Water as Theophany

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My Dad was a Navy pilot in World War II. As much as he loved to fly there was something about the water and sailing that gave him an even greater thrill. That’s his foot in the front, lower right corner of the picture. He probably had one hand on the camera and his other hand on a peanut-butter sandwich while shouting to us, “look, no hands!”  Meanwhile, our little family was holding on for dear life while trying not to get sea-sick.

It was always the highlight of our visit—at least for Dad. He loved having us on the boat and sharing the excitement of sailing Lake Michigan. It provided him with not only a vista of the Chicago skyline but there was a sense of freedom. No traffic. No phone calls. No hassle. Nothing but the wind, the water and his skill at navigating while travelling and creating a voyage that was always filled with stories, excitement and experiences our kids still recall. The water was better than any television or movie screen. It was theatre. With Dad, we were playing for real.

Ancient Celtic Spirituality was attentive to water and often worshipped where water was nearby. It helped them gain perspective and both be attentive and aware of God’s movements, with the mystery and majesty that came in and went out with the presence of every wave. These rhythms, the sounds, the winds that swept the shoreline, heightened the sacredness of life found in God who they worshipped by the water. God was not the water. But God was in the water.

St. Brendan may be a saint many are not familiar with but he was the Irish patron saint of sailors, boatmen, mariners, and travelers. He was a contemporary of Saint Columba and was reported to have met him on the Hynba Island in Scotland where there was a small monastery associated with Iona. In fact, to this day the Hynba Island has an uncertain location and whereabouts but it is till known as a mystical place for visions, revelations and trances that allow for insight and understanding of the deepest truths of life. Water can do that to you.   

Did you know water is responsible for the air we breathe? The ocean creates oxygen. It also absorbs carbon dioxide. No need to be a chemist or a marine biologist to fact-check this. Just think of water as the lungs for earth and all of life depends on water. When we go under water for a long time and hold our breath, we recognize quickly our limitations but we also enter a world that is beneath the surface. It opens to us to the unknown, demanding reverence to a power greater than ourselves. When we come back up gasping for air we might be reminded of the sacrament of baptism and the New Life found the resurrection of Christ.  

Brendan, the navigator who with the winds of the Holy Spirit set sail and explored the fullness of creation. His writings and prayers remind us that we do not live simply by our heart and mind and next-door neighbors but the land and sea instruct and expand our vision to recognize God who can be found in water.

The theophany of water is a visible manifestation of the sacred, who refreshes, purifies, cleanses and removes our sin, so that we are no longer separated from God’s grasp. God gives life, creates, and sustains life, with water that Jesus refers to as “living water.” And so, it is.

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Robin Jennings

Robin T. Jennings is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, and an accomplished author, speaker and teacher who inspires his audiences with Biblical guidance and spiritual insights into everyday life. Whether he has the opportunity to speak to churches, businesses or organizations, Robin’s lifetime of work in spiritual transformation and renewal connects individuals with timely topics such as the importance of community, hope, identity and the search for meaning which are inevitably woven into his message.

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