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waves of water

A Parable from the Science Textbook: The Water Cycle of Creation and Redemption

June 17, 2024


Earth is a watery world. Liquid water covers roughly 70 percent of our planet, and 97.2 percent of that water is found in the oceans.1 “A science fiction author once noted that it is a funny thing that our planet is called Earth. Anyone looking at our planet from a distance would surely call it Ocean instead.”2

Liquid water is essential for life as we know it since our bodies are composed of about 60 percent water. Our abundance of liquid water is made possible by our planet’s distance from the sun: any closer, and the water would boil away; any farther, and it would freeze. Earth is thus a “Goldilocks planet”: “neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right.”3

Most of us probably learned about the water cycle in elementary school. Water evaporates from the surface of the ocean and condenses in the atmosphere to form clouds. Water from the clouds eventually rains and snows onto the ground, where the water collects into lakes and rivers as well as seeps into the groundwater. All of that water eventually runs back into oceans, and the cycle continues.

The movement of the water cycle is also an apt image of creation. As the water on the ground comes forth from the ocean and returns to it, all creation comes from God and is destined to return to God. Theologians call this flow exitus (going out from God) and reditus (returning to God). Cardinal Jean Daniélou expresses this idea thus: “The entire world is the accomplishment of the plan that comes from God and is moving towards God.”4

We might think of creation as a moment in time, perhaps interchangeable with the Big Bang. But creation is actually an ongoing, constant work of God, in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17), as the water cycle is in continuous motion.

You expired, Jesus, but the source of life gushed forth for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world.

Liquid water is so critical for our biological life that it is perhaps not surprising that the Bible often uses water as a symbol for our spiritual life and indeed for the Holy Spirit himself.5 In the very beginning, the Spirit of God is described as “moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). God makes humans as the crown of creation and places them in the Garden of Eden, a land flowing with several rivers (Gen. 2:10-14).

Adam and Eve are invited to share in God’s own life, to return to him as a river flows back to the sea. But their return, unlike the river, is not a forgone conclusion:

God never beholds his human creatures, nor declares their goodness simply by virtue of their existence, even though he does declare that existence is ‘very good’ only after humans have been created. In other cases . . . God makes things, beholds them, and their goodness is proclaimed. But, with human beings, God only gives them their mission. The symbolism is clear; although by virtue of their creation by God human beings are ‘very good,’ in the final analysis human goodness is not simply up to God, but to God and to us. God has given a command, and the human response (obedience or disobedience) has yet to be given. In the account, our moral goodness is a question in suspense—it is up to us to freely cooperate with the Creator and to thereby realize the goodness by which and in which God has created us.6

When Adam and Eve responded to God’s invitation with disobedience, they cut humanity off from God, “the fountain of living waters,” and instead dug “broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Spiritually, humanity became like the dead bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy, which are described as “very dry” (37:2). As the Lord said to Adam and Eve, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). 

But God would not abandon us to this spiritual drought forever: He provided the way to return to him in the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ.

The Incarnation of Christ is prophesied with water cycle imagery: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I intend, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10-11). Jesus, the Word of God, came forth from the Father to water dry, sinful humanity, making it live and grow again with his life, the Holy Spirit. Then he returned to the Father, having accomplished the divine purpose of redemption. We are now able to return to God through participating in Jesus’ own “water cycle.” Indeed, he was baptized in a river, showing us how to return to the ocean of God’s merciful love. As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “All reality is carried away in the great circular movement, which proceeds from God, and through Christ, the turning point of the world, all is again ‘led back’ to God.”7

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It may be objected that the ocean is usually used in the Bible as a symbol of chaos, death, and judgment, something to be deeply and rightly feared. Bishop Barron speaks of this “watery chaos,” or, in Hebrew, tohu wobahu” frequently as something that is unleashed as a consequence of human sin.8 Think of the flood wiping away sinful humanity in Genesis 7 or the waters of the Red Sea crashing down on Pharaoh’s army in Exodus 14. 

But thanks to Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice on the cross, death has become the doorway to life everlasting. This victory is anticipated by Jesus’ ability to calm storms and walk on water.

The water cycle of redemption is completed by the blood and water that flowed from Our Lord’s pierced side (John 19:34). The prayers of the Divine Mercy Chaplet help penetrate this reality: “You expired, Jesus, but the source of life gushed forth for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world” (emphasis added). The Son of God took our sinful, “dry bones” deep within his heart, and from the cross, there burst forth a new possibility of return to the ocean of God’s life through the river of his merciful love. The ocean of death has become the ocean of “unfathomable Divine Mercy.”9

We are first brought into the water cycle of redemption in our baptism; we must actively choose to stay in it through prayer, the sacraments, discipline, and obedience. Bishop Barron, drawing on St. John Henry Newman, compares moral and ecclesial laws to the firm “banks” that give the “river” of our “moral and spiritual lives” their “verve and energy” and without which “the river would promptly spread out into a lazy lake . . . of subjectivism and indifferentism,” the culture of “meh.” When we embrace the “laws, teachings, demands, and prescriptions of the Church,”10 we actively participate in the water cycle that leads to God’s everlasting life, just as Jesus promised the Woman at the Well: “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

As always, the Blessed Virgin Mary is intimately connected with this divine work of redemption. She is part of her Son’s water cycle of merciful love and is full of his “living waters” that flow forth from her for the benefit of others on their way back to God. The miraculous spring of water at Lourdes is a tangible example of this spiritual reality.

Intercessory prayer also participates in the water cycle of creation and redemption since our prayers can help others return to God. In the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, we pray for sinners (ourselves included) and “immerse them in the ocean of [God’s] mercy.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux used this image for praying for others when she wrote, “Just as a mighty river carries with it all it meets into the ocean’s depths, so, my Jesus, a soul which plunges into the boundless ocean of Your love bears all her treasures with her.”

In the Parousia, the water cycle of creation and redemption will have reached its fulfillment: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). May the water cycle of God’s merciful love carry us all safely home.

1 Kevin Nelstead, Earth Science (Austin, TX: Novare Science & Math, 2016), p. 232.
2 Nelstead, 333.
3 Nelstead, 11.
4 From Prayer: The Mission of the Church, cited in Magnificat “Meditation of the Day” for February 8, 2020.
5 Brant Pitre, “Jesus, John, and the Jewish Roots of the Filioque,” The New Ressourcement 1, no. 1 (Spring 2024), 21-45.
6 Christopher Baglow, Faith, Science, and Religion: Theology on the Cutting Edge (Downers Grove, IL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2019), 84.
7 Cited in “The Unity of People Benedict XVI’s Theology” by Richard DeClue, Evangelization & Culture 16 (Summer 2023): 77.
8 For example, “A New Heaven and a New Earth: Commentary on Revelation 21:1-5,” Word on Fire Bible, Volume 2 (Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire, 2022), 812.
9 Divine Mercy Chaplet prayers; “fathoms” are used to measure the depth of the ocean.
10 From a lovely Magnificat prayer card.