Sunday, April 08, 2018

Sign of the Swimmer

2nd Sunday of Easter (B)
Divine Mercy Sunday

Picture: cc USAG-Humphreys

My dear friends, do you know the difference between swimming and drowning? If you see someone in a pool of water, for example, can you tell if that person is in distress? Usually there are some obvious signs. Typically, the person can be seen struggling in the water. But the actual difference between swimming and drowning is less obvious, right? It has to do not so much with the external movements of the body, as with what happens to it internally. When a person is swimming, even though the body is surrounded by water, the lungs are still being filled with air. In contrast, we say a person is drowning when the water on the outside begins to seep inside. Invading the space that should be reserved for air. Causing the person to suffocate.

But how then to save a drowning person? Usually someone has to jump into the pool to pull the person out. And then the water has to be driven out of the lungs, and replaced with air. Only then will the drowning person survive. And hopefully be able to swim again. In any case, the difference between swimming and drowning may be described perhaps in terms of overcoming and being overcome. To swim is to overcome the water, by holding one’s breath. To drown is to be overcome by it.

This difference between swimming and drowning, between overcoming and being overcome, can be seen not just in a swimming pool, but also in the spiritual life as well. In today’s gospel reading, we’re told that the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were… A powerful image of people struggling desperately, but unsuccessfully, to keep out the dangerous waters of the world. For it’s quite clear that they are drowning. They are being overcome. First of all by fear. Fear of the Jews. Fear that whatever happened to Jesus will happen also to them. Then, in the case of Thomas, overcome also by doubt. The inability to trust without proof, to believe without sight.

So that when Jesus mysteriously appears in that enclosed room, it is to achieve a very specific purpose. To rescue people from drowning. And it’s helpful for us to notice how this done. To see that it involves four steps. We’re told that first Jesus came and stood among them. In other words, Jesus moves in the same dangerous waters in which the disciples are struggling. The Lord then drives out the fear and doubt from their hearts, by saying to them repeatedly, Peace be with you.

And it’s important for us to realise how Jesus is able to do this. He is able to enter hearts that are closed, hearts that have been overcome by fear and doubt, because he has previously plunged into the perilous pool of human existence. He was born into the insecurity of a homeless refugee. Lived the quiet life of a manual labourer. Served, ever so briefly, as Healer of the sick, Comforter of the afflicted, Shepherd to the lost and forsaken. Only to then die the cruel death of a condemned criminal. And he did all this with a heart continually filled, not with the water of fear, but with the Breath of the Spirit. Clearly, Jesus is able to rescue drowning people, because he himself has first learned to swim in the dangerous waters of human reality.

Isn’t this the reason why the Lord is able not just to drive out from the disciples’ hearts the waters of fear and doubt, but also to replace those same waters with the Breath of Love and Life? Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you… In uttering these words, Jesus doesn’t just revive the drowning. He also sends them on a mission of their own. Calling them to remain in the dangerous waters of human existence. No longer to drown, but to swim. And to work for the rescue of others, as they themselves have been rescued. To teach others how to hold their breath, to remain centred on God, even as they navigate the perilous waters of daily life.

A plunging in and a driving out. A breathing upon and a sending forth. These are the four steps by which the Crucified and Risen Lord rescues his disciples, rescues us, from the danger that threatens to overcome them. Turning drowning people into graceful swimmers. Isn’t this the same process described in the second reading? Which tells us that anyone who has been begotten by God has already overcome the world. To overcome the world, instead of being overcome by it.

What does this mean, if not to learn how to swim in the worldly waters of trial and temptation, by continually holding within us the Breath of the Spirit? Resisting the waters of fear and doubt, or selfishness and greed, or whatever else may threaten to take God’s rightful place at the centre of our hearts?

And what the second reading describes in theory, the first reading paints for us in practice. This is what it looks like, in the concrete, when Christians overcome the world. When they learn how to swim instead of drown. The first reading tells us that all those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any members who might be in need. Whereas the world teaches only how to consume and to hoard, the Christians in the first reading learn how to care and to share.

Here we find the sign that clearly distinguishes the swimmer from the one who is drowning. The sign that we celebrate most especially on this 2nd Sunday of Easter. The sign of divine mercy. The same mercy that brought Jesus from heaven to earth, from cross to grave, and from grave to that room where the doors were closed for fear of the Jews. The same mercy that then leads the early Christians to share their possessions with those in need. Mercy, my dear friends, is what changes drowning people into grace-filled swimmers. And mercy is also what we need so very much today. When so many of us continue to find ourselves overcome by the world. Drowning as much in its seductive attractions, as in the heavy demands it makes on us.

My dear sisters and brothers, if mercy is indeed what makes the difference between swimming and drowning, then how good a swimmer are you today?


  1. What a beautiful reflection, thank you Fr Chris!

  2. Thank you Fr Soh! I still miss St Ignatius! Thank you for this blog...

  3. I think I am only now going into the adult section, but I HAVE taken off my arm-floats...

    Seriously, it's a nice metaphor. All my life I have had dreams of swimming pools and only recently have I begun to think they are spiritual in nature.