The Significance of Holy Water
by Fr. William P. Saunders
A Protestant friend came with me to Mass last Sunday and asked about the holy water fonts and why we make the sign of the cross with it when we enter and leave the Church. What answer would you give to her?
Traditionally, we have placed fonts of holy water near the entrances of our Churches. This placement and usage corresponds actually to Old Testament Jewish practices of purification: The Book of Leviticus prescribed various ritual purifications using water to remove the "uncleanness" associated, for instance, with coming into contact with a dead body, menstruation, childbirth, or leprosy (cf. Lv 12-15). A person also purified himself with water before entering the Temple precincts, offering prayer and sacrifice, and eating. For this reason, in the Courtyard of the Priests (the area before the actual Temple building) was the Laver, an immense bronze basin filled with water. Here the priests purified their hands and feet before offering sacrifices at the nearby altar, bathed before entering the Temple itself, and also drew water for other purifications prescribed in Jewish rituals. Interestingly, the Qumran community, located near the Dead Sea and responsible for producing the Dead Sea scrolls, also had purification pools for the cleansing not only of external "uncleanness" but also of sin.
We too have fonts filled with holy water for blessings for three reasons: as a sign of repentance of sin, for protection from evil, and as a reminder of our Baptism. The repentance of sin symbolized in the washing with water is reflected in Psalm 50: "Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. Cleanse me of sin with hyssop that I may be purified; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (3-4, 9). (Hyssop is a small bush used for sprinkling water). Remember too how St. John the Baptizer called all to conversion and used a ritual washing of water to signify the repentance of sin and purification.
These actions have been incorporated into our own Mass. In the Penitential Rite, one of the options is the Asperges, which includes the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling with holy water. As the priest passes through the congregation sprinkling them with the holy water, they customarily chant the Asperges Me, which is based on Psalm 50. In all, each person again makes an act of repentance of sin.
Second, the holy water protects us against evil. In the prayer of blessing of water in the Sacramentary, we read: "Lord, God Almighty, creator of all life, of body and soul, we ask you to bless this water: as we use it in faith forgive our sins and save us from all illness and the power of evil. Lord, in your mercy give us living water, always springing up as a fountain of salvation; free us, body and soul, from every danger, and admit us to your presence in purity of heart."
Finally, holy water reminds us of our Baptism, when by the invocation of the Holy Trinity and the pouring of holy water, we were set free from original sin and all sin, infused with sanctifying grace, incorporated into the Church, and given the title Son or Daughter of God. In making the sign of the cross with the holy water, we are mindful that we are called to renew those baptismal promises of rejecting Satan, all His works, and all his empty promises, and to profess our credal faith. Once again, we repent of sin, so that we can offer our prayers and worship to God with pure and contrite hearts. Just as water and blood flowed from the Sacred Heart of our Lord as He hung upon the cross — signifying the great sacraments of baptism and holy Eucharist, the taking of holy water and making the sign of the cross remind us of our baptism in preparation for the reception of the holy Eucharist.
Never should we doubt the power of this great sacramental. St. Teresa of Avila in her autobiography wrote of the power of holy water: "I was once in an oratory, and [the devil] appeared to me in an abominable form at my left side. Because he spoke to me, I looked particularly at his mouth — which was most frightening. It seemed that a great flame, all bright without shadow, came forth from his body. He told me in a terrifying way that I had really freed myself from his hands but that he would catch me with them again. I was struck with great fear and blessed myself as best I could; he disappeared, but returned right away. This happened to me twice. I didn’t know what to do. There was some holy water there, and I threw it in that direction; he never returned again. ... I often experience that there is nothing the devils flee from more — without returning — than holy water" (Chapter 31). Upon the testimony of such a great saint, we see the importance not only of pausing to bless ourselves with holy water as we enter and leave Church but also of having holy water available in our homes.
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'Straight Answers' reproduced with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald
. Copyright © 1993-2004 Fr. William P. Saunders. All rights reserved.