Summertime and we head out on the waters. We have tamed them, made them safe for splashing, floating, swimming, boating. The beach and the lake beckon us away from the city. The waters promise refreshment and relaxation and recreation.
They were not created so. They were not made tame and tranquil. The Spirit hovered about the waters in the beginning, and there was chaos and darkness and the void. The biblical waters speak of the depths, down into which one descends, away from light and life. Our technologically advanced life is rather distant from the biblical world now, and the waters no longer conjure fear. We have tamed the waters, flattened out the depths. Yet the depths and the darkness cannot be altogether banished, for life in this world has not the power to tame death.
Kenton Van Pelt, 15, died in the waters at his family cottage on July 28. His parents, Michael and Deani, are friends of mine. We have worked together, as Michael is president of Cardus, the think tank that publishes our new magazine, Convivium. Michael and Deani and I have been on pilgrimage together in the Holy Land. We have laughed together and prayed together. They are an exemplary Christian couple. Now their world has been overwhelmed by the destructive power of the waters, the darkness and chaos crashing down upon them and their son. Summertime has come, and the wreckage of the waters with it.
The Christian is inclined toward those biblical passages that speak of the refreshing, restful waters of Psalm 23 beside which the Lord leads us. We are shaped by the vision of Ezekiel, where the waters from the temple flow out into the Judean wilderness, bringing forth life in abundance from the arid desert.
Yet we forget that in the ancient world the waters were occasions of danger. The fear of the apostles amidst the storms on the Sea of Galilee was real enough. It is not Psalm 23, but Psalm 69 that speaks more truly about the biblical sense of the waters: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”
The biblical waters are the realm of death. They have not been tamed. This is the meaning of our baptism. The water of baptism has different meanings, and today we tend to think more of the symbol of washing. The waters poured gently over the head of a baby wash away the stain of original sin. Or we might think about the waters providing refreshment and nourishment as an apt symbol of grace being poured into the soul.
We neglect the waters as a symbol of death. Perhaps if immersion baptisms were more common we would see that more clearly, for to be immersed too long means death not life. The children of Israel, marching through the Red Sea, knew that they were passing through death, towering upon either side of them, as the Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers would soon discover.
We are baptized into Christ Jesus, and into His death. St. Paul writes to the Romans that “we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with Him. Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over Him.”
The answer to the waters of death is the waters of baptism. The answer to the mystery of death is the death on the cross. We are baptized into Christ crucified so that He might draw us through the waters to His resurrection. The Christian is not asked to pretend that the waters cannot bring death; to the contrary the disciple knows better than others that the waters of this vale of tears cannot be definitively tamed. Yet the waters of baptism give him confidence that life, not death, has the final word. Even in the face of the death of a young man, the Christian hears the Lord Jesus, who walks across the waters to say to His apostles, “Be not afraid.”
There are few sufferings more intense than the agony of parents who must bury their own child. Suffering is proportional to love. And it is the love — of parents for their son, of God for the world, of the Lord Jesus for those baptized into His body — that remains to give life, and life eternal.
“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song of Songs 8:7).