It is not surprising that water is the central symbol of Baptism. Water and air are the two pivotal ways of linking the life of the sacred with our own lives. Air, or breath, is a universal symbol in many religions for the coming of the Spirit and the Spirit coming to me. Likewise water is the stuff of life. We drink it, we bathe and wash in it and we are made of it. "Dr Google" says that we are about 60% water (some difference between males and females). Water is life. Without breath we have about 3 minutes of life; without water maybe 3 days; without food perhaps 3 weeks. Water gives us and life its shape, form and vitality.
The Sacred in Nature
So Baptism uses water as its fundamental Christian symbol. I have mentioned before that the root symbols of our faith are common everyday things. Meals of bread and wine; the air in breath or storms or the gentle breeze; water and land, rocks and stones are all pressed into service to both illustrate and encounter the sacred, the divine, the mysterious presences of God.
I like the fact that the rebel Jacob slept with his head on a stone and later wrestled with a messenger of God who wounded him in the thigh. A wound he carried for the rest of his life. Moses does encounter the divine in a mystical experience that he puts into words by saying that God appeared to him in a burning bush. Jonah is swallowed by a mythical whale a creature of the sea and part of this world. And Jesus dies on a cross made of wood and buried in a tomb where the entrance is covered by a stone a rock.
Perhaps what I am trying to say is that we are surrounded by the sacred. That God the creator is in all things and that when we bring a "contemplative mind" to this world, then everything is Holy.
John Muir was a naturalist who was instrumental in having the area in California we call Yosemite declared a National Park. Muir had a deeply spiritual and sacred view of life and the world. He said:
"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, [one] finds it attached to the rest of the world The sun shines not only on us but also in us. The rivers flow not past us, but also through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fibre and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love."
This is what we call the creation and it has taken many billions of years to get to where it is today. In part that is why we see it as sacred, but also it is sacred because we can identify the fingerprint of God on it.
You may often hear the use of the word creator in Church services. Sadly, we dont hear enough about creativity. That is what we do with the images and stuff of the life we touch and taste and see about us. I have emphasised what we might call the natural order of life, trees, water, air, fire even, and so forth. But there is also how we encounter this and what we do with it. We are also surrounded by created objects and images and as Pip has shown us this morning we can reflect on such things and bring meaning and depth to them.
Thats why we can say this building is beautiful. It was made with the hands of "men" - not completely true. These beautiful cushions were woven by women. And I am sure there are other parts of the building that have the womans touch. So what I am saying is that we take the elements of the universe, and through our creativity we form them into objects that are not just beautiful but display the presence of God.
As Lachlan was baptised this morning we used water, a symbol of creation. But we formed a "ritual" around that nature element; a living ritual, not ritualism or something that is without life. But a moment of sacred and divine encounter. We also placed the water in a bowl copper, I believe, and the water was blessed. I didnt bless the water. The water was blessed in the act of how it was being used. It was a display of Gods presence in the moment and in the natural element of water.
Blessing in the Natural World
I have had the terrifying privilege of being with people in the last moments of their life. I say terrifying because at that point there are no words of healing or health that can be said. There only remains one thing and that is to say a blessing. I have moved in recent years from saying, "Would you like me to pray for you?" to saying, "May I offer you a blessing?" In most cases people will say "Yes please." I have been influenced in this approach by the Celtic poet and philosopher John ODonohue. In these cases of Blessing I dont have any words in front of me, so the words that come are whatever comes. Here is such a Blessing from John ODonohue, certainly not the words I would use, but he has captured the essence of what can be said:
May death come gently towards you,
Leaving you time to make your way
Through the cold embrace of fear
To the place of inner tranquility.
May death arrive only after a long life
To find you at home among your own
With every comfort and care you require.
May your leave-taking be gracious,
Enabling you to hold dignity
Through awkwardness and illness.
May you see the reflection
Of your life's kindness and beauty
In all the tears that fall for you.
As your eyes focus on each face,
May your soul take its imprint
Drawing each image within
As companions for the journey.
May you find for each one you love
A different locket of jewelled words
To be worn around the heart
To warm your absence.
May someone who knows and loves
The complex village of your heart
Be there to echo you back to yourself
And create a sure word-raft
To carry you to the further shore.
May your spirit feel
The surge of true delight
When the veil of the visible
Is raised, and you glimpse again
The living faces
Of departed family and friends.
May there be some beautiful surprise
Waiting for you inside death,
Something you never knew or felt,
Which with one simple touch
Absolves you of all loneliness and loss,
As you quicken within the embrace
For which your soul was eternally made.
May your heart be speechless
At the sight of the truth
Of all your belief had hoped,
Your heart breathless
In the light and lightness
Where each and every thing
Is at last its true self
Within that serene belonging
That dwells beside us
On the other side
Of what we see.
For the Dying
by John O'Donohue
Finally, I wanted to make a segue here because the passage from Romans read earlier speaks not only about baptism being about life, but it also has the striking words of death. Using Eugene Petersons paraphrase:
When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace a new life in a new land!
The promise of parents on behalf of their child is that they will nurture and nourish them in a new way of life, for the old way has passed away. That is not an easy thing to do. It will take many years, sometimes of trial and error, to live into this new way. Blessing on all who commit themselves to this way.