Blessing the baptismal water

With the candidate(s), sponsors, and congregation prepared for the Rite of Baptism, one thing remains: the water.  Although a significant step away from the many medieval traditions that came to surround baptism, the Prayer Book tradition has retained a single prayer to sanctify the water in the baptismal font.  This is not superstition, but entirely wholesome.  For one, it matches the liturgy of the other Sacrament ordained by Christ – Holy Communion – in its acknowledgment of preparing earthly materials for the grace-giving work of the Holy Spirit.  From another angle, biblical witness attests many examples of Prophets and Priests blessing physical things before the working of a miracle, or the regular service of the Tabernacle or Temple.

from an historical perspective

The text of the prayer was stable from the 1550’s into the early American Prayer Books.  It began to undergo edits the 20th century: the American Prayer Book of 1928 added the Sursum Corda to the beginning of it, giving it a context more closely resembling the Great Thanksgiving and Prayers of Consecration in the Communion service.  The word “elect” was also removed in that book.  The Canadian Prayer Book of 1962 also took up the Great Thanksgiving format but retained the language of “thy faithful and elect children.”  Both of those Prayer Books also add a trinitarian ending to the prayer, again mirroring the end of the Prayers of Consecration.

The prayer, as put forth in the present Prayer Book, is rather different.  The first paragraph focuses on “the gift of the water” where the original prayers begin with the death and commandment of Christ.  Appeals to the waters at Creation, the Red Sea, and the River Jordan are made, introducing biblical references previous versions of the prayer have never utilized.  However, the latter two images were in the old versions of the Flood Prayer (see above), thus this paragraph represents a re-arrangement of traditional material rather than an entirely new rite.  In the logic of this baptismal Rite, the Flood Prayer is narrowed in on the saving efficacy of the waters of Baptism, and the Thanksgiving over the Water then turns to the water itself.

The second paragraph follows the general outline of the biblical history of water with a treatment of baptismal water itself.  Although the wording is drastically re-worked, the main points of this paragraph link back to the traditional Blessing, namely that through the water “we are made regenerate”, baptizing people according to Christ’s command, to the end that their fellowship with us (and Christ) may continue forever. The final paragraph begins with the celebrant touching the water in some fashion, again matching the Communion liturgy which also requires the celebrant to touch the bread (or patens) and the cup (or flagons).  The blessing, “Sanctify this water”, is the heart of this Thanksgiving prayer, and the two desired effects named in the desired prayer (“to the mystical washing away of sin” and “to receive the fulness of thy grace, and ever remain…”) are both retained here.  Between them is added a third desired effect: “be born again,” which is the typical modern Bible translation for the classical term “regenerate” which has already appeared in the previous paragraph.  A doxology, in line with the form in the 1928 and 1962 Prayer Books, concludes this portion of the rite.

from a devotional perspective

With the preparatory prayers complete, the minister, candidate(s), and sponsors move to the baptismal font.  Traditional church architecture places the font in the nave or the narthex – near the entrance to the worship space, so in large buildings this could be a procession from the altar of some distance and ceremony, hence the option for a psalm, anthem, or hymn.  Liturgical planners and music ministers should take care to vet any sung lyrics for its doctrinal content, that it be consonant with Anglican doctrine as expressed in the Articles of Religion and the Prayer Book liturgy.

There, the minister begins the Great Thanksgiving.  The fact that it the text is identical to the Sursum Corda in the Communion service enables the congregation to participate easily without having to learn new responses.  It also highlights the sacramental nature of Holy Baptism, which is something that many evangelicals who are new to Anglicanism can have trouble understanding early on.  It also brings out the posture of thanksgiving and preparation inherent in the more traditional forms of this liturgy.

Perhaps one of the most striking challenges to understanding the sacramental nature of Baptism, for those coming from traditions who only consider it symbolically (after the baptism of infants, which has already been addressed in the liturgy), is the blessing of water.  Thus, the traditional prayer of thanksgiving and blessing has been expanded in the present form, and broken up into three paragraphs to make it easier to follow the words and logic.

The first paragraph focuses on biblical roles that God has given to water: the place of creation, the salvation of Israel from Egyptian bondage and entrance to the promised land, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Baptism of Jesus.  More could be said (see the Flood Prayer, for example) but these three images provide the worshiper with key foundations that will enrich comprehension of Holy Baptism.

The second paragraph subtly applies the biblical examples to Baptism itself.  The Exodus story presages death and resurrection in Christ (fulfilled citing Romans 6:4).  The presence of the Holy Spirit in creation and the Baptism of Jesus presage the gift of regeneration (cf. Titus 3:5).  With these benefits in mind, the celebrant naturally leads the congregation to “joyful obedience” to Jesus in bringing people to this Sacrament.

The third paragraph, finally, contains the blessing of the water itself – again calling upon the power of the Holy Spirit.  Three benefits, or results, are named that the worshipers expect from Holy Baptism: cleansing from sin, being born again, and continuing forever faithful in the risen life of Christ.  The first two are gifts provided instrumentally through Baptism.  The candidate is truly about to be washed from all sin actual and original, and truly about to be re-born; these gifts may be abandoned, but they cannot be taken away.  To persevere in the life of Christ forever is also a gift of God, but that grace is only begun in Baptism, not infallibly assured.  Nevertheless, this great beginning is a time of celebration, and so to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we accord all honor and glory.

The Blessing at Communion

The last part of the Communion service in the classical prayer books is the Blessing.  Specifically, this one (albeit with the 2019 wording)…

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always.  Amen.

Once this blessing is pronounced, people can get up and go.

Except, in the modern order, we now have an extra Dismissal that follows, and usually music as well.  But until the 1970’s (or perhaps the arrival of something like the Anglican Missal?) the Blessing marked the end of the liturgy.

I have heard it argued that the priest offering a Blessing at this point is redundant – what greater blessing could be conferred than receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord?  But there are a couple different answers.

First of all, ending a worship service with a blessing is biblical.  It is the Old Testament pattern – even though the sacrifice of animals and their oblation in the Temple and the eating of the meat was the “high point” of the Old Covenant liturgy, the priest was still to bless the people after.  It is the New Testament pattern too, in a way: St. Paul ended each of his epistles with a blessing of some sort.  It is a little ironic, though, that the blessing we use is not explicitly used as a blessing by St. Paul (cf. Philippians 4:7 – it was actually the Epistle reading a couple Sundays ago).

Secondly, the specific content of this blessing is appropriate.  In a general sense, the argument against a blessing after receiving Holy Communion does sound logical, but this objection is undermined by what this blessing calls for: that the people would be kept in the knowledge and love of God.  It is a blessing of perseverance – may the people, who have just celebrated their unity with and in Christ, always remain so.

Third, and finally, it is analogous to the Prayer of Humble Access.  If you reduce the meaning of this blessing to some sort of generic blessing, then yeah it’s lame.  Same deal with the Prayer of Humble Access: if you reduce the meaning of that prayer to some sort of generic confession, then it’s redundant and silly too.  But both of these prayers, although bearing similarities to other prayers and “functions” within the service, bring new and different lights to the table (or, from the Table in this instance).

Now, all that having been said… the 2019 Prayer Book states that

The Bishop, when present, or the Priest, gives this or an alternative blessing

But what is an “alternative blessing”?  None is supplied.  In the classical prayer books this choice didn’t exist: that blessing was the blessing.  But there is another blessing in the old prayer book tradition – the Burial Office ends with a different blessing, also found at the end of the Committal in the 2019 Prayer Book:

The God of peace, who brought again the from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight…

Notice in both blessings that these are not (strictly-speaking) prayers.  “May God ___” is a prayer, but these are more like statements (or perhaps subjunctive verbs, if I remember my grammar correctly): “God… make you perfect” and “the peace of God… keep your hearts and minds.”  Blessings are “speech-acts”, like when a minister declares a man and a woman husband and wife, or baptizes somebody.  However sacerdotal you may or may not choose to view these “sacramental rites”, the reality is that these are special acts of the Church through her ordained ministers.  Pentecostalism, especially in its Prosperity Gospel extreme versions, has yielded an unhealthy practice that is creeping into evangelicalism: “declarations” in the name of Jesus for one or another sort of blessing.  This practice is essentially usurping the special role of the ordained clergy, popularizing it for all Christians, and reducing its gravity and import often to crass hopes and dreams for health and wealth.  Be very careful what you do, or permit, along these lines in your ministry context.

One last note about the option for different blessings at the end of the Communion service.  I strongly suspect that the main reason the 2019 rubric permits an “alternative blessing” is to authorize the Seasonal Blessings that have been provided in supplemental books such as Book of Occasional Services and Common Prayer (2000).  If you are so inclined, you can peruse those materials for a variety of blessings – probably finding a unique one for every Sunday of the year.  Although modern liturgy trends seem to prefer such variety, classic Prayer Book wisdom does not support this, so I would advise priests not to deviate from the standard Prayer Book blessing very often.  Maybe grab a “solemn blessing” for Christmas Day and Easter Day; maybe use another blessing from the Bible or pre-existing tradition on other special and rare occasions; otherwise, be sure to use the standard historic blessing virtually all year.

If it’s always changing, it’ll never stick in the people’s minds, and go in one ear and out the other.  And, given the fact that the standard blessing is for our hearts and minds to kept, that would be sadly ironic indeed.