Water covers approximately 70-75% of the earth’s surface and also makes up about 70% of the human body. It’s arguably the most important natural resource in the entire world. All life depends on it. On the other hand, water may be a terrifying life changing force when it comes in the form of hurricanes, floods, or blizzards. Because of the universal nature of water, it is not surprising that H20 plays a central role in the Bible as well.
Today, we are going to explore the watery events in the Old Testament that foreshadowed the New Testament sacrament of Baptism. Drawing from both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, I will focus on the two major aquatic events that prefigure baptism. Finally I will explain how the destructive powers of water describe our faith life.
Great Flood of Genesis
Genesis 7 tells of a large flood that covers the earth after 40 days of continual rain. The Early Church Fathers interpreted this event as a prefiguration of Baptism. According to St. Justin Martyr in chapter 138 of his Dialogues with Trypho,
You know, then, sirs, that God has said in Isaiah to Jerusalem: ‘I saved you in the deluge of Noah.’ By this which God said was meant that the mystery of saved men appeared in the deluge. For righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the deluge, i.e., with his own wife, his three sons and their wives, being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, wherein Christ appeared when He rose from the dead, forever the first in power. For Christ, being the first-born of every creature, became again the chief of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of the cross; even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode over the waters with his household.
Dr. Denis McNamara in his article The Sacred Depth of the Baptismal Font: The Place of Re-Creation,
In many historical examples, the octagon has taken precedence from the list of possible shapes, likely because of the symbolism of the number eight and its association with the theological “eighth day.” Genesis speaks of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, and so the “eighth day” is the metaphorical day of eternity as the day “after” the earthly sabbath, a day of re-creation into eschatological completion. Relatedly, there were eight souls in Noah’s ark who became the source of new life after the deadly flood. Since baptism is the door to this new life, the eight-sided baptistery takes on a symbolic significance particularly appropriate to the sacrament’s effect.
Another way the Genesis flood foreshadowed Baptism involves Noah sending out the dove out in Genesis 8:10. Cardinal Jean Danielou states that this reference is a foreshadowing of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove in the Gospels. Lastly, the Church Father Tertullian viewed the saving wood of the ark as prefiguring the wood of the Cross by which Jesus dies for our salvation.
Crossing of the Red Sea
Aside from the Genesis flood, the most common typological Old Testament event that foreshadows Baptism occurs in Exodus. Here the Crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites represents a freedom from slavery [they were under the rule of the Egyptians]. Using Moses as an instrument of His power, God parts the Red Sea and allows the Israelites to leave slavery while at the same time destroying the Egyptian army that tries to chase after them.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1220,
But above all, the crossing of the Red Sea, literally the liberation of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, announces the liberation wrought by Baptism: You freed the children of Abraham from the slavery of Pharaoh, bringing them dry-shod through the waters of the Red Sea, to be an image of the people set free in Baptism.
Tying the previous two examples together, the common thread is that Baptism represents a type of death—this sacrament KILLS original sin and makes us ADOPTED sons and daughters of God! St. Paul states it best, “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Our process in becoming a new creation starts with the sacrament of Baptism. What is more, the Greek word βαπτίζω [Baptism] translates to submersion under water. The word verb submerge brings forth an image of drowning or death. In a real sense a spiritual death occurs—death to one’s sins, namely original sin.
I do not think it was a coincidence either that the Gospel writers placed Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his public ministry. The submersion of Jesus in the baptismal waters of the Jordan River prefigures his death on the Cross and the death to self we are all called to partake in!
In high school, I checked out Tolkien’s TheHobbit from the municipal library for the first time. I was a chapter or two into the book before I abandoned the work. “This is incredibly long-winded and includes boring descriptions. How could anyone consider this a classic of literature?!” I thought.
Five years and a master’s degree in theology later, I purchased a gold-leafed leather copy of The Hobbit at a local used book store. Perhaps I matured in my taste and knowledge of good writing. Or maybe God provided me the ability to make it through the verbose explanations of hobbits and their dietary preferences. Since my unexpected return back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, I developed a hunger for Middle Earth and his other literary works.
Being a cradle Catholic myself, I am actually a bit embarrassed to admit that I did not realize until recently that Tolkien was a devout Catholic. He evencalled his masterpiece “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Whenever I read his writings, whether it be tales about hobbits or Middle Earth in general, Farmer Giles, or my personal favorite Leaf by Niggle, nostalgia for a deeper reality and a sense of wonder invades my heart, mind, and soul.
Tolkien’s Impact on Faith
Aside from the writings of spiritual greats like Saints John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, and John Paul II, to name a few, no other writer has impacted my life as much as J.R.R. Tolkien. He inspires me to yearn for joy and realize that this life is a journey for the next. I would like to argue the case of the canonization of the great 20th century English writer using examples from both his writings and my personal life to demonstrate his impact on our pilgrim journey towards Heaven.
The canonization process is quite lengthy. After five years have passed since a person died, the Bishop of the Diocese upon which the individual passed away would need to petition the Holy See of Rome to start a Cause for Beatification and Canonization. This examination of the individual’s life is rigorous. Any miracles that are attributed to them are further scrutinized. Further information about this process may be found at the link at the end of this article.
Tolkien’s Strong Marian Devotion
Besides the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the communion of saints provide me the most consolation during times of despair. They testify to the truth safeguarded in the Catholic Church. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The term ‘communion of saints’ refers also to the communion of “holy persons” (sancti) in Christ who “died for all,” so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all” (961). J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings helped further my understanding of the Catholic faith and promoted teaching truth for all!
Cure for Despair—Love of the Eucharist
As imaginative and impressionistic, Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth is what stood out first for me is his thoughts about the Most Holy Sacrament. He said the following about the Eucharist:
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires (Letters of Tolkien, no. 43 pp. 53-54).
Food for the Journey
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 1324 refers to the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Tolkien held this belief as well. “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion,” he wrote. The Eucharist was a fixture in his life. Tolkien created a literary equivalent to the Bread of Life in his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Elven bread known as lembas, provided nourishment for travelers. Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee ate this food during their arduous journey to Mount Mordor to destroy the One Ring.
Fellowship Never Fails
Along with Tolkien’s profound love for the Eucharist and his implicit references to the Holy Communion in the Lord of the Rings, his focus on the importance of camaraderie—especially in suffering—is a Catholic tradition that he teaches believers and nonbelievers through his literature.
While Frodo bears the burden of carrying the One Ring, he did not lack help. In The Fellowship of the Ring the wizard Gandalf puts together a motley crew of four hobbits, two of the race of men, a dwarf, and an elf to sojourn across Middle Earth to destroy the Ring. At the end of the first part of the trilogy all hope appears lost when the fellowship is fractured leaving Frodo alone save for his friend and fellow hobbit—Samwise.
In the third book The Return of the King, weariness weighs down on Frodo more as he ascends Mount Doom in his attempt to destroy Sauron’s Ring. Listen to the hero’s lament when the evilness of the ring tempts him:
Frodo: I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes.
Sam: Then let us be rid of it, once and for all. I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry you! Come on!
Helping others shoulder their cross is the hallmark of Christianity. Cooperation in suffering pervades the history of Christianity. From Simon the Cyrene helping Jesus bear the weight of the cross up Calvary, to the modern day saints like Saints John Paul II and Maximilian Kolbe offering their suffering and death to alleviate the suffering of their fellow mankind, we are all called to a Catholic [a universal] camaraderie. J.R.R. Tolkien also reminds readers of this universal truth!
Teacher of Truth
A third reason why I believe J.R.R. Tolkien should be canonized as a saint is due to his ability to instruct without resorting to sounding preachy or judgmental. His short story Leaf by Niggle is instructive. It contains truths about the importance of our pilgrim journey on earth, purgatory, and loving your neighbor as yourself.
The main reason I enjoy Leaf by Niggle is due to the clear catholicity contained within the characters, plot, and symbols. Niggle represents everyman—humanity as an individual and as a collective. When I looked up the word “niggle” in a thesaurus, I learned that the name has synonyms which included: annoy, bother, discomfort, and anxiety. According to Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church),
“On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified” (7)
Niggle also suffered various disturbances of his artwork while he was on a pilgrim journey.
Plan for the Journey (Beyond)
Tolkien’s The Hobbit also teaches us the importance of preparation. An unexpected responsibility of helping a group of dwarves upended Bilbo Baggins’ cozy life. So too living the Gospel sometimes shakes up our “perfect little world”.
While I fear the unknown, I gained a sense of peace and joy as I read the writings of Tolkien. I have also discovered during my interactions with fellow LOTR fans [friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and even strangers] that a true sense of unity occurs. I can’t quite explain it but I always leave a conversation about Middle Earth with a joyful twinkle in my eyes. Any of his works have this effect in me. In fact, I leave with a more compassionate heart towards others in general. He possessed an ability to unite divergent people through literature and the world. This quality hints at his overall holiness and love of humanity.
Patron Saint of Fantasy Stories?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s name has become a token (no pun intended) reference for everything related to fantasy and epic-storytelling. The more well-known Catholic saints include priests, bishops, martyrs, nuns, or theologians. However, the Holy Spirit does work in mysterious ways above man’s total comprehensive nature. Is it possible that God has used the fantasy world created by Tolkien to further belief in Jesus Christ?
According to St. Catherine of Sienna, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” Tolkien certainly followed his natural (and supernatural) gifts. As a storyteller, he brought the world an unexpected set of characters that gained universal appeal. I pray for the opportunity to see the canonization of J.R.R. Tolkien in my lifetime. His writings have deepened my Catholic faith and love for humanity and God!
Both my parents are too tired to chip in with input on the letter. And my three siblings are too busy acting like lemurs or black & white pandas to care about starting a new tradition.
Anyways, it’s up to me to present our family’s successes and 2020 highlights. Free of shenanigans.
Yeah right! Shenanigans are part of my middle names (unofficially).
Hope you enjoy the seasonal shenanigans!
January— New Year Same Routine
I started the new year as a fresh one year old. Noah, Amelia, and Josiah enjoyed going to school and playing in the snow. Mommy continued teaching special education at Valley Springs Elementary. Daddy worked overnights at a local grocery store.
My new year’s resolution was simple— add new shenanigans each month. Last year, I got caught stealing too many blueberry muffins (Pro-tip: Make sure to clean up the evidence before leaving the crime scene).
Daddy wrote about this incident and dubbed it Muffingate. Since then, I’ve acquired the nickname “Muffin Miscreant”.
February— Ground’s Day Month
Noah, Amelia, and Josiah enjoyed going to school and playing in the snow. Mommy continued teaching special education at Valley Springs Elementary. Daddy worked overnights at a local grocery store.
Yes, I know my family’s boring.
I think Noah was still in his Pokémon obsession and my parents were still watching Superhero shows on The CW.
I continued to watch how my siblings got in or avoided trouble and took notes.
March— The Ides are Turning
This seemed to be a turning point. Suddenly, Mommy, Noah, and Amelia stayed home more often. I heard mommy talking to weird kids on the computer. Daddy kept referring to himself as a “Zoom call goaltender”.
Josiah had school therapy at home and this involved him being a black & white panda all the time! Pandas? Seriously, that’s such a predictable move. Couldn’t he pretend to be a platypus or something cooler than a bamboo eater?
While my dreams of traversing the Australian outback didn’t happen, I did experience a “ground under” moment.
Mommy was on her 97th Zoom call and this gave me the perfect chance to try the legendary liquid—coffee. I found a K-cup in the pantry and gained a new moniker— The Coffee Culprit.
April— Sickness and Added Shenanigans
Daddy received a promotion at his local grocery store to Assistant Manager. He was even more excited when Mommy gave him an “Assistant to the Regional Manager” hoodie to celebrate the new job.
April felt like an entire lifetime (1.5 years).
Home school made Mommy and my siblings very tired and cranky. Even worse, Daddy got super sick with a virus-thingy. I couldn’t even see him for two weeks except on the computer. Josiah was really sad and kept saying “Daddy
in downstairs emergency room”. Mommy was stressed with teaching from home, taking care of us, and being Daddy’s doctor.
But this month did have good things: the Easter bunny visited us and Josiah learned to ride a bike.
I maintained my moniker as the Coffee Culprit by eating another K-cup.
May— More Zoom
The Zoom calls continued, and Daddy resumed his role as goaltender against my shenanigans. I miss the good old days when I could bust open bedroom doors without repercussions or being shushed. The strange kids didn’t seem so strange anymore. Mommy even gave up and let me say “hi” to my new friends.
Pro-tip: Persistence pays off.
Noah was obsessed with Star Wars and cars. Amelia (and Daddy) enjoyed pushing me in my throne on wheels. Mommy and Daddy got a new swing set for us to play in. I loved sliding and swinging!
June— Celebrating Sacraments and Sprinklers
Noah received his First Holy Communion on June 14th. It was supposed to be in April but it was delayed because of the virus-thingy or the panda-emic (not sure what to call it officially). “But God’s plan is more perfect than anything we can possibly imagine.” That was something Daddy kept saying. He seemed super-smiley and happy about Noah’s First Eucharist happening on The Feast of Corpus Christi.
Along with celebrating the sacrament my siblings and I played lots of times in the sprinkler. What wonderful waterworks! Josiah showed me how to play carwash in our water table. We play carwash often.
Mommy and Daddy celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary! This was neat for me because grandma and grandpa got to watch me and the other kids overnight! We had so much fun.
July— Zoo Fun
The local zoo reopened with panda-emic precautions. Josiah called the gibbons “black and white pandas” and we all enjoyed watching the snow monkeys and ducks.
I set a family record by becoming the earliest to ride a strider bike. Strider bike didn’t seem right, so I called it “a butt”. Mommy and Daddy laughed. I think they’re proud of me. I say “a butt” so much.
August— Back to School
Noah started third grade and Amelia began first grade at Valley Springs. Josiah went to early childhood for the second year. I enjoyed more time to plan hijinks as daddy and mommy got more tired from getting house projects done. I continued to get my hands-on Mommy and Daddy’s coffee (I love coffee!).
Amelia learned how to read and created artwork daily. Josiah continued to play carwash in new and creative ways.
September— The Mystery of the Missing Toys
This month began normally with me playing with my dolls, cars, and other gadgets. But soon I noticed things disappearing. First, books I enjoyed were gone. Slowly my stuffed animal supply shrunk, and baby toys taken. I did notice more and more cardboard boxes.
Thankfully, I had Aunt Mary’s wedding to take my mind off the missing toy misery. I had fun playing with grandma, grandpa, and Uncle Steven.
Pro-Tip: Pushing doors open to go outside the reception is fun and an effective way to get my parents to chase me.
October— Mystery Solved
More and more boxes piled up in our living room, garage, basement, and kitchen. My siblings enjoyed many afternoons riding their bikes (and I riding my “a butt”).
I had a busy month with speech therapy starting and I broke my arm. Amelia was dancing with me and I thought a flying leap was a great idea. But the good thing is I got a cool pink cast.
I got used to life with limited toys. But then something changed! All the boxes moved. We played in a different room and slept in a different area. Mommy and Daddy called this our new house. We all thought it was pretty cool!
November— Shenanigans Supreme
My siblings and I love our new house. More room to run and climb. Noah had fun throwing the football in the garage with Daddy. Amelia found new places for art.
Josiah and I found a new way to play carwash. When Daddy was sleeping on the couch (from working a late night) my brother and I overflowed the kitchen sink. Water poured on the entire floor. We had TONS of cars to wash that morning! Daddy seemed surprised about all the water. After this incident we couldn’t sneak and do carwash anymore. Still not sure why?
Mommy continued to balance her teaching job with her additional virus-things protocols. She seemed tired most days, so I try to cheer her up with hugs!
December— Enter the Boss Level
Daddy kept making Jumanji references throughout the year. Everyone was talking about an election thingy. What more did 2020 have in store?
This year they say was tough, but in my experience all life can be challenging but fun too. I’m going to turn two on December 29th. I felt I gained a lot of wisdom this year.
Noah taught me countless facts about Harry Potter and read books to me. Amelia taught me how to draw and be creative. Josiah taught me how to laugh and play with cars. Mommy taught me how to love and hug. Daddy taught me the importance of a balance between seriousness and shenanigans.
Hope you have a Merry Christmas and a blessed 2021!
P.S. Daddy thinks he’s a creative writer, but he gets all his best ideas from my shenanigans. Follow #Muffingate for more funny stories
P.P.S. Special thanks to Daddy for being my secretary for this Christmas Letter. Extra special thanks to my brothers and sister for all this great content
Avila: The Muffin Miscreant, Coffee Culprit, and who knows what else.
Stephen, Stephen, I say: here is a place for goodness, here is a time for mercy, here at least is an opportunity to show charity! For I stand continually in danger although I do not always recognise this, and I am the more miserable and wretched when I forget that it is so.
St Stephen holding a Bible. For God always sees my sins, always his severe judgment threatens the sinfulness of my soul, always hell gapes and its torments are ready to snatch my wretched soul away to that place.
Thus am I placed when I wake, thus when I sleep; I am thus when I smile, thus when I jest; thus when I am proud, thus when I am humiliated; thus when angry, thus when vindicated; thus, thus I am when I miserably love the delights of the flesh. Thus am I then always and everywhere.
So I pray you, Stephen, make haste before I am condemned, before the enemies of the human race snatch me away to torment, before the prison of hell swallows me up, before the torments of eternal fire consume me.
Truly my need is great when it impels me to ask for help even of those by whom I deserve to be punished. But you and all the saints are so full of such wealth from the unending fount of all goodness, that you delight rather to free by your goodness those whom by justice you are able to condemn