Baptism of Christ C
January 13, 2013
This is me, howling in pain. The picture was taken just after I had gotten out of the water at our local New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge, which was a lovely 37 degrees. I have found that the key to doing a Polar Bear Plunge is that you just have to get a running start and plunge right in. Don’t stick your toe in first. Just do the full-on Baptism.
Around the world at this time of year, there are many customs that involve diving into cold bodies of water. Tarpon Springs, FL – home to the biggest Greek-American community in the US – is known as “Epiphany City”. This is most likely due to the community’s elaborate celebration of Greek Orthodox Epiphany, which commemorates the Baptism of Christ through events such as the blessing of the fleet, a parade, and the release of a dove (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) by a young woman chosen by the church. There is also a contest where the young men of the community all plunge into Spring Bayou after the Archbishop casts a cross into the water. The first intrepid young man to surface and “save the cross” from the frigid water gets his picture in the paper and blessings for the coming year (there was a tie last year, as you can see from the picture).
The Baptism of Christ – which is this week’s Gospel reading – always brings to my mind the old African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water” (one of my favorite hymns):
Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water,
God’s gonna trouble the water …
This spiritual was thought to originally have been a warning to slaves traveling the Underground Railroad that slave-catchers and hunting dogs were approaching, and that they needed to ford the nearest river so that their scent would be lost. This was a dangerous proposition – as many of the slaves could not swim – but it meant the difference between life and death, slavery and freedom.
In the early days of the Church, Baptism was also a risky enterprise. In the first place, it meant wading into often frigid water where either a) you could be swept away by river currents (as running water was preferred for Baptism, according to the Didache) or b) you could suffer cardiac arrest or hypothermia from the shock of the cold water. You had to trust that the person baptizing you would be able and willing to haul you out of there, should that prove necessary. It was a far cry from the “sprinkling” that occurs in most mainline church baptisms today (although the Baptists certainly don’t hesitate to wade on in …)
It was also politically and socially risky. If you were a baptized Christian, that meant that you only worshiped the One God. Consequently, you would not be bowing down to Caesar, and worship of the Emperor was the mandatory duty of every Roman (male) citizen. People who would not worship the cult of the Emperor were either non-citizens (women and slaves) or traitors. “Wading in the water” was a big decision.
Are there areas of our lives today where we are called by the Spirit to “wade in the water”, but are holding out in fear? My good friend, Brother Elijah Alfred Alexander, Jr, (a.k.a., “NatureBoy”) likes to say that if you are inwardly prompted to do something, but you don’t want to do it, that’s usually a sign that the Spirit is nudging you into the water. Thinking of going back to school? Plunging into a new career? Proposing that outlandish new church youth program? Don’t stick your toe in first. Say a prayer and plunge on in with enthusiasm. The water may be icy, and the experience may be rough, but God is already there with you.