Question: Why is the Pastor throwing water at us at the beginning of the service?
Starting at the Easter Vigil, we have taken up a rite called asperges, in which the pastor and other ministers fling water from the Font into the Assembly. What’s going on here?
The Short Answer: As a way to tangibly remember our Baptism during the Great Fifty Days of Easter.
The Long Answer: Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start):
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. — Genesis 1:1-2
Time and time again, God saves humanity through the water: calling forth life from the deep waters before the foundation of the world; saving Noah and his family through the waters of the flood; delivering Moses (whose name literally means “is drawn out of the water”) safely through the River Nile in a basket made of reeds; parting the waters of the Red Sea at the Exodus that the Hebrews may pass to safety on dry land; sending forth water from the rock in the wilderness after the Exodus; parting the waters of the River Jordan that the Hebrews may pass into the Land of Promise; healing Naaman’s leprosy in the waters of the Jordan. And then again in the New Testament: Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John; Christ walks across the waters; the Lord calms the storm, saving his disciples from drowning. The list could go on and on and on and….
These mighty deeds point us to the Font, those waters in which we are baptized into Christ’s death and joined to our Lord’s glorious Resurrection. In the waters of Baptism, the Spirit of God is poured out upon us just as the Spirit blew over the waters at creation; like Moses, God draws us as adopted children out of the waters; like Noah, we are saved from the chaos of death; like the Hebrews, we are delivered from bondage and ushered into our inheritance.
Baptism is the point of entry for life in the Church, the Sacrament by which we are united into the Body of Christ. As Martin Luther writes in the Small Catechism:
It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.
But Baptism is also something that happens once; the Sacrament can be neither undone nor redone. Whether you were baptized as a newborn or an adult, the Sacrament infuses every aspect of your being. No sin, no amount of time away from the Church, not even out-right heresy can undo the means of God’s grace. There is no need to repeat it; in very fact, Baptism is not something that can be repeated. That one event, even though it may have happened decades ago or just weeks ago, follows you; though it might be in the distant past, its effects are still on-going.
One might wonder, then, how we remember an event that happened decades ago or even when we were infants. The Church has developed a number of practices that root us in our baptismal identity — ways of remembering that are not only mental but physical as well.
The first is to dip your fingers into the water and make the sign of the cross. If you’ve ever visited a Catholic parish, you’ve undoubtedly seen the small fonts at the doorways. The faithful briefly dip their fingers in the water before signing themselves. Within Roman Catholicism, this practice is nearly universal. Likewise, in seminary (both at Candler and Southern), the chapel’s Font is positioned at the main entrance, and many students pause at the Font, touching their fingers to the water before tracing the sign of the cross.
The second practice is known as aspserges, taken from the Latin translation of Psalm 51, which was traditionally chanted during the rite:
Purge [in Latin, asperges; literally: sprinkle] me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. — Psalm 51:7
This rite can be traced back as far as the 800s (though as Psalm 51 suggests, similar practices can be found in the Old Testament; cf. Lev. 14:6-9). As with many liturgical practices, the asperges have changed over time. Originally, splashing holy water was a way to bless items and buildings. Through the obvious connection through water to Baptism, though, the rite became a way of remembering our Baptism; instead of splashing the walls, the ministers started splashing the entire congregation as a form of blessing.
In the 20th century, as liturgists and theologians began to rediscover the connection between Baptism and the Easter Vigil, the rite was linked to the Affirmation of Baptism (in the ELCA, this liturgy is also used to receive new members and as a part of confirmation) and the Thanksgiving for Baptism (which, during certain seasons, may replace the Confession). The emphasis here, again, is a way to tangibly remember our Baptism. Our bodies are part of how we worship: through kneeling, standing, singing, passing the Peace, and consuming the Eucharist. Just so,when we remember our baptism, we do so with our entire bodies; we feel the water splashing against us, a physical way in which the past event is made present here and now.
It’s worth noting that, while the asperges have a relatively late origin, both Eastern Orthodox, and Western Catholic Christians use this rite as a means of blessing. Our Orthodox kindred mark the Epiphany, when we remember the Baptism of our Lord, by sprinkling the congregation with water from the Font. Fun Fact: In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, priests dip large branches into deep fonts before flinging the water. The resulting “sprinkle” is sometimes so dense that it quenches the numerous candles.
So next Sunday, as the water splashes you in the face, remember that in this water God has called you as a beloved child, drawing you forth into the Kingdom of God, united you into the Body of Christ, and poured out the Holy Spirit upon you. Give thanks and remember your Baptism.