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The blessing of water is always part of the Easter Vigil liturgy whether baptism is celebrated or not. The following lines from the text of the blessing help in understanding what it means to ‘bless’ water and why it is then becomes for the faithful ‘Holy Water’:
“Father, you give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of your unseen power. In baptism we use your gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament. …… By the power of the Spirit give to the water of this font the grace of your Son.”
Catechumens are baptised in this blessed water, which is also called Easter water or baptismal water, and it is used in all baptisms conducted during the Easter Season. Some parishioners like to take Easter water home to use as a symbol of spiritual cleansing, particularly in time of physical or spiritual danger.
The use of water in Christian ritual crossed over from pagan and Jewish religions where a ritual of submersion in water was commonly used as an external sign of internal purification. Initially the water used for Christian baptisms was not blessed but an elaborate ritual for blessing this water developed gradually over time.
Holy water is kept in the font, which is located at the entrance to the church as a symbol of the centrality of baptism as the primary rite of initiation into the Christian faith. Smaller vessels, called stoups, are usually placed at the entrances of the church. As a reminder of baptism, the faithful dip their fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross when entering the church.
The use of water for religious purposes other than baptism can be traced back to the fifth century. Holy water stoups at the entrance of churches had become customary by Norman times.
Holy Water is called a ‘sacramental’. The Code of Canon Law describes sacramentals as “sacred signs by which spiritual effects especially are signified and are obtained by the intercession of the Church” (# 1166). Other sacramentals include vestments, candles, palms, ashes, Stations of the Cross and the Rosary. In themselves, things like particular colours, objects or gestures may not be considered ‘holy’ but they become sacramentals, and therefore sacred, in their religious purpose and use.
The first option given in the Sacramentary to follow the Greeting at Mass is the rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water. This is also called ‘aspersion’, from the Latin asperges, to sprinkle. The rubrics say: “The rite of blessing and sprinkling holy water may be celebrated in all churches and chapels at all Masses celebrated on Sunday or Saturday evening (and) it takes the place of the penitential rite”. Blessed salt may be added to the water "where it is customary". The use of the rite of sprinkling is very appropriate in the Easter season as it is a tangible reminder of the Easter Vigil and the Baptismal Promises that were made and renewed on that occasion.
The sprinkling of water is also used in the Anointing of and Communion to the Sick (including Viaticum), in the funeral rites, in blessings, dedications and exorcisms.
Next Week: “Holy Smoke”!