Houston, Floods, Baptism and You
September 17, 2017
Back in 1994, I lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, for a year because I was committing myself to one year of volunteer service down there with a program called the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (think of it as a sort of Catholic version of the Peace Corps.). This was long before Hurricane Katrina ever struck, but still, I happened to be living there in May of that fateful year when the so-called “Storm of the Century” hit. It wasn’t a hurricane or even officially a tropical storm – just an unbelievable amount of rain from some very heavy storms: over 20” in less than 24 hours.
It was a terrible experience, as the rain just kept coming and coming and coming and coming, as if it would never stop. People (including us volunteers) watched helplessly as the water lapped up at their front steps, then up to their porches, then under their doors, then sloshed into the homes covering up to several feet of water in the first floor or more in many cases. My car was under water up to the hood. The day after, when the rain finally stopped, the horrifying site of home after home after home up and down the block with carpets, furniture, toys, clothing all piled up in wet, soggy, smelly heaps – waiting days for the trashmen to come – was depressing beyond belief.
So how much more terrible is it for the people of Houston who were so badly devastated by an astounding 50+ inches of rain and the many people flooded out by the fury of Hurricane Irma! (It’s not too late to help out financially, by the way. Please just call the parish to find out how.) But still, amidst the terrible Houston flood and the devastation of Irma, there were signs of great hope. One of the iconic pictures that came out of the horrific events of Hurricane Harvey was the AP wire service photo nearby, depicting a Houston Swat team officer carrying a lady and her peacefully sleeping baby out of the flood waters. The serene child is completely at peace, not even aware of the horrendously destructive power of the flood nearly engulfing him.
It was certainly hard to look away from the images of that terrifying floodwater, all over the news websites and cable television channels. There is something very visceral about fear of floods. Even for those who have not lived through one, that fear of being drowned is archetypal – built into our psyche even if we haven’t experienced it personally.
Even though we don’t think of it often, our Christian faith includes this “flood” theme as something essential to our spiritual life. It’s right there near the beginning of the Bible (Gen. 6-9), in the story of Noah’s Ark. Far more than a children’s story for coloring books or Vacation Bible Schools, the story speaks to us as adults. The earliest members of our human family had become so wicked, so self-centered, and so strongly turned against God that He saw no way out but to destroy all of them – except the tribe of Noah, who alone remained faithful to Him. The endless floodwaters – 40 days’ worth – engulfed the land, but Noah and his clan sailed above it all in the ark constructed according to God’s will and command.
This has always been one of the main symbols of baptism and is even mentioned in the words of that sacramental rite. Why so? Because we are heirs to the sin of Adam and Eve, our first parents. Just as surely as Hurricane Harvey’s floodwater engulfed much of Houston, preventing escape for so many, without baptism we too would be without hope of escape. The deadliness of sin would literally ruin and damn us. Except – that is – for the power of the Cross of Jesus Christ, the God-man. Only He alone has the power to rescue us. We could not crawl out of the flood waters of sin on our own power. We have to be “carried out” and lifted out by the power of the Cross.
When we are baptized, the “old man” – the man in the grip of Satan’s power and of sin – is drowned. Who rises up? The “new man” – redeemed by Christ Himself. The baptismal rite is very clear that we are baptized into both the death and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: death to sin, and rising to new and eternal life in Communion with God.
Interestingly, most of us who are Catholics now were baptized as infants. Just like the little baby in the photo, we may be sleeping serenely and obliviously through this whole dramatic moment, completely unaware of the great act of salvation that has just occurred. But like the mother in the photo, once baptized, we are firmly in the grip of the Church, holding us in her loving arms. We should make every effort to remain there. Finally, about that Ark. The Ark too is a symbol of the Church. Peter’s barque – the Church and her holy sacraments – is the only thing preventing us from drowning in the sea of sin and confusion which plagues the world without her presence.
- Fr. Reutter