What About Water?

Holy water fount in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

This coming Sunday is the first in Epiphany, day the baptism of Jesus is traditionally commemorated. It is one of the more explicit, but not the only event combining water and the Holy Spirit. Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.) gave an interesting sermon exploring this connection.

One does not have to read very far in Holy Writ to see this connection. The second verse of Genesis reads, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” What is it about the Spirit and water? 

If you’ve studied any Hebrew, you probably learned that the Hebrew word for spirit can also be translated as breath and wind. It’s sort of an all-purpose evanescent word. The Spirit of God can be translated as the wind or breath of God. It makes the mysterious cosmic beginning a bit more tender if we picture the primordial earth, covered in water, and God blowing it, like I habitually give my first cup of coffee a puff each morning before my first sip, sending small ripples across the dark surface. It helps put a face on Isaiah 40:12, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?”

Sure it’s anthropomorphic, but we have a God that seems a bit fond of that sort of thing. Exhibit A being the incarnation of the Christ. One could argue that we are theopomorphic, having been created in his image, not vice-versa.

This brings us back to Jesus’ baptism. An action that confounded John, who administered his baptism. It seemed backwards to him. But Jesus came in humility. Baptism is a humbling act. What is more humbling than to have someone else wash you? Only those who are not capable of cleaning themselves are washed by others. Small children, pets, and sinners separated from a holy God.

That we can’t clean ourselves, but desperately need a good cleansing, is one of the central themes of the Bible. We cannot do it ourselves. We receive baptism, you cannot baptize yourself. Even as crucial as baptism is—the church allows laity to administer the sacrament in extreme circumstances—I have never seen a rite or a rubric that allows for auto-baptism. Receiving the cleansing at the hand of another is central.

I have received one sponge bath as an adult. I had emergency surgery and I was in pretty rough shape. A day or two later, a nurse cleaned me up a bit. I was grateful as I didn’t have the stamina for a shower at that point. I think I was still hooked up to a catheter. It was a forced sort of humility. I had to admit that I was in bad shape and I couldn’t even take care of my basic needs.

So it is with baptism. We’re all in bad shape. We’ve been horribly disfigured by sin. Our body is racked with the infections of pride, lust, greed, sloth, envy, wrath and gluttony. But the combination of water and Spirit is able to cleanse us.

Jesus did not need baptized. Certainly not in the same way we need it. But he submitted out of humility. He modeled for us the way to the Father. When he said, “follow me,” it included passing through the water. It seems the way to God has often gone through water. Noah, Moses, Joshua, Elijah all passed through it.

It’s such a simple thing, and yet so profound. Maybe it’s no accident of language that we use the same term to talk about thinking contemplatively about something and seeing the image of something in water. To reflect.



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