By Mac Stewart
When I was a little kid, I was not a huge fan of the beach. I liked building sandcastles well enough, and the view over the deep blue sea was majestic (best at sunrise and sunset). But I just never seemed to be able to avoid getting sunburned, and the little grains of sand stayed with me in various crevices of my bags and clothes for days. The sun was too bright, the water was too salty, and I could hardly even hold a book open with the wind whipping every which way. The worst of it, though, was the undertow. I liked swimming, and I wasn’t too bad at it, but when I found myself among the medium-sized waves, and all of a sudden my footing was ripped away from underneath me, the next few moments were extremely unpleasant. The salt water flooding into my mouth and nose and down my throat, the disorientation of being thrown seemingly upside down underneath a crash of water, seeing and hearing nothing but foam and fury.
Thankfully I was never pulled more than a few yards out into the sea – so no harm done. But they tell me that the thing to do if you are caught in a more serious rip-tide is not to fight it, just to let it carry you wherever it will, so that when you finally emerge from the water you’ll have the energy to swim back to the shore. Presumably, too, this phenomenon that was so unpleasant to me is where more experienced shore-swimmers thrive – surfers, whether by body or by board, who know how to catch the currents at just the right time and ride them with masterful skill.
People often talk about baptism as an event in which we are plunged into a bath of water. That image is not wrong, and certainly reflects much that is true about the sacrament – not only the way in which it is celebrated (at least in traditions where full immersion is the norm), but also in the sense that baptism is, of course, a washing. But I wonder if it is actually better to imagine the waters of baptism more as a fierce rip-tide than a tranquil bath.
My point is not merely that being a Christian is sometimes uncomfortable or disorienting or leaves us confused and gasping for air (though it does). Nor is it merely to say that, perhaps if we would just stop fighting with the grace of God, it would carry us out to a more tranquil place where we could productively cooperate. My point is much more specific. When I was taking my first uncertain steps, as a timid little 5-year-old, out into the deeper waters a bit further away from the shore, I was completely unprepared for the shock of aquatic force that was about to sweep me under the waves. My parents had warned me, no doubt; but actually to experience it is another story. It was a surprise, an unveiling of a power in the world I had not hitherto known, which all of a sudden had me in its grip.
Baptism is an apocalypse. It is not a quaint ceremony for welcoming newborns into the world with a fancy white dress. It is the act by which the eternal God – the God who spoke and the world came to be, the God whose ineffable mysteries cannot be compassed by the highest cherubim, the God who is Being beyond all being, Good beyond all good, pure life and activity, perfect rest and repose – it is the act by which this God rips us out of our congenital self-absorption and grips us with the unimaginable force of his everlasting mercy. It is the unrepeatable and necessarily first sacrament in the Christian life because in many ways the whole earth-shattering reality of our salvation is contained therein. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).
In these waters we were born anew, born from above, as the Spirit who brooded at creation infused them with their sin-destroying and life-giving currents. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). That same Lord and Life-Giver, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who is himself worshiped and glorified as God over all, now lives inside of us – God himself, dwelling in the soul of the Christian as his own Temple – and carries us indeed to that everlastingly tranquil place where the Son cries out with incomprehensible intimacy and joy to his Father. That cry is now our cry, the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, very members incorporate in his mystical body, heirs through hope of his everlasting kingdom. Our hearts have become fountains for the living, divine water that carried us into the Triune deep, and we can draw from that fountain whenever we will, that we may never be thirsty again.
So here is a question. If all of this is true, if you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal 3:27); if you were buried with him in baptism, and “raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12); if all who are led (or, let’s say, ripped) by the Spirit of God are the sons of God (Rom 8:14) … then what could you possibly be afraid of? What is there, in all the world, in your entire life, from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell … what is there that is more real than this? What is there that is closer to you than this? What is there that is more basic, more fundamental to who you are, to the very act of existence by which you breathe and think at this very moment? What is there that can come between you and this when this is the very this that makes you yourself?
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship” (Rom 8:15). In Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world (Col 2:20). They still try to make you tremble, saying, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”; “what are you going to eat?”; “what are you going to wear?”; “how are you going to provide for them?”; “what if you wind up alone?”; “you are not good enough”; “you are not smart enough”; “you are not doing enough”; “what if you’re wrong?”; all of those demons are dead, lying on the seashore. The faint echoes of their malicious temptations have no power over you; the blood-red sea has swept them away, and you are free. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17).
Do you really believe that? Do you believe that the Counselor, the Spirit of truth, whom the Father has sent in Christ’s name, actually lives inside of you? Do you believe that he will indeed teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that the Son of God has said to you (John 14:25)? He speaks not on his own authority, he speaks only what he has heard from the Son (John 16:14). You will recognize his voice, therefore, and distinguish it from the failing echoes of the demons, as you grow in fluency with his language (which you learn in the Scriptures). And as you do, your face will slowly be unveiled, “beholding the glory of the Lord,” “being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). You will taste and see the goodness of the Lord, who will kiss you with the kisses of his mouth. You will become, slowly but surely, a full-grown Christian, filling up the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. You will realize all the apocalyptic power that swept you into its current, the unquenchable fountain of Israel whose source is in your heart. You will realize the authority that has been given you to become a child of God (John 1:13).
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). There is no greater wonder than this, no greater revelation, no greater unveiling of the truth of reality. If it doesn’t sweep you off your feet, then perhaps you’re not paying attention. Return again to yourself, and find there the one who already abides in you by the Spirit which he has given you (1 John 3:24). There he will teach you. There he will calm your fears. There, above all, he will pull you outside of yourself that you may find yourself again amidst the ecstasy of his Triune joy.
Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.