From the Gospel of John:
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 6:16-21 (NRSV) – February 1, 2014.)
Today, February 1, is the ancient Irish feast of Imbolc, considered the beginning of spring and sacred to the goddess Brigid; it has become the commemoration of St. Brigid of Kildare, sometimes called Ireland’s “other patron saint.” (The lesson from John’s Gospel, however, is simply the Daily Office reading, not specific to the saint’s day.) Among the traditions of Imbolc (and, thus, of St. Brigid’s feast) is the visiting of holy wells, walking around them in prayer, and taking some of their water to be used to bless people and things.
For ancient peoples, the sea and other large bodies of water were vast, chaotic, and frightening places. In the ancient middle east, the sea was deified as Tiamat, goddess of primordial chaos and mother of the gods. In Irish mythology, the chaotic and dangerous sea separates the land of the living from the Otherworld, called Tír na nÓg (“Land of Youth”). Holy wells are viewed as places where the chaotic, spiritual dimension breaks into the everyday world.
Jesus’ walking on the water is a story told in three of the Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and John — Matthew adds Jesus inviting Peter to join him. It is a demonstration of the Lord’s mastery over the chaotic; Matthew’s addition of the invitation to Peter and Peter’s being able to do so until, as writer Madeleine L’Engle put it, “he remembered he didn’t know how” is symbolic of the empowerment Christ offers us to do the same.
In a sense, we walk on the surface of chaos all the time. One of the learnings from quantum mechanics is that things are not nearly as solid as they seem. The everyday world seems to “float” on what has been called a “quantum foam.” The Greeks posited that if we continue to divide matter we get to atoms; if we divide atoms, we get electrons, neutrons, and other subatomic particles; if we try to divide subatomic particles, eventually we get to get quantum fields and even multidimensional vibrating strings. At the quantum level, reality is a quivering mass of quantum chaos. We walk on the surface of chaos all the time!
The story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water and the reality of the quantum chaos beneath our everyday lives should remind us that we do know how to do this. Water as a symbol of blessing is also a reminder of that; when we bless water and then use it to bless other things, like the Irish use the water from holy wells, we are declaring that we have the power and ability to deal with the chaos and to control the chaos in our lives.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.