It’s been such a beautifully warm spring, and now that all the various schools’ spring breaks are coming to an end, it feels like we’ve already begun the downhill slide into summer. I know students are already counting the days ‘til the end of the school year, and not-so-secretly their teachers are as well.
Summer. Even now, with childhood decades behind me, summer has a kind of mythic quality. Sports and camps and vacations. Bicycling everywhere with friends, but especially to the swimming pool. Summer days spent at the pool. Somebody’s mother barely keeping watch, with a paperback novel and a wide-brimmed hat to keep her nose from burning. And us, long before we felt the pressure to “work on our tan,” bouncing up and down in the shallow end, games of Marco Polo with kids you’d just met, and working up the nerve to take the test for the deep end.
Did you ever play the game where you and a friend dropped below the surface of the pool and shouted to each other, testing to see if sound could carry through water? We would keep our eyes open so that we could try and read lips (which was no help at all, as the moment you open your mouth underwater to make a sound all you can see is giant bubbles escaping toward the sun). I might yell, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but you would hear, “blay bluh obbla blah bah.” Then, reconvening with our heads above water I’d ask, “did you get it?” and you’d reply, “The Empire Strikes Back?” Ah, summer.
The Easter Vigil isn’t totally different from summer days spent at the swimming pool. Here, too, there is a kind of mythic quality at work. You felt it, didn’t you, as we gathered outside to light the fire. Something old and primal, which is right. People have been gathering around fires to tell stories since humanity first stood upright and discovered the secrets of flint and steel. Something mythic about walking into the dark with our little candles to light the way. Something older than electricity and television going on here.
We have our swimming pool games tonight as well. Seven times now we’ve dropped below the surface of the Christian story and God has met us there, trying to be understood through the surrounding baptismal waters.
She met us beneath the waters and called out “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.” It was a long round, by the end we were ready to come up for air. She met us above the surface of the waters, asking “did you get it?”
“I’m not sure,” we replied. “It was the story of creation, right?” “Right,” she said. “You know the story, now remember what it means. It means you have always been mine. You are a part of the creation I gazed upon and called good. And it started with water.”
“This is fun. Let’s play again!” We dove below the waters once more and there we heard God speaking (with an oddly Australian accent) these words, “then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into a dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”
“How about that one? Did you understand what I said that time?” said God, and we answered, “it’s the Exodus, it’s the time you saved us from slavery.” “Right,” He said, “that’s part of what these waters mean as well. You have been captive, and captivated, by all kinds of empires. You’ve even been enslaved by them. But I’m rescuing you. You are free people.”
“That is so cool. Do it again!”
So down we went for a third time and there God met us with His fuzzy face and dramatic voice, calling through the waters, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”
We met again, faces still dripping wet, and said, “I didn’t get that. What were you saying?” And God replied, “it would be so easy for you to waste your whole lives chasing after fantasies of power and wealth, and in the end you would be terribly alone. I’m giving you these waters, waters that will actually quench your thirst, waters that will bind you to peoples and nations you don’t even know. I will do this, for you, for free.”
We were ready to stop playing right about then. These waterlogged words were difficult to hear. They were so confusing, but God pressed on. Gripping us by the hand she plunged us a fourth time beneath the waters and called out, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live… lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
Knocking our heads left and right, trying to get the water out of our ears, we had to admit, “I didn’t understand that at all. What were you saying?” And she replied, “these waters are truth, they call you to a new life, a new maturity. When you come out of them you will have to live in a new way, a justice-making way.”
By now the sun was hot, and we could feel the skin on our noses getting tight. “I think we should get out and put on sunscreen. I’m starting to burn.” But God pulled us beneath the cool waters and said, “I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.”
That round was especially long, longer than we could ever possibly have held our breath, so we rose from the waters that fifth time convinced that we were going to drown. “What’s the point of this game?” we demanded. “Are you trying to kill us?!”
“No,” God replied, “I am saving you. When you live in these waters, you will be different from the world around you. Your loyalties will not be the world’s loyalties, and there will be a cost to living in this way. I cannot spare you from the trials to which you will be put, but I will always be with you, and because you have been drenched in these waters, the world’s fires can never consume you.”
When we sank below the waters for the sixth time, it felt like it surely had to be the last. Once again God opened Her mouth to speak to us beneath the surface, but as the air bubbles left Her mouth it felt to us as though all the air was leaving our bodies as well. Again she spoke through the water, and this time there was no mistaking her words, “Do you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
Oh God! Is that how this game ends? Did we wade into the shallow end only to be drowned in the deeps? Has God been playing with us all along, leading us to our doom? Is this the cost of our baptism?
There we lay beneath the waters, no air left in our lungs to pull us upward. There we lay for a full three minutes, three minutes that felt like three days. Then we heard God’s voice again, as clearly as if we were already risen from the pool. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” We breathed in these words like they were oxygen. “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” And our bodies began to rise, the light of the sun beyond the surface of the water visible again to our eyes. And, “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the LORD!’”
We rose from the pool, our feet now touching the bottom, our eyes and ears streaming with water and our mouths wide open to allow air back into the deepest chambers of our chest. God waiting patiently for us to gain our bearings, then asking, “Did you hear me through the waters? Do you know now what they mean?”
And we replied, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”