Spirit & Fire in the Water

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Baptism of the Lord

In 1993, a legal clerk noticed the incidence of certain cancerous tumors among people in the small southern California town of Hinkley. She approached some of the residents and heard strikingly similar stories implicating the local power company. The power company had convinced the unsuspecting families that a chemical discharge from their plant was safe. They even paid voluntarily for any medical care for their sick. The legal clerk, a 33 year old single mother of three, eventually filed suit on behalf of the injured families against a US west coast corporation. She argued that the power company was aware it was contaminating the groundwater around the local power station by discharging dangerous hexavalent chromium from their cooling towers into unlined ponds. The power company settled in 1996 for $333 million. Some of you are probably already picturing Julia Roberts playing the role in that movie released in 2000 which told the story of Erin Brockovich and how she almost single-handedly fought the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and won. I’ll give you a moment. Now back to me.

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Whenever the incidence of illness in any locality reaches levels that arouse suspicion, we try to find a common denominator. The news reports this past week tell us the flu is raging across the country. On the Virginia Department of Health website, reports indicate widespread flu activity across the commonwealth. Across the country 20 pediatric deaths have been linked to the flu. If you have not yet gotten your flu shot, it takes 2 weeks for the body to develop the needed resistance. Otherwise, we can take preventive measures to slow the spread of the disease. If you are not feeling well, stay home. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Avoid shaking or holding hands, and other unnecessary contact with people. So if the person next to you does not shake your hand at the sign of peace, don’t be offended. Touch elbows if you have to make contact. There is nothing wrong with receiving communion in your hands or skipping the communion cup. At this moment the bishop is not imposing any restrictions to our celebration of the liturgy, and neither am I. But I urge you to use your best judgment. Prayer and faith can be effective weapons against illness and disease, but are completely useless when we ignore common sense measures. And with that public service announcement, we now return to our local programming.

When illness is widespread, people might suspect something harmful in the water. But is it possible the opposite can also be true? Can excellence and wellbeing be found in the water as well? When I travelled to Italy last summer, I noticed that many of the saints held in reverence and honor were often people who lived and worked in those very same communities. In Assisi alone, in the province of Perugia, St. Francis and St. Clare are the most famous of their citizens. But they were also surrounded by other women and men who sought to live the gospel in a most radical way, their names and holiness perhaps not as widely known. But if so much holiness has emerged from that one town alone, I wonder why no one has ever suspected something in the water. I am not suggesting holiness can be added to the drinking water. That would be crazy.

What I am suggesting is that water connects each of us in another way that is just as important and fundamental. We are members of the body of Christ, and we have all been washed in the waters of baptism. Before the water is used, we call upon the Father and the Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the water. Water already has some wonderful and amazing qualities. But when we invoke God’s name over it, we believe it has power to transform and give life. Through the waters of baptism, we are reconciled to God and to one another. We are created anew in the Holy Spirit, and given a share in God’s nature. We are made members of Christ’s body and with him co-heirs to eternal life. We are cleansed of sin, our own and the sins we inherited from our first parents. We become temples of the Holy Spirit. The gift of faith is given to us which enables us to believe in God, to hope in him, and to love him. We are endowed with the grace to grow in goodness, especially with the help of the community of believers and by participating in the sacramental life of the church. And we are entrusted the mission of proclaiming God’s salvation to the world and defending the faith, by the words we speak, and by our outreach to our sisters and brothers in need in service and charity. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a lot in the water.

But we who call ourselves Christians and disciples of Jesus Christ don’t always live our lives with conscious awareness that the waters of baptism continue to bestow upon us all that we need to sustain the life of grace within us. That is why we don’t need to be baptized a second time. The faucet of God’s grace (I know you can get past the image) has never been and will never be turned off. So every time we take water to sign ourselves when we walk into church, every time water is sprinkled upon us in the Easter season (and I do my best to make sure you get wet), and every time we hear the gurgling of the baptismal font, we are reminded of the Spirit of God given to us in the waters of baptism, that we have been transformed, given new life, created anew, and are ever sustained in holiness, for the sanctification of our sisters and brothers, and through them the whole world. Still we are free to stem the flow of grace by rejecting God’s invitation to faith; by choosing to live in darkness and sin; by nurturing our selfishness and pride, our jealousy and anger, our gluttony, laziness and lust. We can choose to quench our thirst with water that makes us thirsty again. Or we can embrace our baptism with mind and heart renewed, and willingly receive the life of grace to which we have been called.

When we think of truly holy people, we might ask what about them stands out. St. John was Jesus’ friend closest to his heart. He pointed to the love of God in the way he lived and suffered, and in the gospel he wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi are models to us of detachment, humility, and faith in God. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross show us how to be open to God in our learning, our prayer, and our struggles in daily life. St. Damien de Veuster and St. Teresa of Calcutta show us true dedication and service to the poor and the dying. I am convinced there is something truly powerful in the water. John the Baptist said One mightier was coming, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus did come, and the Holy Spirit and fire are still in the water, and the water is still running. It would be amazing if we could catch holiness in the water. An epidemic of holiness – the world will never be the same.

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