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Into the dark, and then up to the light

08 January 2016

Jessica Martin on dying and new life in baptism


Light on the water: the Yardenit baptismal site at the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee

Light on the water: the Yardenit baptismal site at the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee

When you went down into the water it was as dark as the night, and you could see nothing; but when you came up out of the water, it was like coming up into the day. That moment was both your death and your birth; that saving water was both your grave and your mother.

St Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386)


ONE time, as a child, I learnt something about what it is like to drown. I loved to swim underwater, eyes open to the blue-green. I wanted to stay below the surface for as long as I could manage — testing my lungs, pretending it was an element I could belong in. This time, I left it a bit late, and, as I came up in a hurry to breathe, my head struck something hard above me: a dinghy, being swept along the same wave-space, bright yellow. And again. And again, until the breath I had to take was water.

I remember the point where I was no longer swimming, but flotsam, the violent tumble and rush of surf and pebbles pushing me on to the beach to cough my way back to air. It was not dark. It was grey, and white, and busy, wild with energy.

Another brush with the drowning idea, the same year: a deep river this time, with a deeper current, pulling downwards. That time, the water was dark, with a green tinge, stronger than I could ever hope to be. I did not want to go down into it. I pushed my head back, nose and mouth to the sky. I was pulled out by my father.

This fragment of St Cyril of Jerusalem’s writing on baptism is not framed like a prayer. I think it belongs to that category of devotional observation where the writer is so soaked in praying that the speech of heaven and earth melt together for the speaker. Seeing it here, isolated from its context, it drifts into the mind’s eye, raising the question of viewpoint.

It speaks with authority, anchorless. God is speaker, and God is hearer; God is going down into the black water with no “Whatever next?” to hold on to; God is watching from above and telling the figure emerging: “Now you are born again, beloved child.”

In all the Gospels, there is only one moment when we see with the Lord’s eyes — although it is told twice, in Mark and in Matthew. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’” (Mark 1.9-11).

All the many iterations of the great covenant promise come into that fragment of viewpoint: God is with us; not beside, but within, seeing with human eyes as the skies tear like stretched skin, coughing out the river water from human lungs, dazzled with wings of light, and dazed with the booming welcome of this new after-birth world.

Jesus is not baptised for forgiveness, but for company. We go, fearful or trusting, down into the dark, seeing with his eyes; we emerge into the light in our father’s arms, shadowed under wings.

People talk sometimes as if metaphors are something other than the true and real thing, which is this material world: “Oh well . . . you have to understand that metaphorically” is disappointedly understood as “Oh well . . . it titillates the imagination, but it’s not true after all.”

But everything we see and feel and know and touch happens inside us, the clever brain receiving and patterning the messages of sense, from eyes and ears, from skin, nose, and tongue.

Our Lord comes out of the water and looks up, and the beating wings are descending to overshadow him, as once his own mother was overshadowed. It is not a dove, he knows that. It is like one, in shape and beauty, in the meanings of peace, reconciliation, and rescue after the drowning flood which the bird’s name evokes.

The dove herself is less real than the descending Spirit she shows us; but only because nothing could be more real than what she conveys: a trustful venture in a world of tossing waters, and then the world made new.

“It was like the night as you went down,” God says to God-with-us. “And, as you came up, it was like the day.”

“If it wasn’t the night we went down into, if it was only like the night, what was it?” God-with-us asks God. “And, if it wasn’t the day we came up to, what was it?”

And God says: “It was dying, that going down into the dark. And when you came up again, breathing my breath and blinking in the new light? Well, that was living. That was being born again.”

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