When the water was thus divided, the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left (Exodus 14:21b-22).
A few weeks ago I drove through the Fort McHenry tunnel on I-95, coming back from visiting my oldest son at college. The GPS showed our path entering the harbor, as if we were driving across the surface of the water, rather than underneath it.
The tunnel was dry and bright, a stark contrast to the dark night and sleet above. I was struck by how safe we felt in that tunnel, sheltered for the moment from the vile weather, yet staggeringly aware of the weight of more than 100 feet of water above us.
I wonder if the Israelites experienced this same unsettling mix of safety and fear as they gathered their children and belongings and walked between the walls of water across the bottom of the sea. Was it a quiet refuge like the tunnel under Baltimore’s harbor, guiding a steady stream of people across the sea? Or did the east wind sent to separate the waters howl, and the water rage against the boundaries God had imposed on it?
Origen, a third century theologian and Father of the Church, wondered, too, how much courage it might take to walk between walls of water, even knowing they are held back by the hand of God. Our souls, he imagined, at times much traverse similarly perilous waters, where it is easy to be distracted by the great waves mounding up on either side.
Keep your eyes fixed, says Origen, on God’s law. Hold it close, as Moses did.
The desert fathers and mothers, it is said, hurled snippets of the psalms like spears at what hounded them in the night. On a bitter dark night in February, with sleet lashing against the windows, I sat awake, worried about a child growing ever more ill on the other side of the country. I found myself reaching for the psalms as well. Not to hurl back at the fears that banged at the windows, but to draw up on either side of me, to hold back the waters that threatened to engulf me, to keep my eyes fixed on the Morning Star.
“I will walk in the presence of the Lord,” rang Psalm 116 in my ear. No matter how high the waters and how rough the seas, I wade into the water, singing to the Lord, ever present, ever triumphant over evil.
To read: Exodus 14:15-15:1
O God, whose ancient wonders
remain undimmed in splendor even in our day,
for what you once bestowed on a single people,
freeing them from Pharaoh’s persecution
by the power of your right hand,
now you bring about as the salvation of the nations
through the waters of rebirth,
grant, we pray, that the whole world
may become children of Abraham
and inherit the dignity of Israel’s birthright.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
To listen: Wade in the Water
During Lent Michelle Francl-Donnay examines each of the readings to be proclaimed at the Easter Vigil Mass — see her columns in our Lent 2015 section. She is a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.