1st Sunday of Lent, I Peter 3:18-22
[The Flood] prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
During the season of Lent the Church militant joins with those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil in contemplating the mystery of the sacrament of baptism. Lent is a time for a renewal of our baptismal vows and a rekindling of the grace that was given us in the sacrament.
Thus, we must consider what it is that happened in our own baptism. To this end, the Church gives us to read from the First Letter of St. Peter, in which the waters of baptism are compared to the waters of the flood. Further, the Vicar of Christ speaks of the bodily washing effected through water, and the spiritual washing brought about through baptism.
The sign-value of sacraments
A sacrament is commonly defined as “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” What is particularly note-worthy is that sacraments are signs. The Fathers of the Church as well as the great medieval Doctors describe sacraments as “symbols”, “mystical signs”, and “sacred signs”.
But sacraments are not mere symbols or signs, for they effect the grace they signify. Sacraments are causes, they transmit grace to the soul. And how does it happen that they bestow grace?
“Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify.” (CCC 1127) They bestow that grace of which they are an outward sign. Hence, a sacrament gives grace precisely because it is a sign and symbol (though, not a mere symbol) of grace.
Thus, because bread feeds, the Eucharist gives spiritual nourishment. Because bread remains a long time without corrupting (as opposed to meat, for example), Christ’s substantial presence persists in the Eucharist even after the celebration of Mass has concluded. Because the laying on of hands is a sign of election, the sacrament Holy Order makes a man to be a priest. Because perfumed oil anoints a man a king, Confirmation seals a man in Christ. And so forth.
If sacraments did not signify some grace, they could not confer that grace. If sacraments were not symbols, then neither would they be something more than symbols.
Baptism: Rebirth and washing
Baptism has (at least) a two-fold signification, which is also presented by St. Peter in the Scripture quote which began our meditation: Death and rebirth, and washing.
The ancient practice of submersion into the waters was a sign of death and burial in Christ, while the coming forth from the waters was a sign of rising to new life. Even today, this is partially maintained in the practice of pouring water over the head – though, for validity, such is not strictly required.
This ancient practice of submersion respects the very meaning of the word “baptism” which is “immerse” or “plunge”, i.e. into water.
We will focus, however, on the aspect of washing: Because water cleanses the body, baptism washes the soul of original and actual sin (if there be any actual sin).
Only water can be used for baptism
The Church defines that only natural water can be used for the sacrament of baptism.
The Council of Trent teaches: “If any one saith, that true and natural water is not of necessity for baptism, and, on that account, wrests, to some sort of metaphor, those words of our Lord Jesus Christ; Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost; let him be anathema.” (Session VII, Canon 2 on Baptism)
Now, pure water is the proper mater of the sacrament, however (for some just reason) other water may be used as well. Thus, it is possible, that salt-water be used, for it is still water. Likewise, water in which meat or some other substance has been boiled, so long as it is still water. Indeed, it was the practice of the Church (and still is, in the Extraordinary Form) to mix sacred Chrism with the water of baptism.
However, if such a change occur as to effect the very nature of the water, such that it be no longer water at all, then such a substance cannot be used for baptism. Thus, coffee, or beer, or wine, or other such liquids – as also mud or oatmeal, etc. – cannot be used for baptism. The sacrament is not simply illicit, but invalid.
Still, there are certain cases of doubt, as when wine is so diluted as to no longer really be diluted wine but only spoilt water. Similarly with coffee and beer. Further, in the case of dirty water which is still truly water and not mud, there is real doubt such that the sacrament may be administered with this substance in an emergency when no other water is available.
Why only water?
I do not here intend to state that there is only one reason why water may be used in baptism, but rather to give one reason why only water may be used. Thus, there are surely many other reasons besides.
Only water is used in baptism because water washes and this washing confers the grace of the spiritual cleansing (from all sin, original and actual) which it signifies.
Coffee and beer, as well as mud and wine, do not wash; rather, they stain. Hence, such substances cannot possibly be used in baptism. Because a sacrament is nothing if not a sign and symbol (though, indeed, as a symbol it becomes more than a mere symbol), if a substance does not wash, then it cannot be used for baptism. Therefore, it is clear that the Church has no power to change her practice: Wine and mud and beer and coffee, and the rest, cannot ever be valid matter for the sacrament of baptism.
On the other hand, dirty water (e.g. water mixed with some small amount of wine or dirt or beer) may be used in case of emergency, because dirty water is still essentially water. Water cleans, and even dirty water is water; therefore, the washing of the body with dirty water in baptism still confers the spiritual cleansing of sin.
Indeed, it is not strictly necessary that any significant bodily washing be effected through the water used in baptism, it is the sacramental symbolism and signification which is necessary. Therefore, if even a bit of water is used, or if only a small amount of even dirty water is uses, this is a sufficient sign and symbol to confer the cleansing grace of baptism.
On the other hand, there are many other liquids besides water which wash, and yet these cannot be used in baptism. There are many reasons for this, but our point here is not to give all the reasons why only water can be used, but to give one reason why the Church must use water.
Allow the words of our Savior to suffice: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:5) By which words, the Lord conveyed to us that water alone is the proper matter of the sacrament of baptism.
The “washing” of baptism
Finally, we point out that – while the Church does recognize the validity of baptism by sprinkling – for the sacrament to be administered validly, the water must “wash” the body by running across it. That is to say, it is not sufficient that a drop of water simply fall upon the head (or other bodily member) and remain stationary.
Hence, St. Thomas Aquinas is right to point out that the matter of baptism is not merely water, but the ablution of the body with water. Thus he agrees with Peter Lombard stating, “Baptism is the outward washing of the body done together with the prescribed form of words.” (ST III, q.66, a.1; cf. Sentences IV, 3)
There is some danger in baptism by sprinkling, for fear that the water sprinkled by simply rest upon the body rather than run as an ablution across the skin. It is for this reason that the Latin Church does not permit (as a matter of liceity) baptism through sprinkling. (CIC 854: “Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring.”)
Here we see just how important the sacramental sign is! It is not only necessary to use water, but to wash with that water; else the validity of the sacrament is compromised.
This outward sign of bodily washing is not a removal of dirt from the body (as St. Peter says, meaning it is not a mere cleansing from dirt), but confers an invisible grace which is the spiritual washing for a clear conscience through the absolution of sin by the power of our Savior’s death and resurrection.