Baptized with Psalm 42

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In some regions, early in the history of Christianity, candidates chanted Psalm 42 while proceeding to the baptistery for baptism. The practice was based on the psalm’s initial image, the iconography of deer coming to drink at flowing streams. The idea, of course, is to connect the desire of the candidates to drink from, even more to “bathe in,” the water of life.

In his commentary on psalm 42, Augustine says that surely the psalm urges every believer to run like a deer to the fountain of understanding. But he went on to describe how the psalm has special meaning for those being baptized. As a person walks to a baptism font, they chanted this text “to express their longing for the fountain that remits sins in the same way that the deer longs for springs of water.” That is the reason, Augustine says, “we traditionally sing this psalm, to arouse in them a longing for the fountain of forgiveness of their sins, like the deer longs for the springs of water.”

The Gelasian Sacramentary, written between the sixth and the eighth centuries, instructs that candidates to sing Psalm 42 on their way to the font during the Easter vigil. It adds this prayer:

Almighty and ever-living God, look with favor on the devotion of your people at their second birth, who are like the deer drawn to the fountain of water, grant that in baptism their thirst for faith my sanctify their souls and bodies.

Adapted from Robin M. Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 212.

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