Holy Water: A Catholic tradition

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Within the past week or so we have finally welcomed spring. The days are bright with sun, the temperatures are rising and flowers and trees are in bloom. For those of us in Central New York, spring began with an abundance of April showers that continued well into May.

The spring rains reminded me of the dual nature of water. Water can be destructive as it was recently in the flooding of some of our streets and basements. In the world and national news, of the last few months and weeks, we have seen how detrimental water can be as witnessed in the tsunami in Japan and the floods along the Mississippi River.

Water has a prominent place in the life of the Church. The prayer for the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil recalls the significance of water in salvation history from the dawn of creation when the Spirit breathed on the water to the great flood of Noah’s days and later the crossing of the Red Sea to the water and blood flowing from Jesus’ side on the cross. As destructive as water can be, it is also necessary for life, both our natural and supernatural. The prayer of blessing concludes, “By the power of the Holy Spirit give to this water the grace of your Son, so that in the sacrament of baptism all those whom you have created in your likeness may be cleansed from sin and rise to a new birth of innocence by water and the Holy Spirit (Blessing of the Water, Easter Vigil).

In our Catholic tradition holy water, water blessed by a priest at the Easter Vigil and during the vigil of Pentecost, is a sacramental, “a sacred sign which bears a resemblance to the sacraments” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1667). It is used in Baptism; the blessings of persons, places and objects; or as a means of repelling evil.

Holy water is kept in a font which is typically located at the entrance of the church. Its location at the entrance serves as a reminder of the centrality of Baptism as the primary rite of initiation into the Christian faith.  As a reminder of our Baptism we bless ourselves when entering our churches by dipping our fingers in the holy water and making the sign of the cross. The liturgy on Sunday may begin with the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling of Holy Water which also recalls our Baptism. Antiphons sung during the Sprinkling Rite evoke the life-giving nature of water. “Save us, O God, and wash away our sin; . . . . water of life refresh us; . . . renew us in soul and body and give us new life.”

In times past, it was common for Catholic families to keep holy water in their homes.  Sometimes it was near the front door in a simple font and used as one blessed oneself entering or leaving the home. Sometimes it was in simple bottles and was used for family blessings or sprinkled throughout the home to dispel the forces of evil.  I recall that my mother sprinkled our home with holy water every night before she went to bed.

God uses simple and ordinary elements to reveal the great mysteries of our faith.  Water, so necessary for the sustenance and growth of our physical life, becomes through a blessing, holy water that cleanses and refreshes us, bringing us new life in Christ. Holy water is a vivid reminder of the fruit of our Baptism.  Baptismal grace is a rich reality that includes the forgiveness of original sin, and all personal sin, birth into new life by which we become children of God and members of the Christ’s body, the Church.

I wonder sometimes if we may have forgotten some of the traditions of our past that helped to form us in the great realities of our faith. I know that many of these traditions played a role in my faith development. Stations of the Cross on the Fridays of Lent, recitation of the family Rosary at home, recitation of the Rosary at school during the months of May and October, prayer on rising and before going to bed, making the sign of the cross when we passed a Catholic church, grace before and after meals, May altars and May Crownings and so many more.

Each tradition, simple as it may have been, acknowledged an important aspect of our faith: the centrality of the passion and death of Christ, the importance of prayer, Mary’s role in salvation history, and respect for the real presence. The use of holy water is one of these traditions. Reverently used, it connects us to our Baptism, to the new life we  received and are empowered to live, to the expulsion of sin and evil, to the life of God which lives within us and connects us to our brothers and sisters.

The Easter Season, which recalls the early days of the Church and the fruit of baptismal grace in the first Christians, is a good time to recall the use of holy water and to consider how we might incorporate it into our lives. It can be as simple as reverently blessing oneself as one enters Church, pausing to recall the significance of the water and the sign of the cross, having holy water in your homes, teaching your children about its deeper meaning, blessing them with it and asking for God’s care for them.

On a practical note, to acquire holy water for use in your home, bring a clean bottle or flask to your parish church and look for a container (often with a faucet) that will probably be labeled “Holy Water.” If you cannot find it, ask for it. This can be the first step in the practice of a tradition which will sustain and support your faith. 

If you have an intention you would like me to remember in prayer, please forward it to me at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202. 

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