Earlier this week we were informed that several dozen Hindu pilgrims were trampled to death in India as they took part in a religious festival which occurs at the confluence of several rivers, including the Ganges. These deaths were tragic and overshadowed the extraordinary nature of the festival. This year's Kumbh Mela gathering, during which participants plunge into the water for ritual cleansing, drew roughly 30 million, the largest ever. This is almost the population of Canada! The logistics of bringing this many people together are staggering and for some it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to immerse in a river which is sadly horribly polluted.
During Kumbh Mela pilgrims enter the river to wash away their sins, which is interesting in this week of Ash Wednesday. Although we don't emphasize the connection between the cleansing power of baptism and the imposition of ashes it is there. In some prayers we are invited to remember our baptism into Christ: "we gather surrounded by the light of Christ, and the waters of baptism: we have nothing to fear from the truth which sets us free. Let us turn with confidence to the God of grace."
Of course Judaism had its form of ritual washing or baptism before Christianity came into being, and John the Jew baptized Jesus the Jew in the River Jordan. Islam also requires ritual washing before prayer and handling the Quran.
All of these rituals are powerful, if we allow them to be. I have expressed my dismay in the past about parents who make promises in baptism which they immediately ignore. It is one of the most discouraging aspects of ministry for me. Yet I feel the power of the Holy Spirit in those occasions when baptism seems authentic and we honour those commitments as a community.
Did you know about Kumbh Mela? Any thoughts on why so many religions include rituals around water? What about the power of Christian baptism?