Friday, 27 February 2015

Lent day 9

Right from the first biblical stories of human origins in Genesis, rivers are mentioned - archetypal waters flow from Paradise into the rest of the world, one source dividing into four rivers: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, Euphrates. The former two are never mentioned again, but the other names persist to our own times. There are said to be 4260 rivers and stream mentioned in the Bible. Many are wadis - channels which are dry and empty of surface water until the rains come. Others have permanent water flowing, except in times of drought. Often these are landmarks, serving as territorial boundaries.
River crossing places are mentioned in the Bible, but there are no mentions of bridges. It's not that bridges were absent from the world over 2000 years ago. Wherever the Romans ruled, bridges were constructed of brick and stone, as part of their transport infrastructure. They were places of control for both the military, and for traders. This innovation hardly impacted upon the stories that Jews and early Christians told about themselves, rooted in lifestyle in which bridges were irrelevant to the meaning they found in relation to places.

The image of passing through the waters to enter a new place and a new state of being begins in the Exodus escape across the Sea of Reeds. It's at the core John the Baptist's preaching and ministry by the Jordan river crossing. and then of the disciples of Jesus, commissioned to go and baptise people wherever they make new disciples. Getting wet, being momentarily overwhelmed by water, is essential to the ritual of initiation into a life giving spiritual experience of liberation. A symbolic death to an old life and re-birth into a new one. There is no ritual short-cut by passing above the river using the convenience of a bridge. 

One of the titles acquired by generations of Popes, imitating imperial authority and initiative was pontifex meaning bridge maker. Christian rhetoric honourably speaks of mission as a bridge building affair. Bridge building becomes a metaphor for the vital task of reconciliation, bringing together people separated from each other by their fears of difference and conflicts of interest.

Being born again of water and Spirit however, means going through waters which may be chilling, un-nerving, disorienting, bearing the risk of losing one's footing on uneven ground, if not losing one's breath for a moment. There may be an element of ordeal in this passage for some, even if the outcome is joyful. All these are elements of the continuing experience of discipleship in the Way of Jesus. Since early times the church has ritualised and tokenised this passage through the waters to make it safe and one might say, family-friendly, accessible to all people. But there is no convenient bridge to avoid the inner experience which going through the waters represents.

"As many as are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death." (Romans 6:3)

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