The life aquatic

Image: Stefan Kellner.

Christianity is a waterlogged religion. Baptism is often mistaken for a single moment in the Christian life: an initiation, or a public declaration of faith. But, as Norman Nagel expands on in his rather freewheeling essay Lured from the Water, the Little Fish Perish (PDF), the whole Christian life is lived in the waters of baptism.

Prof Nagel quotes Tertullian:

We are born in water as little fish in the way of our fish Jesus Christ.

Tertullian was writing against the Gnostics, who sought to separate the work of the Spirit from the “lowly earthly, physical, carnal, specific water.” But we are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), and “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). As Prof Nagel continues:

where there is no water, the little fish perish. Apart from the water where Christ is, waterless death. “Nunquam sine aqua Christus” [Christ is never without water].

Tertullian “has a whale of a time finding any water in Scripture that can then be used to extol what the water of holy baptism does and gives” – a tradition continued in Martin Luther’s Sintflutgebet, the Flood Prayer, which is steeped in imagery from both Scripture and church tradition:

Almighty, eternal God, in your strict judgment you damned the unbelieving world with the flood. By your great mercy you preserved faithful Noah and seven with him. You drowned hardened Pharaoh and all his men in the Red Sea. Through it you led your people Israel with dry feet. In this way you signalled ahead with this bath your holy baptism. By the baptism of your dear child, our Lord Jesus Christ, you hallowed and set forth the Jordan and water everywhere to be a blessed flood and boundless washing away of our sins.

For the sake of that unfathomable mercy of yours, we implore that you would graciously look upon this N. and grant salvation with true faith by the Holy Spirit. Thus through this saving flood drown and put an end to all this as born in him from Adam, and all that he himself has added to that. Separate him from the number of the unbelievers, and preserve him dry and safe in the ark of your holy church. Keep him always fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, serving your Name, so that with all the believers he may come to eternal life according to your promise, made worthy through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

As Prof Nagel observes:

One can hardly imagine a baptismal prayer heavier with water than the Flood Prayer.

A version of this water-sodden prayer subsequently made it into the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. However, its rich imagery has often proved too much for subsequent generations:

There is so much in the Flood Prayer. Some of it is devastatingly hard to take; no wonder it has been clipped about. There is so much water that a congregation fed mostly on what Chemnitz calls “pleasantries” would almost certainly blow bubbles.

Thus later editions of the Book of Prayer, while retaining a form of the prayer, lose much of its more vigorous imagery, such as “wycked kyng Pharao with al his armie” and the “holesome laver of regeneration”.

Within Lutheranism, too, the prayer has had a mixed history. The church of the Enlightenment era regarded it as an embarrassment, and it is even omitted in 1982’s Lutheran Worship. It is restored, though, in the Lutheran Service Book, published in 2006.

“Where there is no water, the little fish perish”, and so the whole Christian life is a baptised life, begun, lived and consummated in water:

[W]hen the watery liturgy of the baptized is over, it is not over, for there flow the waters of life, the Lord’s river and fountain of the water of life flowing, enlivening us through all our days to his consummation. Now it is day by day. “In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “The Old Adam in us be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and a new man daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” And so on to the New Jerusalem with its river of the water of life.

In short, the Christian life can be summarised in a single, loosely metred couplet:

Your sins too are washed away. Clothed in Christ you go on wetly garmented all the way.

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