5 April 2018
Pope Francis blesses the faithful with holy water on Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square. Water has powerful religious and spiritual meaning in both Judaism and Christianity.
(photo: CNS/Tony Gentile, Reuters)
Among Christians of all denominations, the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter Season involves the blessing of water. We saw an example of this vividly last weekend when, in the Easter Vigil, Catholics throughout the world blessed water and celebrated the sacrament of baptism.
It served to remind us that water has great significance and importance in both Judaism and Christianity. Although water can and is seen as something dangerous and wild, that refers mostly to the waters of the sea, which the Hebrews held in some dread. In ancient Mesopotamia, the deity Tiamat, “the Deep,” was seen as an all devouring dragon. Water — fresh water — on the other hand was clearly a source of life. The Second Creation Account (Gen. 2:5-3:24) starts off in a dry and lifeless desert: “as yet there was no grass or shrubbery that has sprung up because God had not caused it to rain...” (Gen 2:5) Creation begins when God causes moisture (Hebrew: ’ēd) to rise from the earth.
With moisture — water — life begins.
It carries other connotations, as well. In the ancient Near East, water is often connected with the goddess of wisdom. Wisdom brings life and order. The desert is a frightening place, a “howling desert” (Deut 32:10), “a land of horror” (Isa 21:1), filled with strange and dangerous animals. There is neither city nor civilization in the desert. But with water, the wild chaos of the desert gives way to life, order and civilization — the gifts of Wisdom. We see this in scripture; in the book of Proverbs, wisdom is often connected with water (Prov 18:4; 20:5). In the New Testament, something similar can be found in the Gospel of John, which frequently connects Jesus with the Wisdom of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have long noticed that the Prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1-18) sounds very much like the poem about Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs (8:22-31). Later in the Gospel, Jesus calls those who thirst to come to him and drink (John 7:37-39). Echoing the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, the water which Jesus offers — his teaching — is spirit and springs up to eternal life.
The cleansing properties of water were, of course, not lost on the people of the Bible. Ritual purity was very important for the priests who served in the Temple. Purity was also important for all — priest and non-priest — who would worship at the Temple. There were many things which could render a person impure or unfit to worship in the Temple — everything from touching a dead body to coming into contact with pork. The impure person was purified by washing with water. Even today among some Jews there is the ritual of the miqveh. A miqveh is a pool connected with running (“living”) water that is used for purification. Converts to Judaism — as well as Jewish men and women who have incurred ritual impurity — are required to immerse themselves in the waters of the miqveh in order to become ritually pure once again. The Jewish community at Qumran, who were the copiers of the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls,” left behind extensive ruins. A very visible part of the ruins are ritual baths or miqveh. So important is the miqveh that Jewish religious authorities hold that new Jewish communities should build a miqveh even before they build a synagogue.
Clearly Christianity has taken over a great deal of the symbolism of water found in the Hebrew Bible and incorporated it into our own faith and ritual. We observed this recently, when those symbols played a central role in the observances of Holy Week. The washing of the feet at the Holy Thursday liturgy underlines the cleansing power of water but also stresses that it is a requirement to be with Jesus (John 13:9). The symbols found in the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday reflect the destructive power of water in recalling the destruction of the Egyptians at the Sea. The waters of baptism are also a symbol of Christ’s death (Rom 6:3). However, the life-giving and cleansing powers of water are also stressed in the waters of baptism which bring newness of life.
Throughout the Bible, in both Testaments, the powerful symbolism of water is a common theme. For Christians, the recent observance of Holy Week provided a call to reflect on the powerful role of water in the faith of Christians and Jews — and a bond we share that stretches back through the centuries.