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In a special feature (Church Times 2nd August 2002), Jeremy Fletcher draws interesting parallels between the water of baptism and the water of life.
[Reproduced by permission]
In baptism-preparation sessions in parish ministry, I increasingly came to rely on two questions: “What has made you bring your child for baptism?” and “Why do we use water?”

Stumbling responses to the first often included (grand)parental expectation, a general sense of wanting the baby “done”, and a real desire to give thanks to God. The 16-stone leather-clad “nightclub security provider” who wanted his daughter to be publicly “made a child of the Lord Jesus and baptised into repentance and new life in the name of the Holy Trinity” did take me by surprise, but every answer got us somewhere.

The second question was always less fruitful initially. Baptism and water are so intertwined that it was like asking why we breathe air. Just like breathing air, drinking water keeps us alive. Water washes us clean. We are born through water — the breaking of waters in childbirth is a recent experience for many mothers bringing their children to church. And, more dangerously, water can kill us.

Here the conversation would become more complex, especially when the parents heard that the earliest meaning of baptizo was “to plunge in”, “to overwhelm” or “to drown”.

In my youth, people still used to dye things, and, in Jesus' youth, to baptise also meant to “dye”. Plunging cloth into dye to transform it is a wonderful image of the Christian being transformed through faith, but was one lost on most baptism parents. Drowning, though, was more topical, and much closer to home for some, if only from news bulletins.

I was expounding on this once to a study group, and talking about “the waters of death” when it dawned on me that one couple had started coming to church after a memorial service for their son, who had been lost at sea some years before, and whose body had never been recovered. Had I remembered sooner, I would have soft-pedalled that part of the talk.

In the end, I was glad I hadn’t. The pastoral conversations that ensued deepened my understanding of the challenge of being baptised into the death of Christ, and, the couple said, brought them closer to the hope of the resurrection.

Talking with people who had lost their son to water brought home the absolute finality of death, where before I had a doctrine without substance. For their part, the completion of the doctrine, that from death comes new life in Christ, helped them to incorporate a personal tragedy into a life lived with some hope for the future.

The most profound symbols in human life, the archetypal ones, are the most basic. Bread and wine for sustenance and joy. Blood for death and sacrifice, for health and vitality. Human touch for friendship and community. Every human grouping enacts rituals around these things, though our developed and materialistic society manages to hide them pretty well.

Water is just such a staple, and the force behind much human ritual. Our preparation sessions would go on to look at water in the Bible. Though our Nottinghamshire ex-mining folk were not up on the place of the wilderness in Old Testament spirituality, and the miracle of plants leaping into life after the spring rains, they knew about the Flood, and weren’t too bad on Moses and his people walking through water from slavery to freedom, even if he really looked like Charlton Heston. So we could talk about the rituals remembering this deliverance, and see how water could symbolise both death and life, destruction and hope.

One of the prayers over the water in Common Worship contains these words:

We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death.
By it we share his resurrection.
Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

Meditation on these lines could occupy the rest of my days. There is a wonderful tension, for instance, between burial in the ground and immersion in water. Stone and soil are solid and heavy, where water is light, but no less suffocating.

Water springing up to eternal life is a picture of the resurrection we can only imagine, but are schooled to long for. Whereas Mary Magdalen is told not to touch the risen Christ, with water we are touched with the reality of his risen life. The waters of birth are the waters of rebirth, and I imagine these as a Victoria Falls rather than a babbling brook.

It is the business of our preparation for, and preaching about, baptism to make the connections between a staple that is so basic that we scarcely think about it, and the deep mysteries of the faith which few outside the Church dare to explore. But perhaps the essential task is not to explain, which can often demystify, but to demonstrate. Nothing destroys a symbol more than saying exactly what it means. Let the water do the talking.

Of course, if required, only a drop will do, and, in one sense, there is no greater symbolism in copious amounts. Yet I am more convinced now that there should be plenty to make a splash with. I first baptised someone by submersion in a swimming pool. (I confessed to my incumbent that I was disturbed at his idea for the congregation all to jump in at the end for a “fellowship swim”.)

Up until then, for me, the water of baptism had been safely confined in small bowls that only a confused bird might drown in. The water in the swimming baths was deep, was for enjoyment and refreshment, and was potentially dangerous too.

My fears were allayed. As a body of people, we rejoiced in new life brought through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and celebrated our unity in the one baptism we shared. I had more questions over the fate of the water, which was being used as we left by the Nottingham Kayak Club, but decided to leave that for the sacramental theologians.

Though water is basic, we domesticate it at our peril if baptism is to speak. In the early centuries of the Church, fonts were adult-sized, and the community gathered in them or around them to welcome those making the perilous decision to join the Christian community.

Fonts or baptisteries were outside or just inside the door, symbolising that entry into the body of Christ was through burial and resurrection in him. When most baptisms came to be of children, fonts became child-sized, and the ceremony more of a celebration within a settled community.

In England, 75 per cent of babies are not baptised, and adult baptisms are on the increase. Perhaps it is time for fonts to be enlarged, for the amount of water to increase, and for the resonances of cleansing, refreshment, death, life, birth and resurrection to leap off the page and into the water.

There is nothing more radical in the human life than the rejection of the way of the “world”, repentance for all that is wrong,
the choosing of freedom and forgiveness,
and the embracing of the way of a disciple. The water should play its part in this, symbolising life, indicating death, and, literally and spiritually, washing clean and making new.
The Revd Jeremy Fletcher is  Canon Precentor of York Minster.

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