Again, as with our posting on March 3, we take from Liturgy 31, no. 2 (2016) some of Peter McGrail’s essay on environmental issues related to Christian Initiation. McGrail’s essay deals with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ on the environment. Here is his analysis of how water, jeopardized by environmental degradation, may be seen through the lens of the incarnation.
As soon as we draw on Pope Francis’ consideration of water, that element’s potential symbolic ambiguity becomes evident. His primary concern is access to fresh drinking water, which he underscores as “a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water because they are denied the right to a life consistent to their unalienable dignity” (no. 30). The use and misuse of water serves as a potent reality that points up global inequality. . .
This reality of exclusion contrasts with the lavish exuberance with which the gift of water is celebrated in the Easter Vigil. For example, the fifth reading opens with the cry of invitation, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Is 55:1, NRSV) and closes with the comparison of the efficaciousness of God’s life-giving word to the life-giving winter rain and snow (Is 55:10–11). Water is portrayed here as a freely given gift from the heavens that satisfies a thirsty humanity and brings fruitfulness to creation. So lavish, so fruitful is it that it serves as an image for God’s word, God’s very will.
In the light of Laudato Si’, we are invited to ask what it might mean to proclaim those words in a location of desertification or to hear them as a member of a community with little or no access to clean drinking water. The words may, indeed, express profound hope in such contexts, but perhaps they do so precisely because they also tie into anxieties, evoke painful memories, and reflect present realities. The ambiguities of a symbol soiled by human activity interact subversively with the liturgical proclamation of a scriptural passage such as this. And the tensions thus set up have the potential to generate dissonance on the lips of assemblies in a more affluent part of the world. . . Thus, one of the most joyous sections of the Easter Vigil can plunge us into a discomforting recognition of the meanings that our core symbol of baptism can hold in tension.
What, then, does this say to us of baptism itself? Surely there must be more going on here at the level of sign than just an immersion into a compromised symbol of pollution. . . .
McGrail calls for a careful reading of the Pope’s concern for Earth’s gifts so that we appropriately locate the incarnation of Christ in the midst of both sacraments and creation. We benefit from knowing more deeply the key relationship of the paschal mystery to God-with-us in this finite world and its fulfillment eschatologically.
The renewal of humanity, and indeed the transformation of the whole of creation, is caught up in the dynamism of Christ’s own victory over death and the captivity of the material world to decay and destruction. Baptism is a plunging into Christ’s paschal mystery by which women and men “die with him, are buried with him, and rise with him” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 6). In celebrating baptism, therefore, we are indeed and necessarily acknowledging the extent to which the material world is caught up in systems of death, but are also proclaiming and celebrating union with Christ in his transforming death and resurrection.
Peter McGrail is a priest of the Liverpool Roman Catholic Archdiocese and is head of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University, UK.
Peter McGrail, “Initiation and Ecology: Becoming a Christian in the Light of Laudato Si’,” Liturgy 31, no. 2 (2016), 55-62.