Waters of Creation, Mother of the World

From Sermon Preached at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London on Pentecost (1629)

We read in Genesis 1:2 that the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters…  The office and work of the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is to comfort, gather, establish, illumine, and govern the church which the God the Son has purchased by his blood…. The water of baptism is the water that runs through all the Church Fathers; all the Fathers who either dove or dipped in these waters, so to speak, make these first waters, in the creation, the figure of baptism. Tertullian makes the water, “the first seat of the Holy Spirit,” the progression and the settled house, the voyage, and the harbor, the circumference, and the center of the Holy Spirit. Jerome calls these waters of creation, the mother of the world, and this, he says, is a figure of baptism.  These waters brought forth the whole world, as a mother is delivered of her child. The divine Basil said, “The Spirit of God moved upon the waters in the Creation because he meant to do so after, in the regeneration of man.

Therefore, until the Holy Spirit has moved upon our children in baptism, let us not think all has been done that is good for those children. And when the Holy Sprit has moved upon those waters, so also in baptism, let us not doubt his power and effect upon all those children… We know no means by which those waters could have produce a minnow or a shrimp unless the Spirit of God had moved upon them, but by this motion of the Spirit of God, we know they produce whales and Leviathans. We know of no ordinary means of any saving grace, but baptism. And we should not doubt the fullness of salvation to those who have received it…

In baptism, we are sunk under water and then raised above the water again.  Immersion was the manner of baptizing in the early church; only in recent years have we taken up sprinkling… It is our corrupt affections and our inordinate love of the world which need to be drowned… then a love of peace, a holy assurance, and an acquiescence to God in this ordinance lifts us up.

John Donne (1572-1631) was an English cleric, poet, and scholar, acclaimed as one of the finest preachers of his day. He is widely considered the preeminent metaphysical poet, prized for his inventiveness in the use of metaphor and his dramatic, vigorous style. He was ordained after a political and military career, serving as chaplain at Lincoln’s Inn, and for the last ten years of his life, as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne is commemorated on the liturgical calendar of several Anglican churches on March 31. This text has been adapted for contemporary readers.


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