The Rev. Becky Zartman
Do you remember learning how to float?
Learning to float is not easy. The great irony of learning is that the more you try to control the water, the less you will float. And the less you float, the more water will get in your eyes and nose, making you even more panicky, and even more likely to try to thrash about to stay on the surface, which means you’ll inevitably go under the water. This is a vicious cycle. Fear and the need for control are the enemy of floating, and so the first, and most difficult part of learning to float is learning how to stay calm despite feeling out of control.
The only way to learn how to float is to make friends with the water. You need to trust that the water will hold you; that the nature of the water itself means that you can stay serenely on the surface, calmly breathing the air you need to survive, being cradled by the water. Once you have learned how to surrender to the water, to trust the water, floating becomes a joy. A joy that could one day save your life.
Baptism is learning how to float. Baptism is a sacrament of surrender, the sacramental act of letting go of fear and control, making friends with the unknown, and beginning to trust that God will sustain you, even in the midst of chaos and death.
Because most churches use a font that can sometimes resemble a dry bird bath, it may be hard to remember that baptism is actually a symbolic drowning. Some early Christian fonts were built into the ground and shaped like a cross, so you stripped yourself of your old clothes, descended down to a watery death, and ascended up into new life, where you were greeted with a new white robe. Baptism meant that your old self was dead, and that your new self was resurrected like Christ.
Listen to this part of the Thanksgiving over the Water from our baptismal rite: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”
We are buried with Christ in his death. What this really means is that we’ve tried everything we knew how to try. We thrashed and splashed and panicked and cried, but somehow, deep down, we knew fear and the need for control weren’t sustainable. We finally understood that fear and the need for control could only lead to death, and so, having no other choice, we surrendered to God, finally allowing God to support us, to cradle us in God’s arms.
Baptism is learning how to float. When we surrender to the water of baptism, we share in the new life of God. When we surrender to the water of baptism, we share in Christ’s resurrection, we start anew. When we surrender to the water of baptism, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit, given the courage discern, to will and persevere, to know and love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in God’s works.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; Jesus has been trying to tell us since the beginning. “For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it.” The irony of learning to float and the irony of the Christian life is one and the same: only by surrendering our life are we able to live. When we lose our life to God, we save it.
Questions for Meditation
The SSJE Rule links the Brothers’ monastic vows to Baptism: “The grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him.” What grace has been given to you in your baptism?
Water is so commonplace, we might forget to notice it throughout the day. Let your senses come alive as you experience water at the sink, on your hands, in the shower, from a cup. What does water offer to you: refreshment, cleansing, comfort?
At the end of the service of Compline, one Brother sprinkles the gathered community with holy water, praying for “a peaceful night and a perfect end.” This ritual reminds us of our mortality. How might you hand your own life back to God at the end of each day?
Surrendering to the water of baptism allows for us to be reborn by the Holy Spirit into the new life of God. How are you adrift? What keeps you afloat?