Waters in the desert

By Chris Sparks

I grew up in a Coast Guard family, which meant I grew up near, on, or in the water. By the time I left home for college, we had lived near or on the coasts of the continental U.S.: Atlantic, Gulf, Pacific, and Great Lakes. We’d been on the Columbia River. We’d been to the beach, all sorts of beaches, all up and down the country.

Where my family is, there is water.

So there was something special, something like coming home, in visiting the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, and the Dead Sea in the Holy Land.

Sacred and profane
We got right down by the seaside in Caesarea Maritima, visiting the site of Herod’s palace. You can still see the pools he’d had built right into the water. And a couple of hundred meters away, you could see the small square that archeologists have identified as St. Paul’s cell, after he’d been arrested and before he was sent to Rome and ultimate execution. 

A little further on, there was a large hippodrome, a racing track where horses and chariots had competed thousands of years before. So many of the features of the Roman Empire, all gathered in one place: architecture that’s endured across millennia; prominent places for sport and entertainment, where enslaved people and animals were essentially sacrificed for the entertainment or distraction of the people, of the wealthy, of the powerful; and palaces remembered mostly for the saints who were held captive in their prisons, or for the relationship of the palace’s owner to the life of Jesus of Nazareth and those of His followers.

The ancient Roman Empire remains relevant to us because the Gospel emerged from its heart; because life re-entered the failing heart of empire and renewed it; because the fire of the Holy Spirit rekindled the life of a thing built on conquest, pride, and power.

Waters of Galilee
And much of that Gospel comes to us from the Sea of Galilee, from the boat of St. Peter and his brethren, fishermen, who became fishers of men, instead. We visited the spot on the shore where, tradition tells us, Jesus waited for the apostles after the Resurrection, where He grilled their fish for their breakfast, and where Peter got to declare his love for Christ three times. 

In turn, Christ entrusted His sheep to the repentant Rock, on whom the Church was founded. Right around the corner in Tabgha, tradition tells us, was where Jesus had fed the 5,000 by miraculously multiplying bread and fish (see Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:31-44; Lk 9:12-17; Jn 6:1-14). 

We got to eat the fish from the sea, and go on a boat, reconstructed based on similar first-century boats, out onto the sea itself. We had Mass in the Church built over an octagonal fifth century church, built in turn on the site believed to be the home of Simon Peter; saw the first-century synagogue practically across the street; and got to look at the great view of the Sea of Galilee, Peter’s workplace. 

Jesus chose truly gorgeous places for His preaching; in fact, I’m sure He wanted to showcase some of the most beautiful parts of His Father’s creation as He preached the love and goodness of that Father. The waters of Galilee have flowed since the time of Christ; it’s not the same water, and yet it’s the same body of water. Sort of like the Church on earth. Many souls have been baptized into the Church, and many souls have received the last Sacraments on the way out of the world. And yet the Church on earth is still the same Church founded by Christ all those millennia ago, though it’s grown a great deal. 

The successor to St. Peter is Peter; the successors to the Apostles, the bishops, abide. 

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the “birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches” (Mt 13:31-32).

Further, we were reminded by our tour guide, Manuel, and by our travels that everything in the life of Christ was within walking distance. Nazareth is relatively close to the Sea of Galilee, which is the main source for the waters of the River Jordan.

The same spots
The spot where Jesus was baptized by John, according to tradition, is the same spot where the Israelites brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jordan into the Holy Land (see Josh 3). When the Ark entered the waters, the waters ceased to flow; when Jesus entered the waters, the heavens opened up, the Holy Spirit descended, and God spoke.

And we got to be there. We got to go into the Jordan, if we wanted, or be sprinkled by the water. It’s guarded on each shore by soldiers of the respective nations — Jordan and Israel — and yet it’s a place of prayer, of Baptism, and of peace. The same is true of the whole of the Holy Land, a land where God has met His people and provided for us again and again, and where all His children are too often at odds with each other.

The last of the bodies of water, the Dead Sea, was also the one in the midst of sheer desert. Everywhere else in the country we went, you could see that it was spring. The flowers and the palm trees were in bloom. At the Dead Sea, you were in the desert, in the sand and mountains. 

We were privileged to go down to the Dead Sea, to the site where the scrolls were found at Qumran, showing the incredible consistency of the Biblical text across thousands of years, many translations, and several different religions. We went down to the Sea itself. Some of us just touched the water; many of us went in. It’s so salty, there are posted warnings, discouraging anyone with high blood pressure from going in the water.

It's also the lowest land-based elevation on earth, well below sea level. It’s dead because water only flows into it; nothing flows back out. Over the generations, many preachers and writers have drawn a comparison between the freshwater, life-giving Sea of Galilee, and the salt Dead Sea. After all, the Sea of Galilee gives as open-handedly as it receives, whereas the Dead Sea receives only, and holds on to what it receives as best it can. But what the Dead Sea receives evaporates, making it more and more a dead body of water, salty, full of minerals but short on life.

Imitation of Christ
We are meant to be Christians in imitation of Christ, as generous as He is generous, offering our sacrifice of thanks and praise to God always for the many gifts He showers upon us, and giving generously out of the abundance God provides. The more we give, the more we shall receive. If we give generously, we too shall be full of life.

[Jesus said to St. Faustina:] My daughter, if I demand through you that people revere My mercy, you should be the first to distinguish yourself by this confidence in My mercy. I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it. I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first — by deed, the second — by word, the third— by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By this means a soul glorifies and pays reverence to My mercy (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 742).

Previous article
Photo by Dave Herring on Unsplash 


You might also like...

On Dec. 8, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (a Holy Day of Obligation), God’s greatest act of mercy for any human being — God preserved Mary, His mother, from inheriting any stain of original sin.

"In a fit of madness, I started running," Br. Josh, MIC, recalls. But when his brother seminarians suggest training for a marathon, thoughts of horrible suffering and misery blazed through his mind...

Brother Josh, MIC, sat down quietly on his bed and prayed, “If you want, Beloved, I would run an ultramarathon for you.” Then, he forgot about his off-the-cuff prayer.