Friday, January 28, 2011

Waters of Baptism

The last two posts, Water followed by ...And More Water came out of wondering about the significance of the waters of baptism in light of a couple of big environmental issues that had been in the news around the First Sunday of Epiphany, when we remember the Baptism of Our Lord. Those issues were catastrophic floods several places in the world and plastic pollution in our oceans. Increased frequency of major flooding is one expected effect of climate change, one of the many effects that bring hardship to people around the world.

Thinking about this has brought more questions than answers to my mind. As noted in the first post about this, both the effects of climate change on people and other living things and the extent of plastic pollution and its effects on people and other living things are issues of such a large scale that it’s difficult to even comprehend the challenges we face, let alone reflect on their spiritual significance.

But the questions are persistent if still in formation, so in this post, I’m offering some first questions for reflection in hopes that we might have a conversation about the way we see and talk about the waters of baptism in a rapidly and significantly changing world.

Comments, stabs at answers, answers made in confidence of their certainty, are all welcome. (If you’re commenting on the blog, please sign your comments if you want them to be shown.)

The first question is an easy one, but serves to introduce the second: What characteristics have we traditionally associated with water that suits it to be the matter – the “outward and visible sign” -- for the sacrament of baptism? What new associations do we or will we have with water as more of the earth’s water becomes permeated with plastic and as we face extremes of flooding and drought in many areas of the planet? Will this change the experience for people witnessing baptisms?

It seems almost dishonest or as if we were in denial if, as these environmental phenomena unfold, we continue to use water liturgically in the ways we have always used it without commenting on or acknowledging what has changed. If the significance for us of something like water changes in our daily lives – if, for example, we someday find ourselves in a world where pure water is rare – what, if anything, do we say about that?

The promises we make in our baptismal covenant (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305) raise questions for us as we struggle with these new sorts of issues. We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. When our brothers and sisters around the world suffer from the effects of climate change, how can we best respond to disasters such as the floods of January? What can we do to prevent these things from happening?

We promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We know that our actions, our comforts, are producing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and we know that the effects of climate change are bringing hardship to many people. We know that the plastic things we use find their way into the oceans and other waterways and have an effect on living things that comes up the food chain. What is the just thing for us to do? Are we respecting the dignity of every human being if we can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge and name the problem? What changes can we make to help us better keep our baptismal covenant?

The core of these questions seems to be centered on truthfulness with one another and with God about the changes in our environment and the part our actions play both in causing those changes and in responding to their ill effects. Where does truthfulness rank in our priorities when we approach liturgy? If we are tempted to pretend the world is something other than it is, or if we deny the realities of our world, how does that affect what we do before God and God’s people?

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