Of the four elements in antiquity—water, air, fire, and earth—the first three are all symbols of the Holy Spirit, while the earth represents man, who comes from the earth and to the earth returns. Fire and air in the form of breath are present in many ways in the symbolism of the liturgy, but only water, which comes from above and yet belongs to the earth, has become, as the primordial element of life, sacramental matter in the strict sense.
The Church’s tradition discerns a twofold symbolism in water. The salt water of the sea is a symbol of death, a threat and a danger; it reminds us of the
Red Sea, which was deadly to the Egyptians, though the
Israelites were rescued from it. Baptism is a kind of passing through the red
Sea. A death occurs within it. It is more than a bath or washing—it touches the
very depths of existence, as far as death itself. It is a crucifying communion
with Christ. This is precisely what is signified by the Red Sea, which is an image of death and resurrection.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 221-2
Reflection – Tomorrow Ratzinger will continue with the second symbolism of water as symbol of life. Here we look at water as death, and hence as a sacramental element, a sign of the giving of the Spirit.
Uh… wait a minute. Isn’t the Spirit the giver of life? Isn’t that what we pray in the Creed every Sunday, believing in the Holy Spirit, ‘the Lord, the Giver of Life’? How is it that the death-dealing properties of water are taken up into the sacramental meaning of baptism?
It is easy and tempting to give the obvious answer about Jesus’ death on the Cross and our entry into that death. Of course that is the correct answer; the trouble is that the words have become so shop worn with use, so familiar to us, that they pass over the surface of our mind too quickly and we move on to other things. WediewithChristorisewithhimsowhat’sforbreakfast.
We need to stop and ponder this a bit more deeply. Water is a symbol of death, and so it is a symbol of the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit gives life, but this life comes to us in the form of a death. We need to take hold of this, we modern Christians. There is so very much ‘prosperity Gospel’ Christianity afoot in the land and in our churches. It is not just Joel Osteen and the mega-churches of the American South. The whole idea that Christianity is all about ‘being your best self’, that it is some kind of program of self-improvement, self-actualization, self-perfection, that God’s grace is some sort of spiritual beauty treatment (Extreme Makeover: Salvation Edition!)—all of this is so superficial, so inadequate in light of the life and death, death and life dynamics at play here.
God does make our life better, but first He kills us. We are drowned in the
Red Sea so as to pass through to the other side, a
wholly new person. It is not about becoming ‘my best self’ – it is about
becoming an entirely new creation, according to God’s good pleasure and design.
While this is precisely, essentially, and really what happened when I was baptized at ten days old (I remember it like it was yesterday…), it is also the whole dynamic of Christian life in this world. And we need to know this. Life in Christ is not some kind of triumphal march from strength to strength, a clear and steady upward journey towards my becoming more and more the person I desire to be.
Or rather, it is that… but to my eyes, my emotions, my senses, my deep inward spiritual sense, it seems like a plunge into the abyss of darkness and death, a constant going down into the waters, a constant drowning and resurfacing, drowning and resurfacing, until the final passage where I see Him face to face. And if we don't know that this is how it is supposed to be, that this is what baptism initiated us into, if we think it is all supposed to be and look like 'glory, glory, hallelujah!', we will get very discouraged.
It is not about becoming ‘my best self.’ It is about becoming His best self in me, and the price of that is total on my part, as it was total on His part. Baptism, the simple homely ceremony of dunking a baby in a basin of water with a few sacred words, communicates the heights and depths, the terrible anguish and the sublime hope of the whole Christian life, and we need to ponder that if we are persevere in following Him.