Such a risk stands in opposition to the myth of the self-made man that dominates the “American dream.” That is a dream of insatiable demands. But that’s not the “very good” world I want to live-into anyways.
The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The world was brought into being in the six days of creation, yet its survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.” I’m trying to live like this–to live out the belief that my creation, my own hard work, will not alone sustain my survival. Sometimes, we all need to rest–to float–until the gentle current pulls us into another space of creativity again.