In Canada and the United States, we live so far from the Biblical world that on occasion we have to remind ourselves of that fact simply to understand the sacred Scriptures properly. Hurricanes can be such a reminder.
How far do we live from the Biblical world in which Jesus preached? We are told, for example, that the gospel is “good news for the poor”. How is it good news then for us, who are the wealthiest one per cent of all peoples who have ever lived? Even those who are poor among us are not the Biblically destitute. We are told many parables about crops and livestock. What does that mean for us, when almost none of us farm, and perhaps don’t even know many who do? Jesus preaches to a people living under foreign occupation who extracted a heavy burden of taxes. What does that mean for us who live in a democracy in which our governments spend more on public services than they tax?
Perhaps the greatest contrast between the early 21st century and the early first century is our relationship to nature. We have largely domesticated nature, and think something terrible has happened when the weather turns fiercely against us, when a winter storm blows hard or, as in recent weeks, hurricanes make landfall.
As Hurricane Irma was gathering force off the west coast of Africa and heading toward the Caribbean, North Americans were enjoying the final days of summer. We were heading out on the waters. We have tamed them, made them safe for splashing, floating, swimming, boating. The beach and the lake beckon us. The waters promise refreshment and relaxation and recreation.
That is not how people in Biblical times thought about the waters. The waters 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 technological advancements now permit us to send cameras down below to record magnificent aquatic creatures. The waters no longer conjure fear. We have disciplined 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.
The scriptures do provide passages that speak of the refreshing, restful waters. Psalm 23 is perhaps the most well known of all. We are shaped, too, 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 not places of recreation. 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.
Similar words were no doubt prayed as Irma flattened the Caribbean islands she swept over. Sunday services were cancelled in south Florida as Irma headed north, but I expect that ministers may have prayed Psalm 69 for their absent congregations.
The Biblical waters are the realm of death. They have not been tamed. This is the symbolic meaning of our baptism. The water of baptism has different meanings, and today we tend to think more of the symbol of washing. For Catholics and Orthodox and others who have infant baptism, 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. And we don’t fully grasp the biblical worldview unless we remember that, for those living with and listening to Jesus, the waters were a place of danger and the storm was a lethal threat.
The tradition of immersion baptisms makes that more clear, for to be immersed in the waters 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 – the feast of which is observed liturgically today, the Triumph of the Holy Cross.
The Biblical world was more afraid of what nature could do, what the chaos of the waters could bring. We don’t see that too often today, save for when the hurricanes come. It is a good time to remember that Jesus walks across the waters to say to His apostles, “Be not afraid”.
Hurricanes and the suffering they bring move us easily to prayer. They are also an occasion to return to the Scriptures, to read them again with the eyes of those who first heard them.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. (Song of Songs 8:7)
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