Water, Death, and Life

A guest post by Louis Masi of the Archdiocese of New York.
Consider it a little “foretaste” of Easter, and a reflection on the value of Baptism:

Detail of Apse Mosaic in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome (Credit: Fr. Joseph Carola, S.J.)
Detail of Apse Mosaic in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome (Credit: Fr. Joseph Carola, S.J.)

 When looking for signs of life on other planets, scientists look for the presence of water. Our very own bodies are made of almost sixty percent water. Without water, there is no life. Water is indeed at the very core of the human experience.

In the beginning of time, when God created all things, a mighty wind swept over the waters. One can only imagine the awesome beauty of the waters being stirred up by the hand of God as He fashioned creation. The churning of the waves must have been an astounding sight to see. Yet the Lord also tamed the water. The water under the sky was gathered into a single basin so that God could make room for dry land, upon which the greatest of his creatures—man—would live.

When His people were chained in Egypt, God exercised his authority over the waters once again in order to lead them across the Red Sea. The water was divided and the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left. As the Egyptians marched in pursuit of them, the Lord cast the sea upon them and the flood waters covered them. God brought the Israelites to freedom through the waters of the sea and drowned that which was evil.

Water, death, and life.

We who were given life at the creation of world lost it when Adam sinned. God, however, would not allow his greatest creation, whom he deemed to be very good, to be lost so easily. So He sent his Only-Begotten Son into the world to suffer, die, and rise that we might have life.

This Jesus, who was with the Father at the creation of the world, also exercised His power over the waters of the earth. By his entrance into the Jordan river, he sanctified the waters of the earth so that man could be restored to life. St. Paul reminds us that, through the waters of baptism, we enter into the death and resurrection of Christ. As the Egyptians were left in the sea, we descend into the waters of baptism to die so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. As the Israelites escaped triumphantly, we are transfigured by the waters of baptism and live in newness of life.

Water, death and life.

The Church calls out to all men and women with the words of the Prophet Isaiah: All who are thirsty, come to the water. Those of us who have bathed in the saving waters of baptism should always be mindful of our death to sin and our rising with Christ. To those who have not yet washed in the sacred waters, the Lord says, do not be afraid. Jesus is risen from the dead just as He said! Alleluia, Alleluia! He wills to destroy the reign of sin and death within every man and woman making us all into a new creation.

Like a deer that yearns for running streams, come and let your longing be fulfilled. Come to the water. Die in the water. Rise to life in the water.

6 Comments

  1. The ancient world going back thousands of years thought about water very different than we do today. We think of as a biological necessity and a culinary utility, not to mention the foundation of all recreational water sports. The ancient world viewed it very differently, as one of the 4 essential elements of creation, and it had it’s own particular place amongst it’s companion elements. The classical sequence was earth, water, air and fire, in that order. And, by combining these four natural elements you have the ingredients for all of God’s natural creation. Moreover, to the ancients, including the Hebrews, water and the other elements also had properties that effected the humors and personalities, and were the basis for the making of ancient medicines.

    So, this is to say that a discussion of ‘water’ in the classical context, is a very profound subject. If you search the ‘Summa’ of S. Thomas Aquinas for “slime of the earth” ( http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1091.htm ) you will find some very heady discussions on how earth and water mingled into the composition defined as ‘slime’, from which is the basis of God’s creation of Adam. And, after understanding the ancient ideas on the elements, it is easier to understand the ways that these elements are used in the Sacred Scriptures.

    For instance, remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus, who didn’t understand the saying about being ‘born again’ of water and spirit. Jesus chided him for being a teacher in Israel and not understanding the elemental and spiritual symbolism that He was using. Jesus said to Nicodemus :

    “… Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of WATER and the HOLY GHOST, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit, is spirit. Wonder not, that I said to thee, you must be born again. The Spirit breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered, and said to him: How can these things be done? Jesus answered, and said to him: Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest NOT these things?

    Also, with the ‘woman at the well’, Jesus talks spiritually of a spring of water in the inner depths of our souls:

    “Whosoever drinketh of this water, shall thirst again; but he that shall drink of the water that I will give him, shall not thirst for ever: But the water that I will give him, shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting. The woman saith to him: Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come hither to draw.”

    So, we see, that the subject of ‘water’ in Sacred Scripture is a very deep and important subject for our meditation. And we’ll probably be meditating on it for the rest of our lives.

    1. The link above, of St. Thomas Aquinas, is to provided to demonstrate the way in which earlier generations conceived the world, including the natural elements, which modern students often aren’t aware of. It is important to consider when trying to study and understand ancient culture, whether for scientific or religious purposes.

    2. Hi Al,

      Our discussion goes further. Noah also came to mind. Water was chosen as the element to rid the earth of sin; it is the element that best erodes stone. Water acts as a middle ground between the solid givenness of earth, and the fleeting impenetrability of air. Then there is fire, unquenchable but for water and few other substances. How can one not love the perfect beauty of God in his creation!

      1. I’m glad you ‘get’ the symbolism of the elements, Margo!

        One last beautiful lesson given by Christ regarding water. As you mentioned above about Noah and sin, Jesus also uses it to wash His disciples feet, and tells us to do likewise. And important to note, that it is not the same as baptism, with a comprehensive washing, but just the feet. This says that we need to keep working at washing both our own defects and sins, as well as helping to reduce them in others.

        And I’m sure St. Francis, in Heaven, agrees with you completely in your last sentence above.

        Best to you and keep up the great comments.

  2. The post above stresses ‘water, death and life’, so how do these relate to baptism, Lent and Easter? To understand we need to consider the 4 elements of ancient science and also Old and New Testament Scripture.

    Water signifies ‘born again’, ‘reverted’ or ‘converted’. It doesn’t signify ‘created again’ out of ‘nothing’ or ‘slime’. That is, there is a remnant left of Gods creation and this is where the new life will begin from, not from nothing, but from a remnant. We see this in the story of Noah. God does not destroy ALL life on Earth, but keeps a little ember burning in which to start a new fire or earthly civilization…this being Noah and his small family. The same happened with Abraham. He returns to the ancient land of Eden, which was the Holy Land or Jerusalem. He leaves his own people to start a new nation completely dedicated to the one God. He is starting over, being ‘Born Again’. Then we have Moses, he also returns to Jerusalem and the ‘Promised Land’ to start over, to be ‘born again. Abraham was the Father of a nation on a micro scale and Moses on a macro scale. Abraham as a person and his small family, but Moses and Israel as a great nation of over 600.000 individuals. The symbolism for these events of repentance and rebirth is water, because again, it does not symbolize complete destruction, but rather, that a ‘remnant’ is given rebirth so as to grow again in a new direction, towards God.

    We know water baptism signifies penance because John the Baptist came ‘baptizing in water’, and his message was ‘repent’, ‘return to your God, for the kingdom of God is at hand’. And, Jesus later ALSO had his disciples baptise others with ‘WATER’, or repentance. But, John said, ‘The One who comes will baptise in fire and the Holy Spirit’. So, this is a big change, because as Aquinas noted, “air and fire are more noble than earth and water”, according to ancient thought. Fire therefore does not signify ‘repentance’, but rather, a type of glory; such as when Jesus was transfigured on Mt. Tabor. But first, water baptism and repentance was needed, which was the beginning point of all future spiritual growth.

    Moreover, the baptism of water by John means that being ‘reborn’ means having new association with the both God and the one’s who are baptizing, who are servants of God. It is not baptized with God alone, just between a man and God, it involves others who are also baptized, and this is why a man CANNOT baptize himself.

    Then comes the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is the new ‘baptism of fire’ that is associated with Christ’s baptism. It is the noble and glorious baptism, not of repentance and water. This is why Jesus said you must be ‘born again of water and the Holy Spirit’. The water signifies the beginning of the study of the authorized teaching and catechesis of the Church. The gift Holy Spirit is the result of that catechetical doctrine and teaching, which is a degree of eternal glory and light given to the soul. But you don’t get the baptism of fire, until you accept the baptism of repentance, symbolized by the ‘water’. And you don’t get that unless the disciples, who are the authorized guardians of the teachings and Gospel of Christ, instruct you in the Gospel doctrine that Christ left to them. Only after accepting initial catechesis will you be baptized by the Church and receive the the Holy Spirt, the baptism of ‘Fire’ that John the Baptist talked about, relating to Jesus.

    This is just a short summation. Please elaborate, or correct if, you find it deficient in any way.

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