Here we are again. Riding the wave of a worldwide spike. Separated from one another by our approaches to the oncoming rush of a variant which has so many of us isolating in our homes while others must venture out into the fray to keep things functioning, while still others are left to fend for themselves, out there, in the cold and cruelness of a world in which this wave is but the latest in a long line of viral injustice. From behind the hoped-for protection of our masked façade we mumble our weariness. For we are tired. Tired of listening for news of this wave’s impact upon billions of us. Tired of being separated from all but a few of those billions. Tired of wondering, when, or how, or where this latest wave will take us. Who can blame us for trying to distract ourselves from tidal realities? Struggling to home-school, endless Zoom meetings, overdosing on news reports, bingeing endless entertainment, escaping down technology’s rabbit holes, or gorging on festive leftovers, these distractions of privilege are exhausting.
Yesterday, I sat here in the comfort of my living-room clutching a warm cup of tea as the sun sparkled through these windows, tempting me to venture outside into the Artic frigid air, wondering what I might say to offer you comfort, or inspiration as we ride this wave together and apart. The warmth of the teacup in my hands pulled me from my melancholic thoughts to remind me of the vast BEYOND. Upon this cup the imprint of a Starry Starry Night, and it brought words from the past into this moment. In my mind’s ear I heard the artist Vincent Van Gogh’s words urging me to look beyond myself. Van Gogh said, “When I have a terrible need of, dare I say religion, then I go outside at night and paint the stars.” Over and over again, a prayer welled up in me, “The stars, the stars, the stars.” As our Day Star glistened outside my window, sending LIGHT cascading around this room, I traversed galaxies in my mind’s eye squinted to see what lies beyond myself. “The stars, the stars, the stars.” I prayed again and again, as the swell of the Cosmos caressed me with a tenderness beyond words. Longing to linger in the embrace of the ONE who is revealed in, with, through, and beyond the Cosmos, I closed my eyes and fell asleep, resting in the grace of the Cosmos. When the wet, cold, tea fell into my lap, I was refreshed, no longer feeling the need to gasp for air as the threatened pandemic tsunami continues its approach. For I AM. I AM held within the LOVE which is the DIVINE ONE.
Refreshed, restored, and empowered, I climbed the stairs to my office to read once again, the words which will be read in far flung places as christian communities celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.
Listen to the way the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke weaves his tale of the Baptism of Jesus, for it is different than the way you may remember it. Luke writes:
“The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is coming is more powerful than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:15-17)
Our anonymous gospel-storyteller continues, but these words are excluded from the prescribed reading. But these words speak volumes as we hunker-down before the oncoming wave.
“But Herod the ruler, whom John rebuked because of his wickedness, including his relationship with his sister-in-law, Herodias—committed another crime by throwing John into prison.” Luke 3:18-20)
Our anonymous gospel-storyteller places John the Baptist in prison before telling us of Jesus’ baptism. This detail points to a desperation which is often missed when we proclaim this all too familiar story. John the Baptist functions as a kind of tough medicine for the oppressed peoples of Palestine as the suffered under the cruel oppression of the Roman Empire. Despite John’s distasteful presence, screaming at the people to “REPENT!” to turn around and go another way, a way which would put them at odds with their oppressors, despite his counter-cultural ways, John the Baptist became the hope of the people, the hope of the Messiah they longed for. Placing their hope in John, the people followed him down to the Jordon River to participate in a radical act of resistance. Ritually cleansing themselves of the trappings of empire, John’s followers were refreshed and empowered for the struggle for freedom from empire. It was as if the waters of the Jordan, reminded them of who they were and freed them from their fears. Freedom is not conducive to building empires. So, the empire tossed John the Baptist into prison in order to convince the people that they were not free. But empire never seems to comprehend the contours of freedom. Our anonymous gospel-storyteller continues by proclaiming the peoples’ response to the empire’s attempt to suppress freedom by imprisoning their hope. According to Luke’s story, the people went down to the river to commit outrageous acts of resistance to the violence of empire.
Our anonymous story-teller continues: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the skies opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my OWN, the Beloved; with you I AM well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
In my mind’s eye, I can feel the waters of the Jordan, I can feel the refreshing, empowering, life-giving waters cascading over me, and I am not afraid for as I come up from the waters, I can see stars. The stars. The stars. The stars. And I am not afraid. I am not afraid for water is born of the remnants of ancient stars. As scientist and theologian, Dr. Linda Gibler, teaches us, in those first fractions of a second after the beginning bang of the Cosmos, tiny particles of matter were formed. These particles, or protons were hydrogen nuclei. As the newborn Cosmos expanded and cooled other particles were formed as hydrogen nuclei and they collied complexifying, becoming and becoming until atoms were born. Atoms tumbling into webs as the Cosmos expanded over millings of years, until gravity was born of clusters of atoms compressing under their own weight. Fast forward millions of years, when hot clouds of atoms generate enough heat to fuse together and release the energy to birth massive stars. Hundreds of millions of years after the Beginning, the first oxygen atoms formed. Large stars explode in supernova splendor and small stars die quietly as planetary nebulas, all stars over twice the size of our sun create oxygen atoms and upon their death release them into space where they encounter hydrogen. Hydrogen and oxygen finally met in the folds of stellar remnants, tumbling together. Finally, after many millions of years after the Beginning, water flowed in the Cosmos, giving birth to new stars. Fast forward many more millions of years, and look to our own Day Star, the Sun, study the Sun’s light and it will reveal water on the surface of the Sun. Closer to home, Earth is saturated with water, but unlike other planets, here on our glorious blue planet, water exists in all three of its states. Its vaporous state permeates the atmosphere. Liquid water forms the clouds of the atmosphere, and falls to create the rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans which birth and sustain all life. Frozen water covers the mountaintops, forms polar caps, and falls as snow upon our doorsteps.
Our world oozes with water, our bodies are wet with moisture become life. We are not just living in the Cosmos, we are made of the stuff of the Cosmos. A Cosmos set in motion by a CREATOR beyond our ability to imagine, comprehend or name and yet a CREATOR we are compelled by Cosmic forces to seek, to know, and to love. We just can help wanting to be sought, known, and loved by the ONE in which we live and move and have our being. Now, surely, our ancestors knew something of our need of the ONE who is BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that also when they developed rituals designed to remind us who and what we are. Water, fire, oil, the elements of the Cosmos which point us BEYOND ourselves. Water the stuff of life. For it is out of the waters of our mother’s womb that we are born. Fire the essence of stars. For it is fire which brings the LIGHT into our world to warm, comfort, inspire, and challenge us. Oil pressed by human hands to anoint, “to christ” the baptized.
For it is oil with which our ancestors confirmed the messiahship, the christness, of the beloved children of DIVINITY. Water, Fire, and Oil brought together proclaim our freedom to BE, here and now in this moment, in the embrace of the ONE who IS BEYOND, who comes to us in the stuff of the Cosmos. It may be difficult to catch a glimpse of our Cosmic freedom, during these days when so many are shouting about their individual freedoms; shouts born not of who we are, but rather born out of fear. The only medicine I know which is strong enough to remind us of who we are is the kind of medicine powerful enough to free us from our fear. That medicine is born of the stars.
Earlier this week, a dear friend and colleague, who is currently engaged on the frontlines, working as a hospital chaplain, reminded me where this medicine can be found. Thank-you Eric for reminding me of the words of Wendell Berry, a self-described farmer and poet, who writes these words in his classic poem, “The Peace of the Wild Things”
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
To Berry’s beautiful poem I would respond by saying that I rest in the grace of the Cosmos and I am free. I rest in the grace of the Cosmos, a Cosmos set in motion by the ONE who is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also.
During these challenging days, may you also rest in the grace of the Cosmos. And when you rise up from your rest, may you hear the words of our LOVER, declare that you dear one are the BELOVED CHRIST, for you are the one with whom our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself is well pleased. Rest well in the Cosmos and rise up in your christness, free, for freedom is yours, now and always. Thanks be to all that IS HOLY!
 Adapted from: Dr. Linda Gibler, “From the Beginning to Baptism: Scientific and Sacred Stories of Water, Oil, and Fire” Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2010.
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