Sunday, January 6, 2019

Through the Waters

Images of the baptism of Christ often show Jesus standing in gently rippling water - sometimes up to his waist, other times only ankle deep. John stands beside him pouring a gentle stream of water onto Jesus' head, often from a scallop shell. The waters of baptism as related in the text (Luke 3:15-22) are carefully controlled by the artist so as to not detract from either the Savior or his fur-clad cousin. It's a far cry from a situation that would lead God to promise that "when you go through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you" (Isaiah 43:1-7). It's hard to imagine that God would need to promise to be with anyone in ankle-deep water. But the path through those waters of baptism led to the cross and Jesus' anguished cry that God was nowhere to be found.

As artists have managed their images, perhaps we in Christ's church have managed baptism to the point that its waters no longer seem even dangerous enough to warrant our careful attention. We use a careful dribble of water or step down smooth-surfaced steps into a carefully filled pool. And we believe these tidy, manageable actions symbolize our being named as Christ's own and grafted into the body of Christ. Annie Dillard wrote about worship: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”  [Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.]

Perhaps we would be better served (and have more truth in advertising for the claims baptism makes on our lives) if our baptismal images were more like Maggi Hambling's "Wave" paintings. Hambling's paintings are inspired by the artist's experience of the gigantic waves that crash onto the sea wall in Southwold, Suffolk, England. The paintings are often large, measuring over six by seven feet, allowing viewers standing in front of the paintings to feel the size and power of the waves. This is no ankle-deep wading. These are waves that threaten to overwhelm. This is the voice of the Lord that is over the waters, thundering over mighty waters (Psalm 29:3). This is drama and danger enough to make one search for and be grateful for the ongoing presence of God.

Top: Maggi Hambling. Wall of water V. 2011. 78 x 89 inches. Bottom: The artist in the "Walls of Water" exhibit at the National Gallery, London, England. 

For additional thoughts on baptism and the baptism of Christ click here, here, or here.
For an interesting illustration of Isaiah 43:1, see this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post.

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