Liturgical images and movements that speak to experience

Water Rituals

Water holds a powerful place in the human imagination.  Source of life’s beginnings, without it life could not be sustained; yet, out of proportion or fouled by some evil agent, it can disrupt life’s delicate balance or diminish it altogether.  It refreshes and soothes; it can also burn.  It cleanses and restores; it dissolves and washes away.  It can ease our travel, or block our way.  Here it provides a sure boundary; there it erodes what we once knew and that on which we once relied; so familiar, streaming from our tap; foreboding mystery, in turbulent swells and unfathomed depths.  When we use water symbolically, we draw from this reservoir of human experience. 

In their grappling with these paradoxical extremes, people of faith have seen God’s hand and discovered meaning, identity and direction for their lives.  The stories of our biblical heritage give an account.  Through the primeval waters of chaos came creation’s order.  Rain fell from heaven to water the earth, then to cleanse it; through the flood of destruction Noah and family were delivered from death, creation was restored, and a relationship with God was reestablished.  In the exodus experience water was the setting for passage––a path of death and an instrument of liberation. 

For the early church, these images took on added meaning when they were associated with the experience of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Musing about life-giving waters flowing directly from the pierced side of the temple that was his body, his followers saw themselves as entering a watery grave with him only to be raised from its depths, in him reborn.  Water was the instrument of their repentance and the passage liberating them from sin and death.  The psalmist’s still waters and sustaining springs that symbolized God’s faithfulness and care were forever afterward understood as Christ’s abiding presence, living water welling up within them.

The liturgical texts of the Christian community draw on these images and themes, particularly in the ritual blessing of water prior to its sacramental use.  Tying us to the stories that ground our faith, these words and actions unite us to those who have gone before us with the same questions that we face on life’s journey and who have celebrated the same revelatory insights in which we place our hope.

Some of our water rituals have lost their powerful sign value.  How did we come to trickle water over a baby’s forehead, and see it as an experience of baptism’s dynamic association with the paschal mystery?  The baptisteries of the oldest churches still standing emphasize this connection with fonts shaped like open graves or in the form of a cross, but over the centuries the Church subscribed to a minimalism that stripped spirituality of its physicality.  While today’s liturgical guidelines maintain that full immersion is the more effective sign of our dying and rising with Christ, the Church still preserves rituals which only minimally express the central mysteries of our faith.  The practice of sprinkling the gathered assembly with holy water as part of a penitential rite is one example.  Bad enough we assume that feeling a drop or two can capture the fullness of what the ritual implies, but I have known many presiders who act as if a few droplets cast in one’s general direction satisfies the ritual’s intent.  Yes, the waters cleanse us from sin, but this isn’t achieved by a magical gesture; the ritual’s connections to the Christ-story moving us to communion and conversion––that’s the instrument of grace.  Connecting with Christ should fill us with awe, for this relationship entails a serious and on-going attempt to carry on his mission of justice and love.  The rituals we use to reestablish and celebrate that commitment should be suitably awe inspiring.  To this end the experience must be physical as well as spiritual.


Ideally this ritual would invite the participants to the community’s baptismal font.  If its location is not conducive to the processional nature of the action, a dramatic and visible transfer of water from the font to a substantial bowl located before the assembly is appropriate.  Alternately, fresh water may be blessed by the priest-presider using the traditional liturgical texts of the Church; in the absence of a priest, a lay presider can lead the assembly in a blessing of water with these or similar words:

God of all creation,
we stand before this water, the work of your hands,
and are reminded of our origins and the many ways
you sustain the fragile gift of life.
Gift us again, O Lord,
that through its use we may tap into your grace
and recommit ourselves to our covenant with you and your people.

The presider then invites the people forward with these or similar words:

Dear friends, in our baptism
we rejected Satan and any participation in evil,
and promised to serve God faithfully in God’s Church.
Through grace we came to share in Christ’s perfect sacrifice
and the fullness of his resurrection joy.
As a sign of our recommitment
to join in his mission of charity, justice and peace,
let us come forward and immerse our hands, our hearts, our lives,
into these blessed waters of death and rebirth.

During the ritual, all sing a song which is baptismal in character;
the Leader then says:

United with Christ in his death and resurrection,
may almighty God cleanse us of our sins
and, in fellowship with the Holy Spirit,
enable our thanks and praise.

The People respond with the GLORIA.


Water is truly a fluid symbol.  Don’t be surprised when the people’s emotional connections to its ritual use reflect the full breadth of human experience.  For some it is a solemn and sobering act, as they reach into its depths as if willing to embrace death as Christ did.  Others will take to heart the conscious recommitment involved in renewing the promises of one’s baptism.  If at a point in their lives when they really need to be refreshed in mind, body and spirit, some may draw the water up to their faces to feel the full benefit of its soothing touch.  Couples may approach the water and tenderly share the experience with one another, opening the symbol’s communal relevance.  Playful associations may even surface; nothing washes away the cares of a long day like splashing around––even getting somebody else wet!  It is important for anyone presiding over such rituals not to be scandalized because individuals aren’t responding as we would like them to.  Even an uncritical, automatic gesture of blessing has value, for the purpose of the ritual is to connect with the Source of Blessing and let the Spirit do her work.

The fact that the participants in the above ritual walk away wet is an effective symbol in itself, as they carry the sign of God’s abiding presence with them.  If, however, the presider is flanked by two towel ministers, new associations arise as in the following adaptation.


At table in memory of Jesus, Christians celebrate that he is truly present in the midst of their worshiping community by performing a symbolic action that ritualizes the fact that his life was blessed, broken and given up for us.  In this eucharistic celebration not only is our communion with him realized physically and spiritually; we are also joined with him in mission, acknowledging that he continues to reconcile the world unto himself through our discipleship.  This liturgical action handed down through the ages through the letters of Paul and the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, and preserved in the tradition of the Church, was the defining ritual of some of the earliest Christian communities––but not the only ritual.  The communities that gave us the gospel according to John passed on a separate tradition which focused on another image of self-offering to symbolize his paschal mystery and make him present in their midst:  Jesus “rose from the meal and took off his cloak.  He picked up a towel and tied it around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ fee….  ‘You must wash each other’s feet.  What I just did was give you an example:  as I have done, so you must do.’” (Jn 13:4-5; 14-15) 

For some churches this command is considered as binding as “take and eat…take and drink.”  Indeed, the Church of the Brethren refer to footwashing as the “Sacrament of Serving Love,” a ritual indispensably linked to the “Sacrament of Sharing,” viz., the agape love-feast.  The practice is also preserved in the regular worship of certain branches of the Mennonite tradition, the Dunkers, and the Primitive Baptists.  The ritual washing of feet is familiar to mainline denominations as part of Holy Thursday’s liturgy, when once a year this scene is reenacted to acknowledge the special vocation of our ordained ministers and to renew the laity’s commitment to humble service and selfless giving.

For those who are familiar with the Holy Thursday liturgy, even a ritual handwashing which includes the service of towel ministers will carry us back to that holy night.  The physical touch involved in the act of drying, if done gently and purposefully, amplifies the connections between members of the community and reinforces their responsibilities one for another.  If the liturgical intent is to focus on these themes, select songs to accompany the action that speak of discipleship and the commandment to love.  Along this theme, the ritual could involve the presider pouring water over the hands of each person, saying, “Do this in memory of me.”


In trying to come up with engaging rituals which could remedy our experience of sensory deprivation in Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, I thought of Andrew Rublev’s 16th-century Russian Orthodox icon of the Holy Trinity and the whole liturgical tradition of venerating icons.  This particular image chronicles the hospitality Abraham and Sarah offered to three sojourners who appeared to them by the oak of Mambre (Genesis 18), understood by the tradition as the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.  The image seems to invite us into their communion. 

An icon is a liturgical aide which can help us to focus our attention during prayer.  Traditionally, these images are regarded as windows on heaven, where past heroes and heroines of faith and service now share fully and perfectly in the relationship with God that we long to develop.  But, more than pictures of the glory that awaits us, icons create a sacred space where the saints of heaven and we saints of earth gather together in the presence of God Most High.  By focusing on this touch-point between the human and the divine, we come to experience the kingdom of heaven as here and now, wherever and whenever we connect with others.  In the Eastern Churches these images are venerated with a kiss, similar to the western practice of venerating the cross on Good Friday.  It seemed like a perfect candidate for use by our community––perfect, that is, until I bounced the idea off our liturgy committee.  One of its members, a man born blind, said that the concept sounded interesting but that it held no meaning for him.  While the ritual was a wonderful opportunity to tap into an ancient tradition that could potentially speak to everyone else, we scrapped the idea of incorporating it into our regular Sunday worship.  We couldn’t institute a ritual that would exclude one of our members on a continuing basis.

If you wish to authentically communicate that all are welcome, try to avoid actions which may exclude.  We’re told that Simon Peter was reluctance to have his feet washed by Jesus.  Not every member of your community will be comfortable with the ritual either.  Its level of intimacy raises issues of modesty and vulnerability.  Real and imagined sanitary concerns may also keep some from participating.  Consider as well the stranger in your midst who is unfamiliar with the tradition, or the newcomer who isn’t ready to jump in with both feet figuratively, let alone literally.  The pace and flow of the ritual movement will affect its reception and effectiveness as well; as the liturgical documents of the Roman Church maintain, good liturgy builds up faith while poor liturgy destroys it. 

Effective liturgy paradoxically makes us both comfortable and uncomfortable––the environment we create and the rituals we plan should make everyone feel welcomed, while the message often causes levels of discomfort and challenge that lead us to conversion and authentic discipleship.  Before planning a ritual, determine your objective.  While it would be worthwhile for each of us to prayerfully consider Jesus’ words, “unless you let me wash you, you will have no part with me,” pastoral sensitivity may dictate adapting the ritual to make it more inclusive. 

With regard to our water ritual, handwashing may be more appropriate than footwashing for some communities, particularly if the intention is to provide an opportunity for everyone to participate in a physical, tangible way.  If, however, your intention is to provide a symbolic gesture executed by representatives of the community with which the worshiping assembly can identify, make sure that those participating truly reflect its diversity.