Going Back Into the Water With the Great Fish:
Baptism, Death, and Christian Transition
by Fr. Rich Hasselbach
Just as all earthly life began in the sea, our individual lives begin as embryonic water creatures floating in our mother’s womb. With great difficulty, each of us has transitioned from that forgotten country, through the birth canal, to begin a life in our world of time and space that is radically transformed, yet intimately connected to its beginnings. Christian life also begins in water when the Christian ritually enters the water of baptism with Christ – dying with him in the hope of sharing his resurrection.
The Paradox of the Cross
The paradox of the cross lies at the heart of Christianity. St. Paul describes it alternatively as a scandal or an absurdity to the religiously orthodox, and to the rational minds of practical people of the time. Nevertheless, Paul found hope and courage in this paradox, in it he found his ‘glory,’ and to it he devoted, and ultimately sacrificed, his life. Despite its absurdity, Paul proclaimed that the Christian paradox of the cross represented the very wisdom of God, transforming the world into something radically new, yet intimately connected to what went before.
The paradox of the cross was not merely the tension of seemingly inconsistent ideas or images – it had a far more human face. It was the paradox of the dying Christ, suspended on the tree, mediating heaven and earth, with his arms outstretched as if to embrace the world. Disgraced, he is in his glory. Defeated, he is the victor. At the end, he is just beginning. His life is lost in one sense, but in a deeper sense he rises and lives in eternity. For the Christian tradition, death on the cross is a predicate to Christ’s resurrection, and to the world’s salvation.
The cross was not an easy message for Paul to preach. It was difficult for early Christians to accept the cross, even as a symbol, because it bespoke cruelty, suffering, and death. The crucified Christ looked more like a victim than the vanquisher. “In the early Christian era the cross was accepted as a symbol only hesitantly, because of the infamous nature of this particular form of execution.” Non-Christians were repulsed by the cross – and found it, as Paul said, “foolishness at best or even a scandal.” The Greek words Paul uses when he writes about this to the Corinthians are telling. The Greek “Skandalon” means “a stumbling block.” It can also mean something which is revolting, or which causes divisiveness and opposition. The other word Paul uses, “foolishness”, (in Greek “Moria”), can mean both folly and absurdity.
The Cross was an unlikely sign of hope. Yet this absurdity grew to become the anchor of hope for early Christians. The first Christians experienced Jesus as not dead and defeated, but as risen and victorious. Despite it’s absurdity and scandal in the eyes of non-believers, the Cross was the essence of the preaching of the early Church, and the narrative of Christ’s passion and crucifixion became the foundation around which the Gospels were written.
Christians believe that by dying in obedience to the will of the Father, Jesus became the Christ, God’s son and humankind’s savior. On the cross Jesus let go of everything that was his own, but in this poverty he discovered his deepest center, which is the Father. Dying to time and space, he enters the Kingdom beyond time and space. In death, Jesus becomes one with the ground of his being, which now becomes the center of his being as well. In his last prayer, Jesus prays, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” and he enters the Kingdom of the Father, which he taught was always and everywhere ‘in your midst’ (entos humon estin) – or, as others have read this Greek phase, the Kingdom of God is ‘within you.’” Christ, in death, is entering a new reality that is as different from this world of time and space as the world itself is from the the reality of life in the womb.
If that were all that Jesus did, his remarkable life would only be that of a mystic. Christians believe that on the cross this dying, defeated, living, victorious man opens a path for all humanity to follow. His paradox is ours. His way is open to us – the way of the cross is the way of our transformation
Christian Baptism: Going Into the Water with the Great Fish
Symbolically, the Christian joins Christ on the way of the cross through baptism. There is an intimate connection between the death of Christ and the baptism of Christians. The New Testament speaks of Christ’s death as “baptism.” In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks two of his disciples, “Can you drink of the cup I shall drink, or be baptized in the same pain as I?” Yet when St. Paul speaks of the Christian’s baptism he refers to it as a “death.” Paul asks the Romans: “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the father, we too might live a new life. If we have been united with him through likeness to his death, so shall we be through likeness to his resurrection.”
Paul makes it clear that the hope of Christians lies in the water of baptism with Christ, the “Great Fish.” The Greek word for fish (ichthys) was used in the early church as an acronym for Iesous Christos Theou Hyios Soter (‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). The fish became an early symbol of Christ who saves the world through his relationship of oneness with the Father. Christians believed that to live the fullness of life, one must be united to the way of the crucified and risen one. Tertullian, one of the fathers of the Church, wrote
We, being little fish, as Jesus Christ is our Great
Fish; begin our life in the water, and only while
we abide in the water are we safe.
While the convert may have lived many years of physical existence, the beginning of his/her spiritual life is celebrated in baptism. Immersion into the baptismal water is the great symbol of the beginning of Christian life - but it is also a symbol of the death of our old, unconverted self. By going into the water with the Great Fish, the convert is ritually dying to the old self and is buried in the tomb with Jesus. The convert is dying to all ways of life that are not the way of Christ; and is rising to the way of Christ – the way of the cross.
The new Christian emerges from the baptismal water committed to living as the Great Fish lived. Baptism represents a ritual initiation into a way of life and the beginning of a life journey. Like Christ, the Christian is committed to letting go of everything in him/her that is not the of the Spirit drawing us to the Father through the Son. That journey requires that the Christian remain in the water, remain, that is, in the Spirit, connected to ministry of the crucified, living one where, alone, are we safe. While the journey begins at baptism, it is the journey of a lifetime.
By calling the baptized ‘little fish,’ Tertullian is making a claim about our very being. Christians, like Christ, are Sons and daughters of God. The ‘god life’ is within them, and must be and remain central to their being. The only true life is the Father’s kingdom within. The challenge of the Christian journey becomes to claim the kingdom by renouncing the narrow ego-self and centering on one’s God-life, as Christ did on the Cross.
Signs of Transition: the Universality of Christian Myth
The Christian symbols of death, life, and transformation have universal significance. Christ on his cross is the archetypal image of the resolution of the polarities in the world. He works out in his person the tension of opposing forces and becomes the place of transcendence and rest in a world of constant turmoil; the still point of the universe.
Christ hangs between heaven and earth on the ‘tree’ of the cross. Joseph Campbell suggests “the idea of a sacred place where the walls and laws of the temporal world may dissolve to reveal a wonder is apparently as old as the human race.” Christ on his cross becomes such a place. The four arms of the cross draws us to a center point where Christ brings together in one place and resolves the four corners of the temporal world into the eternal. The Cross’ vertical beam, dug into the earth and shooting up to the sky, is an image of Christ’s mediation between the heights and the depths, soul and spirit, light and darkness.
The cross is a sacred place precisely because it wells up from our inner depths as an archetype of transcendence. On the Cross Christ is the image of one who has plumbed the depths of his soul and found the place within where he is most himself but no longer only himself. In the depths of our being we find our common humanity, and what is more than our common humanity. We touch the ground of human life that creates but is not created, the energy of the cosmos. Finding this sacred place is finding a place out of time where ineffable wonder takes us beyond things as they are or appear to be in the physical or common sense world. It is finding this oneness with creation, which is the source of all true compassion.
Water is the great symbol of the unconscious. On the cross, water flows from the side of Christ. In going into the water with the Great Fish the convert is invited into a relationship with his or her own inner reality. As Christ found the Father within, so must each Christian. Fullness of life, the ritual tells us, comes from a relationship with ones own unconscious, which is the dwelling place of God. Baptism is an invitation to find our true center - the spark of the divine that is not the ego and that the ego must serve. This is not an imitation of Christ; it is following in his path.
Going Back in into the Water: Christian Death
Death is the final and greatest challenge of life, the ultimate letting go of all our security, and of everything that we are. It is being naked, poor, alone, and powerless. For the dying Christian, death is also the paradox of the cross, enacted one more time: the universal and eternal dance of death and life and transformation. The dying Christian re-enacts the crucifixion of Christ. Each dying Christian IS Christ, again letting go of everything that he calls his own; again finding the divine center. As this is done, and to the extent it is done, the dying Christian enter into the Kingdom of the Father – becomes one with the Ground of Being. The life of the baptized and the way of the cross have been a preparation for this one great moment of cosmic struggle in the life of each Christian.
The Rite of Christian Burial suggests that there is more to our physical death than just an end; it is both real end and real transformation. In the first moments of the rite, a rite replete with reminders of the Baptism, the body is blessed with water to recall the deceased’s baptism. This is more than a reminder; the water used in the rite symbolizes the paradox of death and transformation as it did in Baptism. The old is gone, but something radically new emerges, not in time, but in eternity. The dying Christ is the paradigm for the dying Christian. United in life to Christ’s death, in death the Christian is united in death to Christ’s resurrection.
Conclusion: Intimations of What Remains
Christianity is not preeminently a matter of doctrine or creedal formulae – it is essentially a journey within to experience of transcendent union with the source of life. To follow the way of Christ, each Christian must go down into the water of his or her soul. C.G. Jung wrote that “in every feature Christ’s life is a prototype of individuation and hence cannot be imitated: one can only live one’s own life totally in the same way with all the consequences this entails.” This is what it means to be ‘little fish,’ it is to become, in our own right, centered on our own divine essence. Only then do our lives become truly life-giving, generative, and saving.
Death is the ultimate human challenge. Can we let go of ourselves and enter the darkness of the grave with grace and courage? All of life is merely a preparation for this ultimate event. What, if anything, lies beyond the end of our personal history? Each of us must answer this question individually - not theoretically, but viscerally. Both baptism and the rite of Christian burial suggest at least a tentative answer.
At the end of his book on the Resurrection, Willi Marxen tells the story of Rentdorf, a German peasant of simple Christian faith. Surrounded on his deathbed by his grieving family, he told his loved ones simply: “I know only this, I shall be safe.” Safe in the water with the Great Fish.”