A dear friend of mine serves as an Orthodox priest in one of our coastal cities. He told me about a visit to his port of a Russian “sailing ship.” It was a wonderful visit, as he related. The ship had a small chapel on board and a Russian Orthodox chaplain. Together they celebrated a small prayer service in the chapel, which was packed with visitors and sailors. The service including the blessing of water. Traditionally at the end of the blessing, the people are sprinkled with the blessed water. My American friend took the sprinkling brush and (in a common American way) lightly sprinkled the water. He was interrupted, he said, by a loud, “Nyet!”
The Russian priest took the brush from him, plunged it in the water and proceeded to “slosh” the gathered congregation (“sprinkle” simply doesn’t describe such a application of water).
When my friend told me the story, I asked him if he understood what had happened. “We Americans sprinkle water as though we’re afraid to get wet. The Russians “slosh” the water as though they are getting blessed!”
I think about this story each time I serve at the Blessing of the Waters. After Church this afternoon, my parish gathered down at the local river for the Great Blessing of the Waters. The service concludes with the blessing of the people with the newly-blessed water from the river. This year, my congregation received their blessing “Russian style” though I think it was greeted to some degree as “getting wet” (of course it was also 13 degrees fahrenheit today).
Such stories are light-hearted and point to subtleties in culture. But our American culture (and its response to being splashed with holy water) also reveals the latent “second-storey” that shapes our perception of the world and God’s place within it. Water can be seen as a symbol (in the modern sense of standing for something that is not there), but not as sacrament (becoming a bearer of Divine Grace). Despite the fact that Christianity is inherently linked to the material creation (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”) the secularized mind can only see superstition and magic when things are spoken of as holy.
The two-storey configuration of the modern religious mind (we live here in a neutral, natural world while God and things “spiritual” are somewhere else – removed) cannot cope with the reality of God’s Incarnation. For a very large number of modern Christians, sacraments have ceased to have any reality other than the meaning we ourselves impute to them.
To travel through what remains of ancient Christianity is to be shocked by the presence of incorrupt bodies of the saints, prominently displayed within the Church (as well as bone fragments and the like). How did Christians who placed such value on the bodies of the saints perceive the world? What seems macabre to the modern mind seemed indispensable to our predecessors.
The rejection of relics and icons, the desacralization of sacraments renders our modern world “safe” from a concrete encounter with the sacred. We prefer our encounters to be polite sprinkles, marked with ambiguity and never free of doubt.
But the fullness of the Tradition requires that we embrace God as He has given Himself to us. We should be plunged into the depths of His crucifixion (quite literally through the waters of Baptism). God is meant to be eaten. The fullness of the faith assaults our senses and brings us face to face with grace in the material world. It is generally delusion that carries our minds away to immaterial thoughts and imaginations of the heart. Orthodox Christianity has no lowest common denominator – it is maximal Christianity. “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12).
This is not to say that Orthodox Christians are masters of fasting or that their feet don’t hurt from standing for hours in prayer. Forgiving everyone for everything and the practice of continual repentance is as difficult for them as it would be for anyone. But none of us was created to tiptoe into the Kingdom.
Many modernists criticize the commandments of God as “empty ritual,” never noticing that “empty” best describes the content of our thoughts – the imaginations of our hearts. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” the Psalmist says. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.”
Forgive the crudeness of my language – but with such an abundance of grace – we need to “slosh” our way into the Kingdom – and rejoice in the rich mercies of God.