All life on earth depends on water to exist. Oxygen some species can dispense with. Light? Not strictly necessary. But water? Not much perhaps, but nonetheless it must exist for life to have a chance. Small wonder then that our entry into the world is through the breaking waters of our mother’s womb and our entry into the Kingdom and the Church is through the waters of baptism.
One of the properties of water of course is that it is a solvent and here we are thinking about its ability to cleanse. Most of the world’s religions with the possible exception of Buddhism have cleansing rituals that involve the use of water. For Orthodox Christians this cleansing is but one element in the meaning of baptism; there are others which we shall address shortly but for now let us listen the glorious poetic words of the great St Sophronios of Jerusalem whose prayer we use at this time in the Great Blessing of the Waters:
“Today the waters of the Jordan are turned into healing by the presence of the Lord. Today all creation is watered by mystical waters. Today men’s sins are washed away in the waters of the Jordan. Today Paradise is thrown open to humankind, and the sun of righteousness shines upon us. Today the water that the people under Moses found bitter, is turned into sweetness at the Lord’s presence.”
The baptism of John could not effect this cleansing in its entirety. According to the gospel sins are only washed away by the blood of Christ, not water although St John’s reference to the death of Christ mentions both: “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe’‘. (John 19:34-35) Again St John the Theologian, in the Book of Revelation, refers to this cleansing by blood when speaking of the martyrs: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14)
So the baptismal waters do cleanse, but only insofar as they speak of the death of Christ, which is why of course we immerse the holy cross in the waters of the font when blessing the same. Our Lord has washed away our sins by His precious blood, drowning them by His death and raising us up out of the waters to newness of life by His glorious resurrection. It is true that we shall often soil our baptismal white gowns by sins both voluntary and involuntary, conscious and unconscious but we know that repentance in confession is the wonderful means that God has arranged for us to be restored to our baptismal purity. Let us hasten then to the wellspring of forgiveness to receive newness of life.
Cleansing, as I said earlier, is not the only action of water generating meaning in the mystery of holy baptism. Let us listen again to St Sophronios:
“Today we are delivered from the darkness and are bathed in the light of the knowledge of God. Today the world’s gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God. Today the entire universe is lit as by a heavenly torch. Today error is abolished and the coming of the Lord opens the way to salvation.”
In the same way that we might have considered blood and water to be opposites, were it not for the death of Christ making them one, so it is also with water and fire. In the natural world, when these two come together, either water is dispersed in steam or fire is quenched by water. One gives way to the other. In the kingdom of God, however, water and fire are also one. For St. Sophronios baptism is the kindling of a spiritual fire dispelling darkness and lighting up our path - which is the way of the Lord, the way of salvation. The Holy Fire of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, comes down upon us all in baptismal chrismation. The post communion hymn in the Liturgy affirms that “we have seen the True Light, we have received the Holy Spirit.” We walk in the light of Christ, dispelling our darkness. For this reason the early church referred to baptism as the “bath of enlightenment.”
It is not only on us, however, that this fire descends. As St Sophronios says: “Today the entire universe is lit as by a heavenly torch.” When the Creator of the universe descended into the waters of the Jordan the Cosmos itself was healed, not just humankind. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect for the Western Christian mind to understand because it has become so accustomed to think of the sacraments, the holy mysteries, as essentially personal realities, quite detached from creation. This feast reveals the impoverishment of such thinking. With the healing of humankind and its enlightenment there comes also healing for the Cosmos, the torch that brightens the whole Universe. The ancient harmony between creation and God has been restored in every part and not just the human. This is quite clearly the teaching of St Paul who in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans says this:-
“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now.” (Romans 8:20-22)
The blue waters of baptism are not just red, therefore, with the blood of Christ, but green also, with the Holy Spirit who liberates and enlightens the whole universe. The Trinitarian colour scheme of baptism, blue in water, red in blood and green in creation; respectively—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is beautifully and profoundly displayed in Andre Rublev’s famous icon of the Hospitality of Abraham. Moreover when blue, red and green come together as primary colours their union is of course white, and we know what white means … glory, purity, holiness, resurrection.
At the end of this Liturgy we shall be sprinkled with Jordan water and we shall take this water home for drinking, for blessing and for cleansing. We are creatures of water in a cosmos of water and redeemed by water. How glorious it is then that our Lord should take such a common and yet extraordinary means of saving us—if we would but submit to that refreshing, cleansing renewal of the Holy Spirit. Let us drink deeply from the wells of salvation and by opening these up slake the thirst of a parched and dry land. Lo the deserts around us shall bloom once more and the garden of Eden shall be restored by the waters flowing from the Temple of the New Jerusalem, another image from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. (22:1-2) Brothers and sisters, we are saved in Christ, we are empowered by the Spirit, we are brought to the throne of the Heavenly Father and in this faith of the Trinity we have all been baptised. Let us live in it, let us rejoice in it and let us proclaim it to our last breath.