“Lent is about baptism.”
This phrase was the thread running through the homilies of my parish priest several years ago, and today’s readings highlight it again for me.
Water is a tricky element. From Genesis we hear the story of Noah and the flood: too much water wipes out almost all of creation. Following the flood, God makes a covenant not only with Noah, but also with all “bodily creatures” that such widespread destruction will not come again through water (there’s a nice loophole here for other, well, acts of God).
Yet death by water is part of the sacramental sign of baptism. We can miss it in rites that involve a gentle deluge rather than immersion beneath the water’s surface. Baptism is a spiritual drowning that is quite physically felt as we struggle to surrender the last breath of our old selves. Arising again above the surface, we gasp in ruah, the Spirit of God, who causes the flood waters to recede, who brings order from the watery chaos, who is breathed into and animates us (Gen. 1-2).
1 Peter reminds us of the significance of the baptismal waters “prefigured” by the flood as the author encourages us not to fear being “put to death in the flesh.” There is no getting around death. Christ truly died. We truly die. Yet the Spirit truly brings resurrection (Romans 8: 11). Through the power of the Spirit, water does not remain a shallow symbol for death and chaos but rather is also the womb of rebirth into life with Christ.
In Mark’s gospel it is also the Spirit of God who, after descending upon Jesus at his baptism, “drove Jesus in to the desert” where he was tempted by Satan. The Spirit drives us into the wilderness as well this Lent: to face temptation and repent; to trust that the kingdom of God is at hand and live out the good news.
Lent may not be where we want to go. We may fear that rather than confronting our temptations in 40 days of desert we will instead drown in them. The Spirit teaches us God’s paths, of which the psalmist sings. These paths lead to the wild water of baptism, to the stark sands of the desert. On these paths we learn to trust in God’s promise that we’ll not be destroyed, to believe that God’s salvation will lift us from death to resurrection once again, to rejoice that water is not only a symbol of death but also a sacrament of life.
Lent is about baptism.