Epiphany II - January 15, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Isaiah 49:1-7 + Psalm 40:1-11 + 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 + John 1:29-42
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary; It rains, and the wind is never weary; The vine still clings to the mouldering wall, But at every gust the dead leaves fall, And the day is dark and dreary. My life is cold, and dark, and dreary; It rains, and the wind is never weary; My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past, But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast, And the days are dark and dreary. Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, Into each life some rain must fall, Some days must be dark and dreary.
In his poem, “The Rainy Day,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (d. 1882) is clearly drawing upon the metaphor of rain to speak about one’s interior landscape. Like sadness, rain is a part of life that must be accepted, even “endured,” with the hopeful reminder that “behind the clouds the sun is still shining.” Undoubtedly, his poem tells of the near-universal human experience by which we seek sunshine (that is to say joy and happiness) but instinctively shy away from pain and sadness, (symbolized by the rain). Fair enough.
However, after far too many years of drought behind us, and far too many years of drought ahead, I for one am grateful that the sun is still shining, “behind the clouds.” Certainly, there is more to rain than just sadness, just darkness, just dreariness. And certainly, there is something to be gained by entering into and living fully those stormy times in life. Or better, there is something invaluable that is lost when we don’t.
It would be hard to miss the resurrected hills of verdant green that have suddenly risen up across the West Marin landscape. And how many of us have not felt our hearts overflow as we look upon our once-parched reservoirs now themselves overflowing? And how refreshing it has been to breathe deeply of the air – clean and pure – and invigorating.
With all due respect to Longfellow then, there is undeniably something lifegiving about the “cold and dark and dreary” rain. Something of an invitation. Something of a gift it offers in and of itself…not merely something that needs to be “endured” in anticipation of sunnier days ahead. Throughout the history of salvation, rain, water, flowing rivers, and primeval oceans convey a much more nuanced, complex, and at times even opposing imagery as does any good archetypal image. For example, in the gospel today, we are told of John the Baptist who, seeing Jesus come out of the Jordan, announces “Here is the Son of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And again, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
For as many times as I have reflected on Jesus’ baptism in any of the gospels, for some reason, I never imagined Jesus as being wet – until now. But how could he not have been, emerging as he was from having been plunged headlong into the Jordan River. No doubt, this moment in the gospel harkens to the archetypal blessing of water as a creative, purifying, and redemptive element can easily be traced throughout the history of salvation: from the waters of primeval chaos in Genesis; to the waters of the great deluge which purged the earth in the days of Noah; to the waters of the Red Sea, through which Israel would pass from slavery to freedom; to the waters of the Jordan in which Jesus himself deeply identified with a fallen humanity. It is a moment that deeply symbolizes God’s refusal to flinch, duck, take cover from human misery, but in which Jesus enters the waters of the Jordan precisely as a symbol of his solidarity with humanity, which would become actualized on the cross.
Indeed, while at the start of his public ministry, Jesus is here immersed in the redemptive waters of the Jordan, by the end of his ministry, he would be revealed as the very source of life-giving water flowing from his pierced side and mingling with his own blood: an archetypal image of baptism and eucharist that his death would gift the church. It is by entering the waters of the Jordan, that the very vulnerability of God is revealed as one who enters into the storms of human history to make of them life-giving encounters. Wherever there is human suffering, we can be assured Christ precedes us there.
As with any good archetype then, the history of water in our tradition speaks to our complex relationship with it: seeking it out at times, avoiding it at others. Water is undoubtedly life-giving as it is death-dealing; purifying as it is destructive. If you will permit me, even Forrest has an inexplicable relationship with water: He hardly seems to notice the cold rain when we go outside for a walk to or to play ball, yet he avoids puddles like the plague. He loves to swim with abandon in cold streams and lakes yet for reasons I will never understand he cowers in fear at the even the mere mention of a warm bath. He literally hates the word “bath.” For me it is often the opposite. Like most of us, I typically take cover from the rain and indeed it takes a lot of cajoling to get me to swim in a cold lake, yet who among us doesn’t enjoy a warm shower?
But, I do recall many years ago in the early 90’s while living in Madison Wisconsin, we were hit with a walloping Mid-Western thunderstorm that dropped buckets of water from the sky with an intensity I had never seen before. I happened to be walking back to my apartment one afternoon when the skies opened. So, impressed was I at the intensity of the rain, rather than take cover, I decided instead to play, relishing the power of the storm as streams of water I had never seen before began to coalesce across the small lawn behind our apartment building.
I threw off my jacket and the book bag I had been hauling, and tucked them under the protective cover of an awning above the back entrance to our building. And quite spontaneously, without benefit of music or song, I began to dance: arms outstretched, hands opened wide, face looking upward to experience the deluge at full force. Not wanting to experience this alone, I yelled up to my friend Miguel who lived on the second floor and whose windows were facing my direction.
“Miguel!” I called out above the tempest. Moments later his image appeared against the window; opaque and shadowy from the humidity that had built up on the glass. Another moment, and he slid the window ajar. “What are you doing out there?” he yelled down to me somewhat circumspect. “No!” I yelled back in reply, “What are YOU doing in there??” He froze, bewildered for a moment, until a broad grin began to stretch across his face. “You’re right!” he said finally, and then, closing the window tightly he disappeared once again. Moments later he came bounding out of the back door wearing only a T-Shirt and jeans – and with giddy laughter – as if breaking some unspoken taboo – we danced in circles and stomped in deep puddles still rising all around us. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed with every brilliant flash of lightening and the cacophonous peals of thunder that inevitably followed.
After some time, when we had had our fill, winded and exhilarated, we were no less drenched than Jesus coming out of the Jordan two millennia ago. Our jeans saturated through and through, our sneakers waterlogged, our T-shirts soaked like wet rags. As we made our way into the apartment building, we unavoidably left puddles in the wake of every step. But after getting ourselves dried and changed, we met again in my apartment for a cup of hot chocolate where we spent the rest of that stormy afternoon in intimate conversation; a conversation that had no doubt been paved precisely by the childlike playfulness we allowed ourselves in that afternoon rain dance. Precisely because we both risked entering the storm while the world around us took cover.
Longfellow is right about this much: “Into each life a little rain must fall.” Pain and loss and sadness are inevitable. Storms will come and go, rain will veil the sun, and we understandably find ourselves flinching, taking cover. But perhaps the gospel opens an alternative today. Perhaps the image of Jesus, soaking wet, drenched from head to toe, from his radical solidarity with human life, the world’s suffering, and the unavoidable pain that comes with being alive.
Perhaps the invitation is to do what he has done, to intentionally enter into it rather than instinctively run away. To embrace it, perhaps even to dance and stomp and frolic in all that life throws at us, lest in the end we have lived only a half-life: a life of fear and avoidance of pain and disappointment rather than celebrating all that it offers far beyond what Longfellow identified as “cold and dark and dreary.”
As the old saying goes, “When it rains, it pours.” The question is, when it does, will you take cover or dance?
+ Father, Son and Holy Spirit.