Saturday, March 24, 2012

Holy Baptism, Part 05: The Water

The candidate having been enrolled, named, exorcised, having renounced satan and professed his faith in Christ, having been entrusted to the care of a guardian angel, stripped and anointed with the “oil of gladness” is now prepared for the actual baptism. It remains now to prepare the water. “Unless a man is baptized by water and the Spirit,” said Jesus, “he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Symbolism of Water

Water is a symbol so ancient its origin is lost. Water, to Christians, recalls some epic events in salvation history. The first of these is creation itself. In the very first two verses of the Bible, we read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and empty; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Now, holy water is to be used in a re-creation of the persons baptized in it.

Water reminds us of Noah and his family being safely brought through the flood. That story is in Genesis 6, 7, and 8. For some fascinating modern research on this topic, see this post on Alice Linsley’s blog, Just Genesis.  She has made that Book one of her fields of expertise.

Water also calls to mind the Israelites’ escape from Egypt’s army, when God, through Moses, parted the sea and the children of Israel passed through it. When Egypt’s chariots pursued Israel, the sea came tumbling back into its place and all the Egyptian forces were drowned. That story is found in Exodus 14.

(And by the way, if all this is meaningless to you because you don’t know these stories, you are the victim of our deplorable modern system of “education”. You are missing pieces foundational to all of Western civilization – and Islamic civilization, as well,  You have been deprived of things so basic that for 2,000 years, virtually everybody knew them, even illiterates. Do read up!)

Water recalls the time when the Israelites, wandering around in the desert of Sinai, had no water, and the people criticized Moses and said, Were there not enough graves in Egypt, that you brought us out to this place to die? But God guided Moses, who struck the rock with his stick, and water gushed out of it, enough water for all the tribes of Israel. (Read the whole story in Numbers 20: 2-13. It’s also in Exodus, but there’s more detail in Numbers.)

Concerning these events, St. Paul writes:

...I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food [he means manna], and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things happened in order to be an example for us…(I Corinthians 10:1-6)
(In addition to the point St. Paul is making, this verse has some other interesting aspects. One is that the Apostle is here making one of his allegories: “that Rock was Christ.” Another is that the spiritual rock following them is nowhere in canonical Scripture; St. Paul is affirming a Jewish tradition. A third point of interest is that although these Israelites had received a type of baptism, still God was not pleased with them, and this, too, is to be an example for us.)

Perhaps most of all, water, for Christians, reminds us of Jesus’ own baptism in the River Jordan, when His holy body, descending into the waters, hallowed them, together with all the waters of the earth (since all H20 on this planet intermingles eventually).

Sanctified Water

No ordinary water will do for Holy Baptism; ordinary water would not be able to do anything more than wash the body; but what we need washed is both body and soul. Now, in a series of symbolic gestures and prayers, the Church blesses the water.

Wait, wait! Can material things, such as water, have spiritual effects? If the Holy Spirit is residing in them and using them, then yes; this is well-known among Christians. We think, for example, of the hem of Jesus’ garment (Matthew 9:20 and 14:36), St. Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons (Acts 19:11-12), St. Peter’s shadow (!) (Acts 5:15-16), and Prophet Elisha’s bones (Kings 13:21), through which the pre-incarnate Word even brought a dead man back to life.

So we pray and ask the Holy Spirit to come into the baptismal waters. “And you believe He does?” one may ask. Yes, of course we do. (And if you don’t, why not?) Now the water is invested with the powers of God: to wash away sin and all its effects, to incorporate us into Christ’s own Body (which, risen and glorified, is now capable of accommodating all of us), to drown and bury the person we used to be and bring to birth the new person in Christ, to confer our new identity as Christians, that is, little Christs. Now all is ready for a person to be born “of water and the Spirit”.

Immersion in Water

We baptize by total immersion, and the fact that baptism was done this way from the very beginning is so far beyond dispute that to belabor the point would be useless. The very word, “baptize”, in the original Greek, means to dip, to immerse totally. "Living water” is the ideal for baptism, meaning running water, as in a river or a stream or a fountain, but most baptisms are performed indoors in standing water. In unusual or emergency situations only, pouring water over the head and body of the person is acceptable, providing every centimeter of him gets wet. In normal situations, though, to baptize was and is to dunk. You can read more here.

Does that mean if you were only sprinkled or had water poured on the back of your head you are not really baptized in God’s sight? I do not know. I don’t know if your denomination even expects or intends to have happen the things I have been describing, much less whether God actually does them. I can only bear witness concerning what does happen in this Mystery in the Orthodox Church.

The priest immerses the catechumen in the Spirit-filled water three times, saying, “The servant of God,  [Christian name], is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Notice, he does not say, “I baptize thee…” This is because while it is the priest doing the dipping, it is Christ Who is baptizing. The priest applies the water, Christ applies the immortal new Life. The priest plunges the person into the water, Christ plunges the person into Himself, into His heart. The priest washes the body; Christ’s Holy Spirit washes away the sins. The priest gives the new name; Christ gives the new identity. The priest says the words; Christ bestows the salvation. The priest does in a figure what Christ does in reality. The priest does not stand in Christ’s place, but alongside Christ, administering in visible form what Christ is administering invisibly.

Does this mean Christ did not do all these things for the person already when he first came to believe and repented? Well, the sins are forgiven, of course. A new and wonderful relationship begins, but not yet the relationship Holy Baptism normally initiates.  But “normally” is the key word. In abnormal circumstances, well, put it this way: if a person believed, repented, and intended to be baptized but died in the meantime, we would consider him “baptized by desire”, as the thief on the cross was. There is also “baptism by blood” if you are martyred for Christ before your planned baptism in water. Norms, let us note carefully, are not the same as laws.

The new Christian, clad only in water and oil, arises from the font and is received by his godparent, who steps forward to wrap him in a large, white towel or sheet, which the newly-baptized (usually) continues wearing as he or she receives the next Mystery immediately following: Holy Chrismation.  This will be the topic of the next post.