New fire and living water. Extremes of existence, held together by the cross and the resurrection, like life and death.
Water. Soothing, refreshing, life-giving. We play in it, luxuriate in it. Our bodies are more than half made of it. Yet when it is contaminated, it kills; when it is scarce, we fight over it and worry for it; and when it breaks loose, like the archetypal flood, the waters before creation, the terrifying deep, it burns like fire and drowns all that it touches.
Fire. It falls from the heavens and scorches the earth. It burns out of control, terrifying; yet without it, we would have no life, no earth, nothing. The sun, a burning ball of fire, gives us light, warmth, the conditions we need for life on this, its third orbiting planet. Fire even delights us, whether throught the comfort of a homely fireplace or the excitement of a firework display; it adds to our enjoyment of life.
Fire and water. Life and death. Extremes held together by the cross and the resurrection, the cross which we mark with oil on the heads of the newly baptized; the resurrection which overcomes death.
[fire and water demo!] – ok, kids, here’s where it gets funky. I have a glass (actually Pyrex) bowl, into which I have just poured a little water while talking about the water, and another, with sand and a candle stuck in it, which I lit while talking about the fire. An oil stock also sits somewhere nearby.
Now, I invite the children to come and join me at the chancel steps. We talk about how fire and water don’t play well together. Then, I produce a little glass bottle of gel firelighter (it pours like oil), and pour it onto the water.
**Disclaimer: if you decide to try this, read the warning labels on the flammable liquid that you use and follow them. Keep all small children out of reach of any shooting flames. Keep the water level in the bowl low in relation to the brim, and don’t use too much oil. Remember that the vessel that you are using will get hot. Use lots and lots of common sense! I am not to be held responsible for anyone else’s inflammatory mishaps but my own!**
Now, when we (I) use the candle to light the oil floating on top of the water, it burns. We talk about how the oil allows the fire and the water to exist side by side, without destroying one another, without scorching, or quenching one another.
The oil of chrism, the sign of the cross at baptism, hold together the extremes of life and death, fire and water. We die with Christ and are raised to new life with him, all in one action. The cross and the resurrection hold together the extremes of life and death, and the oil represents that to our bodies at baptism.
The children are dismissed.
We began Lent, forty days and six Sundays ago, by marking our faces with ashes, those signs of our own mortality, of the dying of the light, the remains of the fire. On Thursday, we stripped bare the altars, we covered up the stained glass window of the resurrection, we waited for the death of God on Good Friday. Today, all was quiet as the tomb.
Until now. Until now.
Earthquakes. Angels with clothes made of lightning. New fire and Easter bells: now death has been transformed into life. Jesus, once dead and buried, is risen and appears again to his disciples, the women who came to weep for him; and death no longer has dominion over him.
There are resurrection stories of Jesus in which his best friends don’t recognize him when they first see him newly alive. I don’t think that it can be just the surprise. People who have lost loved ones often have the opposite experience: they see their lost love everywhere, in everyone who passes by. But Jesus seems to have been changed by the experience of Holy Saturday, by that day spent in the land of the dead.
The old images of the realms of the dead – fire and water – the burning nether regions and the rivers of the dead – Jesus had passed through those places and purified them by his presence.
He didn’t leave behind everything from his former life. He still had the wounds in his hands, his feet, his side, the marks of the cruelest experience he suffered. He did not forget his death.
But he seems to have left behind any bitterness, any regrets that he might have had. He never confronted his disciples about their betrayals and abandonment; about their lack of faith that he would indeed rise from the dead as he had told them he would. He gave them loving greetings. He told them not to be afraid. He called them his brothers and his sisters.
He still bore the marks of the cross. He didn’t undo the pain, the suffering, the death. But he overcame it. He was the same Jesus that his friends had always known, and loved, but his life was brand new, fresh from the fire, his wounds washed clean by the water. He held together in his still-scarred but resurrected body death and life, fire and water, the cross and the resurrection.
Some of us, in the past week, walking the Stations of the Cross that were set up in the church, wrote or drew prayers for things that we prayed Jesus would take into the tomb with him, take into the realm of death, and leave there. I fed them into the new fire this evening. They have been burnt up, transformed by the journey through fire, from death to life. Just as we, in baptism, are washed clean, transformed, renewed by the journey through the water into new birth.
When we are united with Jesus in death, we are united with him in resurrection. When we bear the sign of the cross anointed with oil on our foreheads, we hold the cross and the resurrection together in our own bodies, our own lives. We are sinners, forgiven. We draw mortal breaths, filled with eternal life. We are transformed, and our lives are no longer our own, but they are God-given and thanksgiven and we live no longer for ourselves alone but for God and for one another.
We began Lent by marking our faces with ashes, the dying of the light, the remains of the fire.
Now, as we baptize N. and renew our own baptismal vows, we wash our faces clean, so that they might reflect the new fire, the Paschal candle, the signs of the eternal life that we live with God, the divine spark within each one of us, fire and water by the grace of the cross and resurrection burning together.
In the name of Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord and Saviour: Amen. Alleluia!