This gospel is a goldmine of scriptural references and connections. I highly recommend reading it again this week, but when you do read it, look up online the rite of baptism. In that ritual, there is a prayer to bless the water that spells out many of the connections. Each biblical allusion informs all the others, and together they give one quite a picture. Today, I want to focus on just one of those allusions – that of Noah and the flood.
Today’s gospel refers to that story through the image of the dove. As you would remember, the flood is the exact opposite of the story of creation. Where the story of creation has the earth coming out of the water, the story of the flood has the earth submerged by the water. And to make the reversal obvious, all living things are destroyed in the reverse order of their creation. Where creation brings order, the flood is a return to chaos. And the destruction is the consequence of sin, indicating how sin unpicks our lives, our integrity.
However, we also know that God is merciful, and so God warns Noah about the coming flood, the coming chaos, and instructs him to build an ark to save his family and some creatures. After the flood, Noah sends out some birds to look for land, the last of which is a dove. Eventually the dove returns with a leaf, a twig in its mouth, indicating dry land.
If we read this story together with our gospel today, it looks a bit like a double-sided picture. With the story of Noah, we have the bird being sent out and returning. With our gospel, we have the bird finding land. And what is that land? Christ coming out of the water, the new creation. In particular, Jesus in his humanity being proclaimed as the beloved of the Father.
This then is our promised land: the knowledge that in Christ, through his humanity, we are loved by God. This is our safety. Once we see this, we also see that the twig that is carried back by the dove is our faith in the Cross of Christ – the ultimate sign that not only is he completely with us, but that he has conquered death. The sign that points to the coming fullness of the kingdom of God. The sign that indicates that we have nothing to fear.
This is not a bad image of the Church in a number of ways. Always alert to the destructive power of sin, yet trusting all the more to God’s mercy.We must both constantly 1) look for signs of God’s love and also 2) be that dove to others.
Last week, I mentioned that Christ’s mysteries are eternal, that they perpetuate themselves and that they seek our participation. We see that again in the baptism of the Lord. Christ does not need to be baptised. He is baptised for us. His baptism expresses his solidarity with us sinners, a solidarity that is realised when he is crucified with thieves. His baptism and his death reveal the depths of sin, while at the same time overcoming it with the still greater depths of God’s love. This is the water of baptism. This is what we are immersed into. The realisation that the world has rejected God, and the realisation that God has not rejected the world.
Again, though, this mystery perpetuates itself. We have received the twig from the Holy Spirit, the gift of faith in the resurrection of Christ. And now we are commissioned to become ambassadors of hope to our brothers and sisters. They too need to learn that they are safe. They too need to learn that the promised land has appeared in the knowledge of God’s love.
This idea of being loved by God as the promised land is worth praying on. How much of our sense of self, our sense of security, comes from knowing that I am loved? Knowing that I am recognised? Knowing that I belong? On the flipside, how much damage, how much insecurity, how much fear and trouble come from not knowing this? We probably all have examples of both these things – love and the fear that we are not loved – in our own lives.
This week then we might pray about this task of spreading hope. How can we be alert to the Holy Spirit in our lives? How can we bring branches to our brothers and sisters? How can we let them know that they are loved by God? How do we do this individually and as a parish?
We might each of us think of one thing we can do this year to spread this message? How can we be hope in the lives of our neighbours? How can we be the promise of safe ground for our brothers and sisters? Especially in a world that increasingly seems flooded by chaotic waters.