Fr Bob Eccles takes invites us to reflect on the meaning of our baptism – via a river and its swimmers…
The waters of a river give joy to the city. I think you know that verse of a psalm? there are rivers that take the shortest quickest way through the town, business-like, and get away as soon as possible. And there are places where the river winds and lingers for theirs is a love affair. Cambridge lies in the sweet embrace of her river and shows it her loveliest face, she knows all its modes and its moods, towny and scholarly and countrified. Who among us doesn’t love the dear Cam? Her poets and philosophers have swum in her waters just like our own Nicks and Angelas who brave the cold. Have you heard the geese calling as they fly overhead? this is the winter of discontent but there will soon be new life on the river, the first broods of Spring, and it won’t be long before the daffodils blow beside the towpaths.
Standing water, ponds and pools, have their friends I suppose, but streams and rivers are living water, water of life. The river is a timeless metaphor for the course of a human life that has its quiet beginnings and long winding journey until it loses itself in the sea. In ancient times to cross a river was to move out of the past into strange new worlds, when Caesar crosses the Rubicon he becomes an invader, the die is cast he says for there is no turning back, he must conquer or die in the attempt. The people Moses leads must brave the waters of the Nile to escape the cruel Pharoah and risk the unknown, Joshua leads them dryshod through the Jordan to the land of the Promise. Out of Egypt I have called my Son are words spoken by the evangelist of the Christ, to say that he is in himself the Israel of God, the Christ who steps down now into the Jordan to be baptised by John, so that all righteousness may be fulfilled. To be righteous means to have chosen the right way, it means to be alright with God.
In the great basilica of St John Lateran in Rome the font is a great basin let into the baptistery floor, deep enough for an adult to be dipped under like a swimmer dives. Nick and Angela and their kind know they have to be water-babies, active, stay still and you only sink, or lose your footing perhaps and are carried downstream. Swimming is just an organised form of struggle to be sure you don’t drown, isn’t it? The Greek for struggle is agon which gives us ‘agony’: and the water that is the spring of all life is a double-sided reality for it also spells death, death by drowning. That the strong Son of God goes down into the death-dealing waters, tells us that he takes upon himself our struggle, our breathy human adventure and its enemy Death. So it is prophetic of that agony which is the suffering of the Cross; I have a baptism with which I must be baptised, he says, and how I am pent up until it is all done. Yes the waters will come in even unto his soul.
When we were baptised, says the Apostle, we joined him in death, so that as he was raised from death by the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. Are we passive in the face of the threats and challenges that grieve us so, must we just suffer alone and discouraged, silent and lonely? So many fellow citizens feel aimless and unhappy, what can we do about it? Who believe that prayer is the spark of action? are our hearts to be the hearthstone of the charity of his heart that was on fire with love for us and led him from Jordan to Calvary and Golgotha? Are we not too, baptised believers, called to be free and faithful in Christ, already sharers in the victory of God?