02 December 2008

Through Water and Holy Laughter - Article

There is a wonderful Anglican tradition which we only do on special occasions, such as at the Easter Vigil or at the installations of bishops and things like that. It makes me glad to be an Anglican. The liturgical act is called asperging. The celebrant takes an evergreen branch - yew works best - and dips it into water from the baptismal font and sprinkles it on the congregation.
The response from the people is always laughter.

Water intersects our liturgy with surprise: it stops us short and brings us back to the beginning of things. Our bodies remember. Drops of water spray across the side of my face and I remember the long trek in the desert. We thought we would die of thirst. Then the rock was struck and water gushed out: bubbling and gurgling: we heard the noise of it and drank in this water which saved our lives. We filled our canteens. Women and children, waiting in line before the stand-pipe. It’s the only clean water around. Each one takes their portion and hoists it up to rest on their head. They will carry their heavy burden along the dusty road in Tanzania to their home because this water means life.

A drop of water clings to my eye-glasses and rests there, bending light. The colours from the stained glass windows turn and curl, repenting. I remember the line up of people waiting before the Baptist: turning their path, changing their direction, aligning with God’s will. We must return: get back to our beginning: our creation. And everyone was there: the wealthy, the poor, the mean, the lowest and the lame: the worst sinners you could imagine. The pastor, the naval officer, the drug user, the prostitute. They were all there to be made clean, to start again, to be recreated.

The water sprays across the Cathedral hymnal opened to “From the Falter of Breath.” It will leave its mark on the onion-skin paper: curling it, bubbling it, marking this instant for hands to feel in some future moment: perhaps at a funeral. It is like my prayer book so marked on the pages of the service of committal, from so many burials performed under rainy skies. So many holy moments. Yes, this water also means death. It is going down under the surface; it is drowning. It is Jesus descending down into the darkness, feeling the river-weeds close around his face, seeing his life-breath bubble away; choosing this, to risk what is beyond. It is my friend who cannot swim running out across the cracking river ice, trying to save me.

Water sprays on the ancient woman opposite me. She knows it’s coming, shuts her eyes and braces for it. She is so wrinkled and frail: is her Order of Niagara medal heavy on her neck? Perhaps the cold will shatter her. How will she react? After the splash she straightens, her eyes open, and there it is, the corners of her mouth curl up and she joins in the laughter. They never did this when she was a girl. Who could have imagined such an indignity? Nor could she have imagined herself laughing this way in Church. How much longer does she have in this world? Yet, her laughter proves she is already living beyond it. Her laughter unites with the kid’s behind her, with the tattoo and the hardware in his face.

The space is well-watered. We have all been touched. We have all remembered.  We have resealed our baptismal covenant. We believe in God the Father. We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We believe in God the Holy Spirit, the breath of God which blew over the water at the beginning of everything. Again we have committed ourselves to worship and repentance and returning. Again we have committed ourselves to Christ: to proclaiming his way and his hold on us; to searching for him in the people around us and to striving for justice and peace among all people; to respecting the dignity of every human being. We are doing this together and we represent all people, whoever they are. God made us all: the proud, the broken, the pure the sinner, the lost. We all belong here. We can leave out no one. We have remembered what water means to us. The scenes of our lives have flashed before our eyes as they do just before our death. We have descended with Jesus under the surface.

But, of all miracles, we, with Jesus, burst back up through the surface of the water and catch a deep breath. Breath of the Spirit. We are alive! Hair wet, beard wet, shaking the water off like a shaggy dog - asperging everyone around. What else is there to do? There are no rubrics at this point in the prayer book. It is too obvious, it is the natural response of a people filled with life. But, if they were there, those red italicized letters would print out simply one word: laughter.

Asperging: what a wonderful way to remember Jesus’ resurrection: what a wonderful way for bishops to begin their new ministry. Hallelujah!

(This article was published in the April 2008 Niagara Anglican and was written following the installation service of our new Bishop, + Michael Bird)

Written by Stuart Pike

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