When I use the word mythical, I use it in the same way that Catholic Priest and mystic, Bede Griffiths did; that all religious stories are ‘myths’ or symbolic expressions of truths that cannot be fully expressed in any other way.
Until I went to seminary, I thought that John the Baptist invented baptism. But Jewish ritual baths called mikvah, were used in Israel for 600 years before Jesus was born. These ritual baths were taken for purification, renewal and healing, and are still an important Jewish ritual. A mikvah must take place in “living water,” a stream, or a spring in which the water moves, which is why Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.
Why water? In many of the world’s creation stories, life comes from water, and now science concurs. Human birth is a microcosm of this story. The fetus lives in the amniotic fluid (mostly water) of the womb until the mother’s “water breaks” and the child is born. For Jews, the mikvah personifies the womb of God and rebirth.
Not only does our human life have this watery beginning, but about 60% of our body is made up of water. Water flows through our veins in blood and it nourishes our cells. It removes toxins and waste from our body. Without enough water, our physical functions, our mental sharpness, and our energy levels are reduced. Water is necessary for life to exist at all.
The people of the Lakota Nation have the saying: mni wichoni, which means, “Water Is Life.” But this saying also means water has life. It has consciousness. It has a spirit.
In Luke’s gospel story, Jesus had an epiphany; a Divine encounter. After Jesus was immersed in the living water of the River Jordan “and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, my Beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
I want to share a small epiphany I experienced regarding the relationship between water and God. One warm spring day a few years ago, my wife Wendy and stepson Andrew spent the afternoon on Brighton Beach in Duluth. Wendy and Andrew found a small stream that was working its way down from the woods, over the rocky shore, and into Lake Superior. They decided it would be fun to see if they could dam up the stream. So they set about hauling handfuls of rock and gravel to build their dam. They worked and worked but as they stopped the flow in one spot, the stream just went down to the Lake via a different route. Even when they seemed to stop all the little streams, the water began to flow under their dams.
I was reminded of something medieval theologian Meister Eckhart wrote, "God is a great underground river that no one can dam up and no one can stop." I believe that God is constantly guiding us, coaxing us, and prompting us, like the current of a river, from without and from within. No matter what obstacles we face, God is persistent. Like water, the Divine One is always working around and through these obstacles. Franciscan priest and popular spiritual writer, Richard Rohr wrote, ”The River is flowing, and we are in it. The river is God’s love, so do not be afraid."
As an Orthodox Catholic priest, when I preside at the Holy Mystery of Baptism, I say the following, as part of the Rite: “You are baptized. You are illuminated… You are sanctified…. Become what you already are.” And who are we? St. John tells us we are children of God. In this Eastern Orthodox Rite of Baptism, infants are immersed in the waters of the baptismal font as a symbol, a remembrance, that as well as being born from our mothers, we are born from the very womb of God. This is a great mystery — a mythic truth — that we are not fully able to express.
Hermann Hesse wrote this wonderful line in his book Siddhartha that helps me understand this mystery of water and baptism. “They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of perpetual Becoming.”
Maybe, if we listen silently to the water, the next time we sit by a river or watch waves breaking on the shore, we too will hear a voice from heaven saying, You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.