Sunday, June 21, 2009

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Three years ago this month I went with a group of people,
including some Corpus Christi parishioners,
down to New Orleans to participate in the efforts
to rebuild the city after hurricane Katrina,
which had hit the gulf coast some nine-months previously.
I say “rebuilding efforts” but in fact what we spent the week doing
was emptying and gutting a house in the lower Ninth Ward —
a low-income area of the city that was particularly hard-hit
in the flooding following Katrina —
as a prelude to its possible rebuilding.
Wearing protective masks and heavy clothing,
we spent our days hauling out furniture, appliances,
and personal belongings
that had been ruined by the rising waters,
and then tearing out the mold-covered walls and floors
so that the house would be ready if, one day,
the owner might find the money and emotional energy to rebuild.

Two things stand out in my mind from this experience.
One is the immense destructive power of water.
The interior of this house looked as if a giant
had picked the whole thing up
and shaken it vigorously.
Furniture had been moved from one room to another;
heavy appliances had been overturned;
every single item that was touched by the water
had been displaced.
And this was not simply one house;
when we stepped outside and looked up and down the street,
we saw an entire community that had been destroyed by water:
almost all of the houses were deserted
and the only people on the streets seemed to be National Guardsmen
and occasional drug dealers.
I have never in my life had a keener sense
of the deadly, destructive power of water.

This destructive power of water
is highlighted in our first reading and Gospel.
More precisely, we are assured in those readings
that God’s power is greater than water’s destructive power.
God can bar the doors of the sea
and say to the proud waves, “be stilled.”
And Christ, the power of God incarnate,
can “rebuked the wind” and say to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!”
It is the God who creates the sea who can command it,
and this is the God we encounter in Jesus Christ.

The other thing that stands out in my mind
from that week in New Orleans
was how the combination of our heavy protective clothing
and the climate of New Orleans in June,
with temperatures in the nineties,
gave me not just a sense of water’s destructive power,
but also a sense of the life-giving and life-sustaining power of water.
We were told that frequent water breaks
were not a luxury but a necessity
and we quickly learned that this was true.
We sometimes say that we are “dying of thirst,”
but during that week I began to have some sense
of what this might mean in a literal sense.
The same element that had destroyed the lives
of the residents of the lower Ninth Ward
was also life-sustaining.
Indeed, one of the factors preventing people from moving back
was the lack of fresh water.

The power of water to give death is matched by its power to give life
and it is for this reason, I believe,
that Christ chose water as the outward sign
of the sacrament by which we become members of his body,
the sacrament we celebrate today.

In our second reading, Paul tells us
that “whoever is in Christ is a new creation.”
Paul sees salvation not in terms of what happens after we die,
but rather in terms becoming a “new creation,”
of taking on a new sort of existence
that he characterizes as being “in Christ.”
This is an existence in which we live no longer for ourselves,
but for the God who creates and redeems us.
And our Catholic faith is that this normally happens to us
through the sacrament of baptism.
In baptism, the life-giving power of water
is raised by God to a new level.
The water that sustains our mortal lives
is taken up by God in baptism
to become the instrument through which
God grants us immortal life,
through which we become a new creation.

But Paul also tells us that becoming this new creation
means leaving behind our old self:
“the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”
And here we return to the destructive power of water,
the power of water to sweep away all in its path.
The waters of baptism are the waters of life,
but they are also, in a certain sense, the waters of death —
the death of an old way of life:
a way of life that we are born into as members of the human race,
a way of life in which we live only for ourselves,
a way of life that Jesus died to free us from.
Old things must be swept away by the flood of baptism
so that new things might come.
In baptism, our old self is plunged into the waters of death
so that we might arise from the waters of life as a new creation.

Death and new life:
this is pretty serious business for a tiny baby.
Indeed, it sounds sort of risky.
But it is precisely because life itself
is a serious, risky business
that we bring our children to the waters of baptism.
We bring them because we believe
that they too have been born into that old way of life
from which all of us must be freed.
We bring them because we believe
that dying to the old ways of living for ourselves
and leading the life of the new creation in Christ
is the path of true life.
We bring them because we believe
that Christ is the one “whom even wind and sea obey”
and that those who have faith in him need not fear.
So let the waters of baptism
sweep away the old life,
and let the waters of baptism
give and sustain our new life in Christ.