Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Primary Christian Symbol: Water

Despite its ontological designation as ‘thing,’ water functions as a powerful symbol in Christianity and transcends its humble bounds in the living liturgy of the modern church. For the Christian, water is more than just sustenance—meaning life or death for the individual; for as a ‘primary’ symbol, it brings together and makes connections within the larger community of the Church as it flows through the liturgical practices of our diverse traditions. In water, the Christian can experience many things: the purification ritual of a shared Jewish past; the threshold across which one is initiated into the Christian church; a water bath symbolical of crossing the Sea of Reeds; a transition point from a life of selfishness to a life of selflessness; the forsaking of self for the life of the ‘other.’ 

Water brings the kinetic and the tactile to Christian worship as well, allowing the church to feel the enwrapped experience of death and life in Christ, particularly in baptism (Romans 6: 3-7), or in honor of the sacrificial death knell on the cross of Christ (John 19:34)—the mixing of water and wine in the Eucharist. 

As such, water has “multivocality, or a fusion of many levels of meaning” (Saliers 1994, 143). It is satisfying to contemplate this multivocality after two millennia of liturgical development, because grasping the meaning of what water reflects in the liturgy is enhanced by the procession of time and tradition:
Each liturgical celebration forms and expresses a selected range of the many levels of meaning inherent in the symbol, and brings together in a unified experience both the sensate human dimensions of what is symbolized and the mystery signified by the biblical word of the divine human interaction. It is over a period of time that the fullness of symbol may be comprehended, if comprehended at all, by the worshipping assembly” (Saliers 1994, 143).
As Lathrop asserts, there is a “catholic continuity [that] resides in what [the people] do: the ordo, the enacting of faith, the reading and preaching of scriptures, the doing of the sacraments” (Lathrop 1998, 87). Water provides an important element of this continuity as the primary symbol within the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.

Like its important place in the liturgy suggests, we note that water has been generating new life since the first days of creation, when at God’s spoken word, life (creatures for sky and sea) issued forth from the water (Genesis 1:20-21). Water, in baptism, is a threshold across which Christians cross into their own new lives—into the love of God, the hatred for self, and the love of all humankind, including enemies. Just as the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds (Yam Suph), transitioning from lives of slavery in Egypt into freedom in the desert, so the Christian crosses the sea of baptism, leaving the slavery of self-interest and sin, crossing into the freedom of righteousness and holiness, and all things godly, and the forsaking of self for the priority of the ‘other.’ 

Water, in the form of a baptismal sprinkling or immersion, takes on added meaning when administered in the name of Christ, upon which the deeper theological framework and new identity is hinged (2 Cor. 5:17). Because the baptismal bath transcends various Christian traditions, it becomes a symbol aiding liturgical mediation which brings “together [the] human pathos to the ethos of the praise and celebration of God” (Saliers 1994, 165). The cultural adaptation of water as symbol in the “inexhaustible richness” of Christian liturgy and the sacrament gives us hope for a wider appreciation of liturgical diversity.

Water as a ‘thing’ to be mixed with wine (blood) symbolizes the water and blood spilled from Christ’s side when pierced by the Roman spear (John 19:34) and is now ritualized in the mixing of the wine and water in the Eucharist. Cyprian helped early Christians understand reasons behind the mixing of the wine and water in On the Sacrament of the Cup of the Lord:
For because Christ bore us all, in that He also bore our sins, we see that in the water is understood the people, but in the wine is showed the blood of Christ. But when the water is mingled in the cup with wine, the people are made one with Christ, and the assembly of believers is associated and conjoined with Him on whom it believes; which association and conjunction of water and wine is so mingled in the Lord’s cup, that that mixture cannot any more be separated.
Just as water binds symbolically in the sacramental tradition of baptism across various tradition, so too can water.

There is one final quality of water in the Christian experience—one not readily quantifiable, but important nonetheless: “the water is not tame” (Lathrop 1998, 94). And this in many ways parallels God's own interaction with us as Christian, right? Think about it: water gives both life and brings death. God destroyed the world once with water (Genesis 7) and made a promise to never destroy the world in such a fashion again (Genesis 9). Without its life-sustaining properties, humans die without it. Perhaps that is why, in highest praise, the psalmist likens our desire for God, to the desire for water (“As the deer pants for water…” Psalms 42: 1-2,7). Water, like the presence of God, is grace and blessing—a gift of nature and the divine economy which humanity does nothing to manufacture or deserve. 

For further reading:

Cyprian. “On the Sacrament of the Cup of the Lord” in Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5: Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. (accessed June 13, 2013)

Gileneau, Joseph. 1978. The Liturgy Today and Tomorrow. Translated by Dinah Livingston. New York/ Paramus: Paulist Press. Quoted in Saliers, Don. 1994. Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Lathrop, Gordon. 1998. Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Saliers, Don. 1994. Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.