Hieromonk Nicholas Pokhilko
For thousands of years water has been among the main religious symbols. This is indeed the case for the Orthodox Christian tradition where it is involved in liturgical mysteries from baptism and the Eucharist to the rites of the Blessing of the Waters (see King, Water). Why is water so central to Christian religious life?
Water as a symbol of life as well as a means of cleansing or purification is of particular importance in the Old Testament (see Reymond, L’eau, sa Vie, et sa Signification dans l’Ancien Testament). It was created on the first day (Genesis 1:2, 6-8). The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). The earth was founded upon the waters (Genesis 1:6-7, 9-10). God commanded the water to bring out an abundance of living souls (Genesis 1:20-21). In some sense the element is close to God (cf. Psalms 17; 28:3; 76:17, 20; 103:3; 148:4). God is compared with the rain (Hosea 6:3). Water brings life (cf. Exodus 15:23-35; 17:2-7; Psalms 1:3; 22:2; 41:2; 64:10; 77:20; Isaiah 35:6-7; 58:11) and joy (Psalm 45:5). It is a powerful purifying element and can destroy evil and enemies as in the stories of the Flood and the flight of Israel from Egypt (Genesis 3:1-15; Exodus 14:1-15:21). According to Old Testament Law, it cleanses defilement (Leviticus 11:32; 13:58; 14:8, 9; 15-17; 22:6; cf. Isaiah 1:16), and is used in sacrifices (Leviticus 1:9, 13; 6:28; 1 Kings 18:30-39), in which context the Bible mentions the living water (Leviticus 14; Numbers 5; 19). Water heals as can be seen from the stories of Naaman the Syrian cured from his leprosy in the waters of Jordan (2 Kings 5:1-14), and the annual miracles at Bethesda in Jerusalem (John 5:1-4). John the Baptist used the waters of the Jordan to cleanse people’s sins which might echo some Jewish customs (Matthew 3:1-6; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:2-16; John 1:26-33). Even Christ came to be baptised (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10). On the other hand, water is also the habitat of serpents whose heads God crushed (Psalm 73:13-14), and of the dragon (Job 41:25; Psalm 103:26).
This is the belief common in the Old Testament that water is a mystically powerful element which, being connected with God in some way, can cleanse sins, defilement, and renew the human being. Water has taken on the religious symbolism of life. The New Testament integrates the Old Testament belief. The Old Testament symbolism of water actually prefigures the new baptismal mystery. Christ says that water is a means to a new spiritual birth into the kingdom of heaven (John 3:5). He gives living water which is the source of eternal life (John 4:10-14; 7:38; cf. Jeremiah 2:13). Christ comes in water, blood, and Spirit witnessing to one God (1 John 5:6-8). He commands watery baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). When speaking about baptism, Paul states that in water we are buried with our sins in the likeness of Christ’s death:
The baptismal meaning of water has been elaborately interpreted in Christian tradition. For example Old Testament stories such as the Flood and Exodus were often understood as figures of baptism. The healing power of water as indicated in the story of the prophet Elisha and Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-14) and also in Old Testament Law is also of paramount importance in reference to baptism (see Gregory of Nyssa, Lumin. Opera, 220.127.116.11-14; Ephrem the Syrian, NH 12.16; EH 3.5; 5.6; 6.12).
Manifesting His kenosis, Christ cleansed His own body in water not because of His sinfulness but because He was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 36; cf. Ephrem, NH 2; John Chrysostom, Bapt. 2, PG 49.366). Thus He acknowledged the importance of the Old Testament which He came to fulfil. Moreover, water itself was purified of the infection of the sins and defilements washed in it. Because of them it was called the habitat of the devil (Psalm 73:13-14; 103:26; Gregory Nazianzen, Or. 39.16.15-16: “the devil is king living in the waters”). By entering the waters of the Jordan Christ purified and blessed this element for our baptismal purification (cf. Gregory Nazianzen, Or. 38.16; Or. 39.15; Ephrem, EH 9. refrain).
Water has taken on the symbolism of spiritual grace, and Christian tradition emphasises that it receives grace and power only through the presence of the Holy Spirit. In baptism water symbolises death, and receives the body like a tomb, as Paul writes, but the Spirit gives life (cf. Basil, Spir. 15.35.45-72; Gregory Nazianzen, Or. 38.14; Or. 39.15). Thus water prepares a person for the Spirit. This belief is associated with the idea of the duality of human essense consisting of two natures, spiritual (soul) and corporeal (body). Water purifies the body, and the Spirit cleanses the soul, thus accomplishing rebirth from above and illumination of the whole human being about which Christ spoke to Nikodimos (John 3:5-8; cf. Acts 8:38-39; Gregory Nazianzen, Or. 40.8). Moreover, since baptism is performed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), purification by water also serves as the introduction to the mystery of the Holy Trinity (cf. Justin, Apol. 1.61.3-5; Gregory Nazianzen, Or. 39.12; Ephrem, EH 12.6).
In the Eucharistic rite, water is mingled with wine at the liturgy of preparation, after the priest has pronounced verses of John 19:34-35: “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out; He who saw it bore witness, and his witness is true”. .” Immediately preceding Holy Communion warm water (zeon) is to be added to the consecrated chalice in the Byzantine rite with the words: “Blessed is the fervour of thy Holy Things, always, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages; the fervour of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, amen.” (For example, for Niketas Stephatos it signifies that water and blood that came from Christ’s side was warm; and this warmness meant that flesh was living and deified). In two reasonably detailed accounts of the Eucharist given by Justin, the cup containing wine mixed with water appears for the first time in Christian literature (Apol. 1.65, 67). Also an additional cup is mentioned, filled with water only, probably, a peculiarity of the baptismal Eucharist. The ancients regularly diluted their wine, but it seems that water in these liturgical instances symbolically reminds the faithful of their baptism and of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Epiphanios of Salamis and John Chrysostom describe the custom of obtaining sanctified water from the streams at midnight on Epiphany and keeping it throughout the year). Epiphanios connects this with the miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11; Haer. 51.27-30, Holl, 298-301), but for John Chrysostom it is the remembrance of baptism (Bapt. 2, PG 49.365D-366A). This custom became a part of liturgical tradition in which we encounter the rite of the consecration of water. The consecration of water on the Epiphany was first established by Peter, bishop of Edessa, in 498 (see Incerti auctoris chronicon pseudo-Dionynianum vulgo dictum, CSCO 91, 258.16-17; CSCO 121, 191). As follows from the prayer of the rite attributed to Sophronios of Jerusalem, which also corresponds with prayers at Christian baptism, water is consecrated in remembrance of the baptism of Christ in which it was originally sanctified. The element is given a similar miracle-working role as in the Old Testament, but any activity belongs to God and to the Holy Spirit, and not to the water itself:
Finally, the meaning of water in tradition, which we have observed, is best summarised by John Damascene:
John integrated the traditional concept of water into his iambic canon for the Epiphany. Perhaps, the prayer of Sophronios was the main source of his inspiration. The Pauline idea of watery burial unfolds there to the extent that both sins and the old man are buried in baptism (cf. Epiphany canon = EC, the acrostic, 1, irmos; 1:2). Baptism accomplishes the regeneration of humanity first in Christ and then in Christians (cf. EC 1:2; 3:2; 4, irmos), who are made the sons of God (cf. EC 4:1; 8, irmos). Even the perfection of Christ’s human nature would be impossible without the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (cf. 5, irmos; 9:2). John emphasises that human defilement and sins are washed away by God, and that water is actually of secondary importance (cf. EC 1:1; 5:1; 8:2; 9:2). As a result of the baptism of Christ, the devil dwelling in the water from previously washed sins was burnt by the fire of the Godhead, and the water was sanctified for our baptism (cf. EC 7, irmos; 7:1). All the achievements of baptism are universally shared by creation.
As we have seen, the role of water elaborated in the Old Testament inevitably passed into the New Testament and was incorporated into Christian tradition where it unfolds in the texts of baptism, Eucharist, and the Epiphany office. Although the concept of water found in Christian tradition may correspond with some obscure Jewish, Gnostic, or primitive Christian beliefs, it, in fact, rests upon a distinct scriptural, liturgical and Patristic basis devoid of any obscure mysticism. Water in Christianity is primarily associated with baptism. At the same time it contains a great number of symbols, for example: destruction, death and burial, life, purification, cleansing, healing, blessing, sanctification, baptism (including remission of sins, illumination, rebirth), the presence of the Holy Spirit and divine grace, redemption, salvation. These rely upon a rational theological understanding that it is the omnipresent God who performs miracles and initiates any mystery, including the mystery of water. Dwelling on this tradition in the contemplation of this mystery and summirising it, the canon for the Epiphany reminds the Christian congregation of the gifts of their baptism. Taken together these give us the meaning of water in Christianity.
Basil the Great, Spir. = De spiritu sancto, ed. B. Pruche, Basile de Césarée, Sur le Saint-Esprit, 2nd ed., SC 17 bis., Paris, 1968.
Ephrem the Syrian, EH = Epiphany Hymns, tr. A. Johnston, NPNF 2.13, repr. 1995, 265-89; NH = Nativity Hymns, tr. K. McVey, Ephrem the Syrian: hymns, New York: Paulist Press,1989; tr. J. Morris and A. Johnston, NPNF 2.13, repr. 1995, 223-62.
Epiphanios of Salamis, Haer. = Panarion (Adversus haereses), ed. K. Holl, Epiphanius, Bände 1-3, Ancoratus und Panarion, GCS 25, 31, 37, Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1915-33.
Gregory Nazianzen, Or. 38, 39 = Discours 38-41, ed. C. Moreschini, SC 358, Paris, 1990.
Gregory of Nyssa, Lumin. = In diem luminum (vulgo In baptismum Christi oratio), ed. E. Gebhardt, Gregorii Nysseni opera, vol. 9.1, Leiden: Brill, 1967, 221-42.
John Chrysostom, Bapt. = De baptismo Christi, PG 49.363-72.
John Damascene, Expos.= Expositio fidei in B. Kotter, ed., Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, PTS 12, Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1973; canon for the Epiphany, Mother Mary, Fr K. Ware, The Festal Menaion, (Pennsylvania: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998), 367-82.
Justin Martyr, Apol. = Apologies, ed. A. Wartelle, Paris, 1987.
Sophronios of Jerusalem, the prayer at the Great blessing of the waters, Menaion, January 6, tr. Fr Ephrem Lash, http://www.anastasis.org.uk/megagiasm.htm.
King, A., Water = Holy Water: a short account of the use of water for ceremonial and purificatory purposes in pagan, Jewish and Christian times, London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1926.
Reymond, P., L’eau, sa Vie, et sa Signification dans l’Ancien Testament, Leiden: Brill, 1958.
Incerti auctoris chronicon pseudo-Dionynianum vulgo dictum = Chabot, J., ed., Incerti auctoris chronicon pseudo-Dionynianum vulgo dictum, CSCO 91, SS 43: Textus, Louvain, 1927; CSCO 121, SS 66: Versio, Louvain, 1949.
Strag, V., The Meaning of Water, Berg Publishers, 2004.