Today’s reading from Genesis begins the second creation account (Genesis 2,4..) which pays particular attention to the creation of human beings. But it begins with water, welling up from the earth bringing life to the earth and finally the human family.
Water is at the heart of the garden God provides for Adam and Eve. We have a fountain in the center of our Mary Garden signifying water’s vital role in the garden that was Eden and in the world we live in today.
Pope Francis speaks repeatedly of the role of water in our common home of creation and our need to care for it. Here are some of his reflections from his 2018 World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Notice his strong objection to attempts to privatize water by commercial groups.
“On this World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, which the Catholic Church for several years now has celebrated in union with our Orthodox brothers and sisters and with participation of other Churches and Christian communities, I would like to draw attention to the question of water. It is a very simple and precious element, yet access to it is, sadly, for many people difficult if not impossible. Nonetheless, “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world owes a great social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (ibid., 30). Water invites us to reflect on our origins. The human body is mostly composed of water, and many civilizations throughout history arose near great rivers that marked their identity. In an evocative image, the beginning of the book of Genesis states that, in the beginning, the spirit of the Creator “swept over the face of the waters (1:2)”. In considering the fundamental role of water in creation and in human development, I feel the need to give thanks to God for “Sister Water”, simple and useful for life like nothing else on our planet. Precisely for this reason, care for water sources and water basins is an urgent imperative. Today, more than ever, we need to look beyond immediate concerns (cf. Laudato Si’, 36) and beyond a purely utilitarian view of reality, “in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit” (ibid., 159). We urgently need shared projects and concrete gestures that recognize that every privatization of the natural good of water, at the expense of the human right to have access to this good, is unacceptable. For us Christians, water represents an essential element of purification and of life. We think immediately of baptism, the sacrament of our rebirth. Water made holy by the Spirit is the matter by which God has given us life and renewed us; it is the blessed source of undying life. For Christians of different confessions, baptism also represents the real and irreplaceable point of departure for experiencing an ever more authentic fraternity on the way to full unity. Jesus, in the course of his mission, promised a water capable of quenching human thirst for ever (cf. Jn 4:14). He prophesied, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink (Jn 7:37). To drink from Jesus means to encounter him personally as the Lord, drawing from his words the meaning of life. May the words he spoke from the cross – “I thirst” (Jn 19:28) – echo constantly in our hearts. The Lord continues to ask that his thirst be quenched; he thirsts for love. He asks us to give him to drink in all those who thirst in our own day, and to say to them, “I was thirsty and you gave me to drink” (Mt 25:35). To give to drink, in the global village, does not only entail personal gestures of charity, but also concrete choices and a constant commitment to ensure to all the primary good of water.”
Here’s a favorite picture of mine from the Staten Island Ferry. You say it’s a picture of the New York skyline?
I say it’s a picture of water that gave birth to the city. True, isn’t it? The water was here first. The city came to be because water brought the world here, making the city a capitol of world trade and drawing millions of human beings to this place.
These waters once abounded with fish, the surrounding areas abounded in game. Plenty for all, so the native peoples allowed the original Dutch settlers a little piece of land for themselves.
Now look at it. The man who built the new World Trade Center claims it’s the tallest building in the country, challenging the heavens–like Babel.
.Be careful, though, about challenging the heavens and forgetting about the earth. Be careful about the waters that brought you where you are. No fish or oysters here to eat now. Little space for the waters to go when they rise. And they will.
Don’t forget– the water was here first. It’s a “vision thing.” That’s what Pope Francis says in “Laudato si”.
This week’s readings from Genesis are good readings for improving our vision.
Take a look at the UN vision, from Passionist International, at the United Nations:
UN Water Conference: March 22-24, New York
Water is an essential element to be addressed in all its facets as changes in water cycle contribute to climate change, inducing both fast-moving wet shocks (increasing storms, flooding) and slow-moving dry shocks (desertification, draught); is essential for health and sanitation, food production and nourishment; and our ocean life is increasingly being threatened by pollutants, fishing practices, and now attempts at deep sea mining extraction. Glaciers, which hold 3⁄4 of the world’s fresh water are rapidly melting. Water must be protected in all its forms. Water is life. It is at the heart of adaptation to climate change, and
Accessto water and sanitation is a human right.
Water and sanitation flow through every aspect of sustainable development. A well-managed water cycle is critical to human society and the integrity of the natural environment…The vision for this Conference is that we all fundamentally understand, value and manage water better and take concerted action to achieve the internationally agreed water-related goals and targets, including those contained in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
See how water intersects with multiple goals for sustainable development:
*Registration for in-person attendance to the conference is open until February 10th. Please let me know asap prior to that date if you are interested in attending in New York. Note: Live webcast of official meetings can be viewed at webtv.un.org
The land where Jesus lived spoke to him and inspired so many of the parables he taught. Did the water speak to him too? “
Jesus went out along the sea. All the crowd came to him and he taught them. As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed Jesus. (Mark 2:13)
From the waters of the Jordan River where he heard his Father’s voice and the Spirit rested on him, Jesus went to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. He taught crowds there. He traveled its waters and encountered its storms. He called disciples there.
Pilgrims today still look quietly on those waters when they visit this holy place. From the mountains above, the Sea of Galilee seems like a stage for gospel stories we hear. The waters of the Jordan flowing into it and out on their way to the Dead Sea remind them how connected the mysteries of faith are. Fishermen, along with cormorants and herons, still fish the waters. At night, a stillness centuries old, takes over.
.Jesus began his ministry here. This land and its waters spoke to him. They also can speak to us.
The Jordan River figures in many of scriptures’ sacred stories and it’s still vital to this land today. It winds almost 200 miles from its sources at the base of the Golan mountains in the north into the Sea of Galilee and then on to the Dead Sea in the south. The direct distance from one end to the other is only about 60 miles. The river falls almost 3,000 feet on its way to the Dead Sea,.
The Jordan has been sacred to Jews from the time they miraculously crossed it on their way to the Promised Land. The great Jewish prophet Elijah came from a town near the river’s banks. Later he found safety from his enemies there.
Elijah’s successor, the Prophet Elisha, also from the Jordan area, told Naaman a Syrian general to bathe in the river to be cured of his leprosy, and he was cured. Ancient hot springs near Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee fostered the river’s curative reputation then. They’re still used today.
At the time of Jesus, the river’s fresh flowing waters were the life-blood of the land, making the Sea of Galilee teem with fish and the plains along its banks fertile for agriculture. Pilgrims from Galilee followed the Jordan on their way to Jericho and then to Jerusalem and its temple.
The Jordan Today
The river is still essential to the region. Lake Kineret, as the Israelis call the Sea of Galilee, is the primary source of drinking water for the region and crucial for its agriculture. The use of water from the Jordan is a major point of controversy between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The Jordan nourished prophets in the past. Somewhere near Jericho where people forded the river John the Baptist preached to and baptized pilgrims going to the Holy City. The place where John baptized was hardly a desert as we think of it. It was a deserted place that offered sufficient food for survival, like the “ grass-hoppers and wild honey” John ate, but this uncultivated place taught you to depend on what God provided.
Jesus taught this too. “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Mt 6, 25 ff) The desert was a place to put worry aside and trust in the goodness of God.
When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, he acknowledged his heavenly Father as the ultimate Source of Life, the creator of all things. Water, as it always is, was a holy sign of life. Like the prophets Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus remained in this wilderness near the water for forty days to prepare for his divine mission. He readied himself to depend on God for everything.
The Jordan after Jesus
Later, when the Roman empire turned Christian in the 4th century, Christians came to the Jordan River in great numbers on Easter and on the Feast of the Epiphany to remember the One who was baptized there. They went into the sacred waters, and many took some of it home in small containers.
Early Christian pilgrims like Egeria, a nun from Gaul who came to the Holy Land around the year 415 AD, left an account of her visit to the Jordan where she looked for the place of Jesus’ baptism. Monks who had already settled near the river brought her to a place called Salim, near Jericho. The town, associated with the priest Melchisedech, was surrounded by fertile land with a revered spring that flowed into the Jordan close by. Here’s how she described it:
“We came to a very beautiful fruit orchard, in the center of which the priest showed us a spring of the very purest and best water, which gives rise to a real stream. In front of the spring there is a sort of pool where it seems that St. John the Baptist administered baptism. Then the saintly priest said to us: ‘To this day this garden is known as the garden of St. John.’ There are many other brothers, holy monks coming from various places, who come to wash in that spring.
“The saintly priest also told us that even today all those who are to be baptized in this village, that is in the church of Melchisedech, are always baptized in this very spring at Easter; they return very early by candlelight with the clergy and the monks, singing psalms and antiphons; and all who have been baptized are led back early from the spring to the church of Melchisedech.” p 73
A 19th Century Pilgrim at the Jordan
Christians in great numbers have visited the Jordan River since Egeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, an English vicar, Cunningham Geikie, described Christian pilgrims following the venerable tradition of visiting its waters.
“Holy water is traditionally carried away by ship masters visiting the river as pilgrims to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved as a winding sheet to be wrapped around them at their death.
“The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, each sect having its own particular spot, which it fondly believes to be exactly where our Savior was baptized…
“Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start, in a great caravan, from Jerusalem, under the protection of the Turkish government; a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday, the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in the second caravan. Formerly the numbers going to the Jordan each year was much greater, from fifteen to twenty thousand….”(Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 pp 404-405)
The Jordan and Christian Baptism
Today, every Catholic parish church at its baptistery celebrates the mystery of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan as new believers receive new life and regular believers remember their own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some eastern Christian churches call their baptisteries simply “the Jordan.”
Today the most authentic site of Jesus’ Baptism, according to archeologists, is in Jordanian territory at el-Maghtas, where a large church and pilgrim center has been built following excavations begun in 1996 by Jordanian archeologists. It is probably the “Bethany beyond the Jordan” mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus was baptized and John the Baptist preached.
The Jordan River offers a commentary on the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus, expressed in his baptism. At one end of the river is the Sea of Galilee brimming with life, and at the other end is the Dead Sea a symbol of death. The river holds these two realities together, and if we reverse its course we can see the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ.
Like him, we pass through the waters of baptism from death to life.
Cyril of Jerusalem has a wonderful sermon on water that he preached to catechumens centuries ago. Here are a couple of lines:
“Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.”
The saint goes on to say that just as water adapts itself to every creature, the Holy Spirit gives life to each one according to its needs and to benefit the common good. The Spirit’s coming is gentle, not felt as a burden, with tenderness, as a true friend, to save, heal, counsel, strengthen and console.
So back to spring rains. Will they come this year? The magnolia trees outside my room testify they’ve come, and the other trees and plants in our garden testify too. The rain falling on the earth does what it always does. Like the Spirit of God, water brings life.
And it brings life to all the varied plants, all shapes, all sizes, even some we might think useless or poisonous. Might we learn from the spring rains?
Send the spring rains, Lord, on our varied earth and human family.
The Holy Spirit is “poured out on all flesh,” Peter tells the crowd at Pentecost. The Spirit is like water poured out, St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells his hearers:
“The water I shall give him will become in him a fountain of living water, welling up into eternal life. This is a new kind of water, a living, leaping water, welling up for those who are worthy. But why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water? Because all things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.
“In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each one as he wills. Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit. Although the Spirit never changes, the effects of his action, by the will of God and in the name of Christ, are both many and marvellous.
“The Spirit makes one person a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one person’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast and lead a life of asceticism, makes another oblivious to the needs of the body, trains another for martyrdom. His action is different in different people, but the Spirit himself is always the same. In each person, Scripture says, the Spirit reveals his presence in a particular way for the common good.
“The Spirit comes gently and makes himself known by his fragrance. He is not felt as a burden, for he is light, very light. Rays of light and knowledge stream before him as he approaches. The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend and protector to save, to heal, to teach, to counsel, to strengthen, to console. The Spirit comes to enlighten the mind first of the one who receives him, and then, through him, the minds of others as well.
“As light strikes the eyes of a person who comes out of darkness into the sunshine and enables him to see clearly things he could not discern before, so light floods the soul of someone counted worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit and enables him to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of.” (Catechesis)
At the Masses I celebrated on Easter Sunday following the homily I cast holy water on the congregation after we renewed our baptismal promises. We renounced Satan and said we believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his son, and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Yes, we believe in God’s church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Then, I went through the congregation sprinkling them with water, the sign of life, the sign poured out on us at our baptism. I tried not to leave anyone out.
Of course the church was more full on Easter. Some I knew smiled when I sprinkled them generously with the water. Many I didn’t recognize, and I wondered what they thought of it all. The kids squinted when the water hit their faces. Some devoutly made the sign of the cross, some seemed a little uncomfortable.
Easter’s more than hearing something; it’s believing what we hear. Does the water fall on rock and hard ground as well as on good soil I wondered? God promises to “pour out water” on his people, the scriptures say. It’s a generous gesture God makes. Water, too, makes its way we know. It’s everywhere in God’s creation. We hardly realize how present it is in us; it’s there in every tissue of our bodies. God is there in us all, seen and unseen.
So the rite of the church says: Sprinkle them all with water, and this I did.
In the easter season the Risen Christ comes to us in signs and sacraments. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is one of his signs, but let’s not forget the Sacrament of Baptism, another gift we receive from the Risen Lord. He blesses us in water.
Water is a sign of death and of life, says Saint Basil the Great.
“Like a tomb, the water receives the body, symbolizing death; while the Spirit pours in the quickening power, renewing our souls from the deadness of sin into their original life. This then is what it is to be born again of water and of the Spirit, the water bringing the necessary death while the Spirit creates life within us…
“ Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the status of adopted children our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory – in a word, our being brought into a state of all fullness of blessing both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us. Through faith we behold the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, but we still have to wait for the full enjoyment of them. If such is the promise, what will the perfection be like? If these are the first fruits, what will be the complete fulfillment?” Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit
The heavens open when Jesus goes into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized. The Spirit descends on him and the Father announces his pleasure in him: “Listen to him,” we’re told, and share in his life.
The baptism of Jesus, a feast we celebrate with the Feast of the Epiphany, affirms a new connection between earth and heaven. It speaks through the simple, fundament sign of water. Going into the Jordan, Jesus indicates that God blesses the waters of the earth– and consequently creation itself– with life. Our second reading today from Isaiah 55, 1-11 illustrates this mystery so well. First of all, Jesus quenches the thirst of our souls; he comes to quench the thirst of all:
“ All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!” Isaiah 55, 1
God’s gift of Jesus Christ not only satisfies our thirst as individuals, he comes to revive the institutions of our world.
“I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
As I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of nations,
so shall you summon a nation you knew not,
and nations that knew you not shall run to you,
because of the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.” (Isaiah 55)
Jesus Christ also comes to purify the world and those who dwell in it:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked man his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55
Finally, in his Son, God makes an everlasting covenant with our world:
Sacraments, earthly signs of divine mystery, also shed light on some social questions we wrestle with day by day.
For example, water is the sign of Baptism, and what is more urgent today than the world’s use of this vital element for life? Like the air we breathe, we depend on clean water for drinking, agriculture, sanitation and hygiene.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) says that more than 1 billion people – about one in six people in the world – have no access to clean and safe drinking water, which then is a cause of poverty, conflict, disease and death.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.8 million children die every year as a result of diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation. Women and children, the usual providers of water, spend long hours walking to get water, often from polluted sources. The time they spend prevents them from benefiting from other work or from school.
The feast of the Baptism of Jesus usually ends our celebration of the Christmas season, as it does this year. Jesus came that we might have life, and among his great signs promising life are signs of food and drink. Can we fulfill his promise of life by working today to eradicate hunger and the lack of clean water in so many parts of the world? Doesn’t a cause like that follow from our own baptism? It’s part of the first of the Millenium Development Goals agreed upon by the peoples of the world at the United Nations.
It’s interesting that among the earliest directions for the rite of Baptism in early Christianity–found also in Jewish purification rituals too–is the instruction that people be baptized in “flowing water, ” clean, fresh water.
The signs of our sacraments take us beyond personal salvation; they are signs for our wider world too.