An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


Water is a major element in religious rituals. It is a natural symbol of birth, fertility, life, and cleansing. To emerge from the waters is to be clean and fresh and new. To wash the body, or even the hands, is symbolically to become clean in an interior sense. Ritually, water is a symbol of purity and washing is a symbol of purifying. Ritual immersion renews life and power. It is a reappropriation of the energy of the first creation so that what is immersed is made new. Water is necessary to all animal and vegetable life. It is a part of their physical being. It is also part of the structure of many minerals. Water is characterized by fluidity, formlessness, and an almost endless ability to adapt itself to shapes and temperatures. Genesis describes the formless waste at the beginning of creation as “the waters” (Gn 1:2). Everything is born out of the primeval waters of chaos. The earth itself takes form when it emerges from the waters.

The principal use of water in Christian worship is to immerse the candidate in baptism. It is a sign not only of cleansing but of ritual death and rebirth in Jesus Christ. Water is the sacramental matter of baptism. The use of “holy water” for blessing, or for signing oneself with the cross, is intended to renew baptism and the baptismal covenant in the believer. Water is also mixed with wine in the chalice at the eucharist, recalling the general custom in the ancient world of mixing water with wine before drinking it. It was given a symbolic interpretation during the Monophysite controversy. The mixture of water and wine was seen as symbolic of the union of humanity and deity in the person of Christ. The monophysites refused to add water, symbolizing their belief in one nature of the Incarnate Word. See Matter (Sacramental).

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.