Water from the Rock

Editors’ Note: Please click here to read an important message from Robert Royal about how YOU can help keep The Catholic Thing appearing daily, and make a contribution to our mission to the Church and the world.

Sometime around, oh, 3300 years ago, Moses leaned out from Mt. Nebo in Jordan – as I just did a few days ago – and looked over into the Promised Land. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI made a point of going there as well. Because from that commanding height, the panorama of subsequent religious history, a history we still remember as no other, is spread out: from the Dead Sea in the South to the Sea of Galilee in the North, with Jericho in the center (a city in Moses’ day already 8000 years old), and just beyond, Jerusalem.

Poor Moses. He faced down Pharaoh, kept the stiff-necked Israelites together (more or less) for forty years in the desert, and even came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments. But was forbidden to go any farther. He died and was buried, somewhere unknown, on Mt. Nebo.

Royal_Picture_steleAll because of some slight lack of faith – learned rebbes disagree exactly what – in how he followed God’s instructions to draw water from a rock. (Numbers 20:18-20) A cautionary tale for all of us of weak faith.

Only in the desert does it really become clear how essential water is to life. And to fundamental things you don’t see when you believe water is merely something that comes out of a tap.

We’re partly clay (earth + water) – and partly a spirit breathed into clay by the Spirit. But even before it comes to that, without water, earth is sterile, hard stone or shifting sand. That earth can be beautiful, very beautiful indeed, like the rank upon rank of stark mountains and valleys north of Mt. Nebo. But it’s an inhuman, lunar landscape that drives people to look elsewhere for something we sense within ourselves, something more like us.

Below Mt. Nebo, on a still fertile plain where various crops grow, much as they must have in Biblical times, lies Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. (Jn. 1:28) We will commemorate the birth of Jesus in a few days, but we know very little about his life after that (the notable exception: his disputes with the doctors in the Temple) until he comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan. All four Gospels agree: it was after that initiation through water and the Spirit, that Our Lord began the mere three years of his “public life,” three years that it would be an understatement to say altered human history.

All (except John) also say he went into the desert for forty days – recapitulating the journey of the Chosen People – and was tempted there by the Devil with the usual things: what I would call mere physical satisfactions, spiritual presumption (tempting God), political power. Something akin to our current materialisms, “spirituality,” and salvation via politics. Jesus didn’t fall for any of them. He overcame them, without, as we know only too well from the world around us, taking them entirely away.

And all this was near Jabel Mar Elias (“two arrow shots away from the river” according to an early pilgrim), the hill where Elijah, after himself dividing the waters of the Jordan, like Moses during the Exodus, was taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot.

All things flow, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it. Even the course of the Jordan has changed, as meandering rivers will do, over the millennia. The river now is maybe ten meters wide, when it once was several times that width according to the archeologists.


But some things – the far more important things – do not pass away. In fact, they introduce something new, over and above even geological processes. The great civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean emerged close to rivers: Mesopotamia (literally the land between the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates), and the green ribbons along the Jordan and the Nile. It’s from these fragile strips of life that some of the most momentous currents of human history have flowed, and continue.

Multiculturalism pretends all “cultures” are equal, in theory; in practice, it is not so. Nothing like the three great religions of the Middle East – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – emerged from Africa or the Americas or even Europe. Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism have had a deep hold over the large population of the Indian subcontinent, and a few other places. Beautifully, as Zen, in Japan. Little elsewhere. Confucianism and Taoism have had a long, if uneven, run in China.

But the great spiritual outflow, the one where various currents met and mingled in the plains beyond the Jordan, is like nothing else.

It’s still a highly contested region as well, of course, today more so than at any time in the recent past. Until a truce in the 1990s between Israel and Jordan, the area around the site of Jesus’ baptism was literally a minefield. Baptisms are now being performed there again, but the Jordanian visiting area is carefully marked – the rest is still a controlled military zone. On the Israeli side, just yards away, there were Ethiopian Orthodox baptisms going on yesterday – presided over by heavily armed Israeli forces and three flags: the state of Israel, the Israeli Army, and the border patrols.


The Prince of Peace came into the world and began his saving action in this land. But we have his word: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt. 10:34) We shouldn’t be surprised that our divisions last until He comes again.

We use many images to suggest the multiple dimension of that saving action: the Rock – the unchanging Way, the Truth, and the Life – from whose side flowed the saving blood and water.


Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

  • Tom Williams

    Thank you Dr. Royal for witnessing His Presence is Alive today in your gifted reflection.

  • Rick

    This quote from your article struck a chord, “only is the desert” America is such a fat country. Water flows freely here. In the US today, John the Baptist wouldn’t emerge from a desert, rather the buffet in the casino. People aren’t preparing for Jesus, they are preparing for Santa. Catholics like the 4:00 pm xmas-eve mass so they can get it out of the way. Faith? What is that?!

    Sorry for the Monday morning blues, but mass was very disappointing yesterday. There were no words by the priest to help us prepare, we did not do the full (long version) penitential prayer, not even the Kyrie, the communion song was some “Amazing Grace” derivative, the closing was a folksy-spiritual something or another. Where are all the Catholic advent hymns? I drove past the Lutheran church down the road on my way home and I thought, what’s the diff?

    • lwhite

      There really is no difference between the Novus Ordo and a Lutheran worship service Rick, except you would probably hear a better sermon from the Lutheran. Remember that it was developed purposefully not to offend non-Catholics as the Church’s new primary mission of ecumenism demanded above all else, a different liturgy which also had to incorporate the new principle that the Church of Christ exists outside of the Catholic Church.

    • Antonio

      Man oh man! You spoke my words my brother. I talk to my wife all the time about how my Church changed so much. Deacons now do the Homily, open and closed the Tabernacle and so on. I think all went down on the hill after the Second Vatican Council. I say this to my kids and Catholics friends” We should fallow the Church, not the other way around. Church is pleasing the sinners, instead of telling us not to sin.

  • This is a beautiful meditation.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob. They did not thirst when he led them through dry lands; Water from the rock he set flowing or them; he cleft the rock, and waters welled forth. For he guides them beside springs of water” (Isaiah 48-49) taken from today’s Dec 21 breviary readings. When ministering to the Navajo in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona I became more aware of both the importance to life and the liturgical significance of water. Out there water meant life and the analogy to baptism was clear. I wonder if Our Lord referred to physical battle when He said “not peace but a sword.” I tend to interpret the conflict references to spiritual division and battle.

    • PCB

      Good point – “I wonder if Our Lord referred to physical battle when He said “not peace but a sword.” I tend to interpret the conflict references to spiritual division and battle.” – I suspect Our Lord realistically understood the latter near always leads to the former in this world, as the flesh is always weak and willing; therefore, He was referencing/fortelling both the spiritual and physical. It’s very interesting about the Navajo’s innate understanding and appreciation of the baptismal analogy.

      • lwhite

        Matt. 10:34 – “Do not think that I am come to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword.”

        Haydock commentary on this verse:

        That is, dissension and war, in order that the false peace of sinners may be destroyed, and that those who follow me, may differ in morals and affections from the followers of this world. The sword, therefore, is the gospel, which separates those parents who remain in infidelity (Menochius)—It must be observed, that the gospel does not necessarily of itself produce dissension amongst men, but that Christ foresaw, from the depravity of man’s heart, that dissensions would follow the propagation of the gospel. The blame of this, however, does not attach to the gospel itself, since those who embrace it, after their conversion sought more than ever to keep peace with all men, even with their most bitter persecutors; whilst those who rejected the gospel, forgetting even the ties of kindred, persecuted even to death the followers of Christ. (Haydock)—-Indeed, before Christ became man, there was no sword upon the earth; that is, the spirit had not to fight with so much violence against the flesh; but when he became man, he shewed us what things were of the flesh, and what of the spirit, and taught us to set these two at variance, by renouncing always those of the flesh, which constantly endeavour to get master over us, and follow the dictates of the spirit. (Origen)

  • Pattie Kelly

    Folks we’re are in the beginning of the end times. The four housemen and been let loose which comes from the first opened seal by Jesus. The white horse and horseman, The red horse and horseman, the black horse and horseman and then the pale green horse and horseman. Just sit and look around at what is going on today with ISIS. They are the work of the devil. To understand the colored horses if you don’t understand let me explain. The white horse and rider set out and the rider has a bow but no arrow the color white back then meant to conquer so this rider wants to conquer a nation or nations. But will fail (thus no arrow). This is the Anti-Christ, then the red horse and rider represent war, wars of the past, present and future. (tribulation), the black house and rider represent famine. The rider carries a scale. And from that scaled rations of food will be weighed and handed out to certain people and a days wage will cover the cost of only one meal. Then the pale green horse and rider they represent what else DEATH. A death that comes from the tribulations and the death of non-believers that have turned to Christ during the tribulation and refuse the Anit-Christ. So folks look at Israel. It is stated it will be attacked from the north. Hello Iran. BUT God will not let his country fail in the end. Plus any nations not in step with Israel will suffer consequences too. The rigs in the oil fields of countries that try to harm Israel will be left burning forever and their land barren inhabitable. So folks pray and look around us and see what’s going on.

  • James S.

    Jordan must be the only Muslim country in the world with a Christian image on its currency. There’s a five dinar coin, commemorative but still legal tender, with the image of King Abdullah II on one side and a depiction of Christ’s baptism, with the descendent dove, on the other side.