In early January each year, the Church celebrates the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This day honours the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by St John the Baptist. The feast concludes the Christmas season and invites the faithful to reflect on the Sacrament of Baptism.
In his Apostolic Letter, Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis explained: “The prayer for the blessing of baptismal water reveals to us that God created water precisely with Baptism in mind. This means that when God created water, he was thinking of the Baptism of each one of us, and this same thought accompanied him all throughout his acting in the history of salvation every time that, with precise intention, he used water for his saving work. It is as if after having created water in the first place, he had wanted to perfect it by making it eventually to be the water of Baptism.” (Article 13)
During the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday, the priest performs a ritual to bless the water that will be used for baptisms in the year ahead. This Easter prayer mentions a number of biblical stories that relate to the mystery of baptism. It shows that in the Bible, water is repeatedly associated with creation, salvation and holiness.
Reflecting on the words of this prayer, let’s look at each of these stories from Scripture now.
First Sign: The Creation of the World
O God, whose Spirit in the first moments of the world’s creation hovered over the waters, so that the very substance of water would even then take to itself the power to sanctify;
From the very first verses of the Bible, water is associated with the Holy Spirit and with Creation. Genesis 1:2 says: “The earth was formless and barren, and darkness covered the abyss while the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.” The Hebrew word translated “hovered” is used elsewhere to describe a bird flying over its young (Deuteronomy 32:11). This image of the Holy Spirit “hovering” over the waters is reflected in the Baptism of Christ, when the Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22).
Second Sign: Noah’s Ark
O God, who by the outpouring of the flood foreshadowed regeneration, so that from the mystery of one and the same element of water would come an end to vice and a beginning of virtue;
This idea is based on a passage from the First Letter of St Peter. St Peter described Noah’s Ark as a prophetic sign of the saving power of baptism, saying: “God waited patiently in the days of Noah during the building of the ark. In it only a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This water prefigured Baptism, which now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:20-21). The Ark, like baptism, was a means of salvation for God’s faithful people.
Third Sign: The Crossing of the Red Sea
O God, who caused the children of Abraham to pass dry-shod through the Red Sea, so that the chosen people, set free from slavery to Pharaoh, would prefigure the people of the baptized;
It was St Paul who first said that the Crossing of the Red Sea was a symbol of baptism. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he wrote: “Brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and they were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2) Like baptism, the miracle at the Red Sea saved the people from death – and brought them to freedom.
Fourth Sign: The Baptism and Death of Christ
O God, whose Son, baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan was anointed with the Holy Spirit, and, as he hung upon the Cross, gave forth water from his side along with blood, and after his Resurrection, commanded his disciples: “Go forth, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” look now, we pray, upon the face of your Church and graciously unseal for her the fountain of Baptism.
The prayer then links these Old Testament stories with the Baptism and Death of Christ. St John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the River Jordan (Luke 3:22). Just as people died during the Flood and the Crossing of the Red Sea, Christ described his forthcoming death as a “baptism” (Luke 12:50). After his death, St John witnessed water, as well as blood, flowing from the side of Christ’s corpse (John 19:34-25).
The Art of Baptism
Depictions of biblical water miracles are often found within the baptisteries of churches, cathedrals and basilicas. This tradition goes right back to the Early Church. In the Catacombs of Rome, where Christians sheltered from persecution during the second and third centuries AD, such scenes were very common. As well as scenes of the Baptism of Christ, those of Noah’s Ark, Moses striking the rock and Jonah and the Whale were painted on the walls.
In the Middle Ages, the grand Baptistery of St John the Baptist in Florence was adorned with scenes from Scripture. Its doors, designed by Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti, feature scores of stories from the Old and New Testaments, while its ceiling mosaics picture stories from the book of Genesis, as well as the lives of Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist.
Traditionally baptismal fonts have also been decorated with scenes from the Bible. For example, the famous bronze font of Church of St Barthelemy (in Liege, Belgium) features various baptismal scenes from the New Testament – including the Ministry of St John the Baptist, the Baptism of Christ and St Peter baptising Cornelius.
Within Great Britain, it’s standard for traditional Catholic churches to have artwork relating to baptism within either the existing or former baptistery. This can take the form of stained glass, mosaic, paintings or font carvings. The most common scene is of the Baptism of Christ. Christ is usually pictured ankle deep in the Jordan while St John the Baptist is seen pouring water from a scallop shell and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove. Sometimes, the Old Testament water miracles are also featured, as are water-themed stories from the New Testament, such as Christ meeting the woman at the well or the miracle at Cana.
In Closing: the Prayer for Blessing of the Baptismal Waters
O God, who by invisible power
accomplish a wondrous effect
through sacramental signs
and who in many ways have prepared water, your creation,
to show forth the grace of Baptism;
O God, whose Spirit
in the first moments of the world’s creation
hovered over the waters, so that the very substance of water
would even then take to itself the power to sanctify;
O God, who by the outpouring of the flood
so that from the mystery of one and the same element of water
would come an end to vice and a beginning of virtue;
O God, who caused the children of Abraham
to pass dry-shod through the Red Sea,
so that the chosen people,
set free from slavery to Pharaoh,
would prefigure the people of the baptized;
O God, whose Son,
baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan
was anointed with the Holy Spirit,
and, as he hung upon the Cross,
gave forth water from his side along with blood,
and after his Resurrection, commanded his disciples:
“Go forth, teach all nations, baptizing them
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
look now, we pray, upon the face of your Church
and graciously unseal for her the fountain of Baptism.
May this water receive by the Holy Spirit
the grace of your Only Begotten Son,
so that human nature, created in your image,
and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism
from all the squalor of the life of old,
may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children
through water and the Holy Spirit.