"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

Three Symbolisms of the Waters of Baptism


Mary and Elizabeth with Jesus and John the Baptist by Johann Friedrich Overbeck, c. 1825


If someone were to rewrite the Bible it would open with this line: “In the beginning all was water.” Everything at first was wet. The old testament books attest to this fact with the belief that the earth was enveloped by waters not only from below but above beyond a glass-like dome with doors and holes called firmament. Indeed, ancient Near Eastern civilization, from the time of the Israelites until Medieval ages, placed east, oriens in Latin, as a cursor at the tops of their maps, not north. And it meant logically where the sun rises, orientem. It is the dawn, source, proper orientation and beginning. These words are not just mere words, they are tied to the properties of God who is properly the source. Water, as formless element, is one of the first to be created for it is the element of life in the entire cosmos. The Creator God is a living God who brings forth life. The God of the Israelites even had a first name replete with life. His name means the One Who Is, the I AM, the Beginning and the End.

The image of water became the standard element not only of life but of healing, purification and rejuvenation across the ages—which of course was not practiced only by us Christians but by many others too. Some are saying the next world war will be because of water, not because of the abundance that will kill but its scarcity; as a matter of fact, the war has already begun. As water is a pivotal element, so is St John the Baptist. He is like, as precursor or if you may, the mouse cursor, the oriens or the east in the cartographer’s map that serves as a reliable guide in pointing us to the Savior. No wonder the date of his birth is a high-ranking feast-day in the whole Christian Church.

Second symbol of water is death. Going back to ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the waters below are dangerous. It is characterized as a formless void, dark and teeming with monsters. Biblical writers liken them to a fierce dragon, thrashing its scaly tail; monstrous, vengeful and impossible to calm. This part of creation called sea is, in effect, the opposite of creation, an undoing, destruction, annihilation and death. It represents everything that leads people away from God, everything which St Ignatius of Loyola, in the First Principle and Foundation, categorizes as those that hinder the soul from advancing.

But in baptism, this symbolism of water as death and destruction is a necessary phase to go through. This is the message of St Paul to the Romans, "Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Romans 6:3-4). In many stories of ancient times, there is this monster that emerged from the formless void of chaos, however, out of this same creature, thanks to this monster, it divided itself into two: heaven and earth. But for us descendants of Abraham, we believe differently with a creation account that it was God not a monster who spoke everything into existence. A God who made also the watery chaos below called “sea.” The Genesis account of creation in the Bible began when the Spirit hovered above the formless void of the sea and bit by bit, God placed the necessary boundaries on it. God’s act of creation is the act of putting boundaries as a way of taming chaos back into its proper place. Land appears only after God has set limits on the water; plants and animals came to be because God tells to the water, “Here you stop! You may come no further!”

Third and final symbolism of water. As we have heard St Paul telling the Roman Church, “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Romans 6:3-4). Water does not end with death and destruction but new life, rebirth. And isn’t this the whole meaning behind the sacrament of baptism? Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher born in 544 BC said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Heraclitus was more than 500 years ahead of his time when he said that; although, he may not have known the full depth of meaning behind his words. We are never the same person even if it is the same water. And here is the main thing which I always sermon about during baptismal rites. I tell the parents and God-parents, that their child is reborn anew, it is the child’s second birthday but he or she is no longer just any human being, the child is a prince or princess, God’s heir and our coheir. You cannot just do as you please to the child because God has created the child anew through the Holy Spirit. Like the Spirit that hovered above the waters in the creation account, God, through the ministers of baptism, seems to be telling again to the formless void “Do not harm this child! You may come no further! For this is my child forever.” Baptism is the sacrament of sonship and daughtership not just 50 percent or 95 percent but the full birthright as children of God. That is why baptism is the sacrament of creation and it is administered once only in a person’s lifetime and never to be repeated because you can never undo what has been completely changed already. Fr JM Manzano SJ

Comments

  1. Very comprehensive! ❤ Got new learnings to value more and lived out our baptism. 😇Appreciated much your sharing. Thanks, Fr. JM. 😊 Happy fiesta! 🙏🙏🙏

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