The Second Sign

The Second Sign January 6, 2013

This is the season of lights, the season of signs, the season of epiphanies.  The Sundays are bright with showings in the dark of the year.

After the Star which was high in the heavens, this second Epiphany light is still above us but much closer, shining upon Jesus and splashing him with a name, Beloved, as he stands wet and revealed in the Jordan.

Each of these Sunday signs provokes some kind of struggle.  This one does not end in a chaos of murdered bodies and a disappearance of the Child and the Kings.  This one plunges Jesus into a wilderness of temptations, where he is surrounded by wild beasts, invaded by dreams, wooed by demons.  He contends mightily.  And he comes away whole.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  The old saying is now a hit song.  And in the light of his survival of his baptismal struggle, Jesus is now stronger.

In the end even what does kill him will make him stronger.  But in the meantime, in the world of church, baptism has become an occasion that is not about survival or strength.   Baptism has become its customs, once meant to celebrate its meaning, but now the only meaning of the celebration:   a time for dressing the baby in something outlandish, an occasion of presents and promises and family.   And none of this has anything to do with profound and dangerous journeys of the spirit.   The danger of water and demons,  the spirit journey, the profundity, have gotten lost in ritual huzzahs, so much so that most Christians, in their own profound journeys, do not think of them as part of their baptism.

So the film, The Life of Pi,  is a huge gift.  Ang Lee’s film tells us, shows us, draws us, into the journey called baptism, in which the vast seas, the sky, the creatures of both, become one with the small boat in which the boy Pi struggles to survive.

Pi  is a young man from Pondicherry, India.  Brought up by a Hindu mother and a skeptical father who is a zookeeper, he was named for a swimming pool in Paris: Piscine Molitar, where his father’s best friend, a victim of polio, had an ecstatic swim and an experience of salvation.  Now in his late teens, Pi has survived a shipwreck.  His  family were attempting to emigrate to Canada with their animals when the accident happened and all but Pi and a few animals were drowned.  Pi spends 212 days on the open seas in a lifeboat, with a tiger.

T. S. Eliot, in the poem Gerontion, writes:

Signs are taken for wonders.  “We would see a sign”:

The word within a word, unable to speak a word,

Swaddled with darkness.  In the juvenescence of the year

Comes Christ the tiger . . . .

Pi and the Tiger, on the lifeboat.

Pi is tested, tempted, transformed, drowned and revived a number of times.  Before he left Pondicherry he had befriended an Orthodox priest and had longed to be baptized.   The entire film is about his baptism.   In it, he is confirmed in his Hindu faith, that the spirit of God lives in all creation, and also in the Moslem faith he saw practiced by his friends: salvation rests in submission to God.  And Pi becomes Christian.  The creatures of air and sea, the waters, sky and sun, the tempests, are part of Pi’s baptism, as they were for Christ.  Most of all, the Tiger, who is the Word within a Word, unable to speak a word.  As with Christ’s temptations, we are left with the question of Pi’s, were they inner – or outer?

Pi has to contend with profound fear.  Learning not to drown in it is a great victory.  Pi also has to contend with the Tiger.  He has to learn that the Tiger cannot be tamed, no matter what.  He has to learn that he can never be stronger than the Tiger, never control the Tiger.  He has to learn the Tiger’s need for food and his own need for food.  He has to respect the Tiger.  And to gain the Tiger’s respect, as a being.  He has to learn the dignity of the Tiger, and discover his own dignity in this relationship.  He has to learn to love this Tiger for its untameable nature.  And because this is baptism, he has to learn empathy for the Tiger’s suffering.  Last of all, he has to let this Tiger, whom he dearly loves, leave forever.  It breaks his heart more than any of his other losses.

In Pi’s journey light and blessing come to him from sky and sea.  It is land that cannot save him, land that holds death and hidden dangers.  Everyday afterwards, in his landward life, he prays so that he may survive, acknowledging the Tiger in love and awe.

St. Jerome, who first translated the gospels and letters of the early church from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, said that the name Mary, which first appears in the New Testament,  derives from the word for sea:  mer in French, mar in Spanish and Italian.  Jesus, then, in Jerome’s understanding, is born of the union of fire and water, of the Sea and the Fire Spirit of God in heaven.  It is on land that he is endangered, from cradle to cross.  Sea and sky sustain him, as he walks the earth among us.

And so it is for those of us who are baptized in the waters of his journey.  The Tiger is Christ in the boat of our days, holding our death and the key to our salvation.  Beloved is the name we are given for the Tiger, who is part of our earthly journey.

That Pi survives is miracle.  That he accepts the Tiger as part of his survival is a sign of the miracle.  That only the Tiger knows what Pi has been through opens Pi’s soul.  That the Tiger is Christ and Pi’s own Soul, is the final fathom of the fathomless sea.  Pi survives, and lives on as Hindu, Christian, and Moslem, a man devoted to the God he has known in signs and wonders, in terrible darkness, and in a small boat on the great sea.




1. Baptism Icon, mid-12th c.  Cappella Palatina di Palermo. Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Art in the Christian Tradition

2. John Baptizes Jesus.  Notke, Bernt,  1483,  Sankt-Annen-Museum, Lubek, Germany. Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Art in the Christian Tradition

3. Life of Pi, freeze frame for film poster.

4. Baptism of Christ, Fra Angelico, 1450, San Marco Church, Florence Italy. Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Art in the Christian Tradition

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  • John Gillespie

    The message here is much more profound than I am capable of grasping at least on one reading. Baptism became very important to Pi and his religious outlook was not strictly Christian. His faith did not depend on literal beliefs in Christian Doctrine like substitutional atonement. I think Christianity would benefit from a development of a much wider theological base.

    • John, thanks for a wise question and thoughtful comment. The thing is, people think differently about baptism. The doctrine of substitutional atonement came about pretty late, in the late middle ages, so before that no one thought of baptism in that way. In the early church baptism was practiced on the Eve of Easter, a jubilant time when people leapt from death to life with Christ. Substitutional atonement turned the other way, having people enter into death with Christ through baptism. Very different, isn’t it? Also, in Celtic Christianity, which is quite ancient, older than ROman Christianity and rooted in the Eastern church, the Hindu understanding of all things being part of Christ, including pagan gods and religions (nowadays we would say other faiths) was quite like Pi’s understanding. You can actually see this theology in the ancient stone work in Ireland and Scotland, where tall crosses covered with pagan gods and lots of animals,, and it all leads to and is part of Jesus’ life.

      I do agree with you that Christians, especially Protestants, need to get rid of doctrines and broaden their theology by invoking a holy imagination. As Pi did.

      One more bit: the Puritans held that Scripture and Nature were twinned books, both revealing God, and each revealing the other. This developed into transcendentalism in 19th c New England, and that was influenced in part by Hinduism.

      Again, John, thanks for reading and for writing!

  • Michele Rowe

    Nancy: If envy were not such a pathetic sin, I would experience it as I read your words. Your ability to stir my spirit and evoke a new sense of imagination is one I appreciate so much. This site is now my “go to” first stop in sermon preparation.

    Might these be gathered into a collection?

    May the Spirit continue to lead you in this blessed dance,


    • Michele, thank you SO much for your appreciative words, and for reading, which makes it all worthwhile. And thanks for encouraging me to continue and to dream big. It is a king of dance with Scripture, and so far, it’s been exhilarating!

      • Michele Rowe

        Nancy: Some trivia for you. Yann Martel came to Saskatoon as a writer in residence, a job he had lined up before winning the Booker Prize. He honoured his commitment and now lives here!

  • Thank-you so much for your beautifully written insights!!!

    • THank you, Dawn, for reading, taking time to write, and for your own work with the Word and the Spirit.