For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one (Hebrews 2:11).
When we posted an article about holy water and how Orthodox Christians should use it in their everyday lives, we received several comments from our readers asking, “Where does the Holy Scripture say that we should consecrate water?” This article is our attempt to address their question, as well as to explain how water is consecrated and why it is necessary.
Spoiler: The Scripture doesn’t say anything about consecration of water – just like it doesn’t contain unequivocal answers to many other questions. The Scripture is the God’s Word, and not a logbook that records the tiniest details of what happens on board of the Church ship. However, if there’s something not explicitly stated in the Scripture, does it mean that it has nothing to do with church life and must be avoided? The answer is no. Let’s read what Apostle Paul has to say about it, Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. (2 Thess. 2:15). Upon receiving a revelation from Christ, the apostle urges Christians from the city of Thessalonica to stand fast in the faith, and hold the traditions that he taught them, whether by word (orally) or our epistle (i.e., letters of St. Paul, which made it into the biblical canon). Perhaps, if the Corinthians had asked Apostle Paul about the ritual of baptism, rather than speaking in tongues, we might have known more about the apostolic tradition of baptism, and therefore about the consecration of water, and we would have the Scriptures to prove it. It must be noted that the Great Consecration of Waters is basically an element of the universal ritual of Baptism held by early Christians on the day of Theophany.
Water is consecrated by praying to the Holy Spirit to descend onto the water and to sanctify it, as well as through the Life-Giving Cross of our Lord, which is dipped into the font by a priest three times. This ritual reminds us of the ancient Old Testament narrative when the bitter waters of Marah turned sweet and drinkable when Moses immersed a certain kind of wood into them, following a revelation from the Lord. A priest dips his cross into a font or a water reservoir to turn water into a source of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
We don’t know if it was Jesus who ordered the apostles to consecrate water for the Sacrament of Baptism before He ascended to his Father, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). It is also possible that the Church decided to do it at the behest of the Spirit of God who, as promised by the Savior, will guide you into all truth (John 16:13) and teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (John 14:26).
The Lord told Nicodemus, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5). The Church of Christ obediently baptized everyone who came to believe in the Messiah, in accordance with what She was taught by the holy apostles, the Lord’s closest disciples. So why does the Church consecrate water?
The authoritative text of Didache, which describes church life in the age of apostles and their immediate successors and allegedly dates back to the last third of the 1st century, already points out that Christian priests should use “living” (possibly running) water. The earliest mentions of the consecration of water can be found in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, which was the time when some original disciples of the holy apostles might have still been alive. Thus, Hieromartyr Irenaeus of Lyons († 202) writes that the Baptism and purification of one’s sins occurs “thanks to holy water and invocation of the Lord’s Name” (Iren. Fragm. Gr. 33 (32)). Although the water is referred to as holy, it doesn’t actually prove that it was consecrated in any way. The fact that water was consecrated is proven by a statement of the younger contemporary of St. Irenaeus, the famous Tertullian, who wrote that water was invariably consecrated “as soon as God is called upon it” (Tertull. De bapt. 4), especially since the very element of water was made holy after the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan, according to the doctrine of the Orthodox Church.
There are numerous mentions of water consecration that appear in the works of the Holy Fathers in the 4th century. In particularly, Saint Basil the Great claims that consecration of water is an earliest oral tradition of the Church (Basil. Magn. De Spirit. Sanct. 27). The rites of consecration and corresponding prayers are finally put to writing.
To cut the long story short, let us quote several texts from the rite of consecration of water, so that you could enjoy the beauty of church prayer, inspired by biblical images and biblical attitude to the matter, the man, and God.
– That these waters may be sanctified by the power, effectual operation and descent of the Holy Spirit, let us pray to the Lord.
There is no magic in the Church. That is why water is consecrated by a heartfelt invocation of the Holy Spirit, rather than some magic spell.
– That there may descent upon these waters the cleansing operation of the supersubstantional Trinity, let us pray to the Lord.
We pray for the Holy Trinity to cleanse the water because only God who created water can do it.
– That He will illumine us with the light of understanding and of piety, through the descent of the Holy Spirit, let us pray to the Lord.
We ask God to consecrate water not for the sake of it but for the sake of our illumination and reinforcement of our faith.
– That the Lord God will send down the blessing of Jordan and sanctify these waters, let us pray to the Lord.
Jesus Christ sanctified and blessed the waters of the Jordan River by his Baptism. Therefore, we pray for that blessing to pass on to our waters, our water reservoirs, our rivers and streams.
– That it may be for the purification of the souls and bodies of all those who, with faith, shall draw and partake of it, let us pray to the Lord.
Everything depends on faith. Holy water can purify our souls and bodies only if we partake of it with faith and believe in God’s omnipotence and his healing power. Ask, and it shall be given you (Matthew 7:7), and all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive (Matthew 21:22).
These are but a few bits of the treasure of prayer and theology stored in the holy tradition of the Orthodox Church. Even though the Scripture does not contain any direct references to consecration of water, it does not contradict the biblical truth, the biblical Revelation regarding God, the world, and man. On the contrary, this ritual supports that Revelation. That is the Bible made manifest in the Church. That is the Scripture rendered as prayer and worship.