A look into one of our most automatic gestures

We have come upon yet another Eastertide, and the fonts of all churches are filled again with newly blessed holy water from the Easter Vigil, that sacred substance we encounter at every entrance. But with every sign of the cross we make with it dipped on our fingers, we posit the question: why holy water? What exactly are its origins, what is its purpose, and why do we use it so often, almost without thinking?

There are a plethora of answers, but we must accredit ancient Judaism for providing a foundation for the Church’s use of holy water. Water, as a symbol of physical and spiritual purification, was used extensively in the Jewish priesthood. Priests would wash their hands and feet before entering the sanctuary so as to be ritually pure and ready to offer sacrifice. Eventually all Jews participated in this rite of ablution by cleansing themselves before offering prayer or sacrifice. This practice soon spread to early Christian churches, who began to offer pools or basins for cleansing, not unlike the laver, or “molten sea,” used for ablution at the Temple of Jerusalem.

But of course, given the early use in Christian churches, the act of cleansing and blessing oneself with holy water took on a particularly Christian nature with the belief that it is a symbol of divine life, wisdom, and grace. Christ’s command to the blind man to “‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent),” as well as Christ’s self-reference as the living water in His discourse with the woman at the well also reveals that water is a purifying and life-giving substance. These stories, in conjunction with the accounts of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, mean also that water is used in order for us to join ourselves to Christ in one baptism for the remission of our sins.

The earliest definitive records of the use of holy water in the early Church come from the early fourth century, although there is evidence that it was used as early as the Apostolic Era. Saint Ambrose mentions its use in the fourth century, and the Apostolic Constitutions (c. 400) imply the growing use of holy water as well, attributing the precept of its usage to St. Matthew. Eusebius notes that by the early 4th century holy water pools and fonts began to be blessed and consecrated with the sign of the cross, and holy water fonts began to appear in front of churches in Palestine in the mid-300s. Some of the earliest texts proscribing blessings for holy water include the Sacramentary of Serapion of Thmius, which invokes the name of Christ in the blessing: “we invoke upon this water and this oil the Name of Him Who suffered, Who was crucified, Who arose from the dead, and Who sits at the right of the Uncreated.” Perhaps the earliest Latin liturgical text proscribing rubrics for blessing come in the 6th century in the Liber Pontificalis, which prescribes the use of holy salt in the blessing of holy water to recall the necessity of Christians to be salt of the earth.

Holy water became even more important following the patristic period. In the ninth century, Pope Leo IV ordered priests to bless holy water every Sunday. At the same time, he established the sprinkling rite, known today as the Asperges, and incorporated it into Sunday Mass. Additionally, medieval sacramentaries prescribed different types of holy water to be used for various purposes, including baptismal fonts, sprinkling, holy water fonts, and “Gregorian” water, so called for Pope Gregory the Great, which was used in the consecration of churches.

Given the importance of holy water in liturgical functions, speculation has arisen as to its place in the sacramental framework. The Church maintains that holy water functions as a sacramental rather than a sacrament; it is used in the sacrament of Baptism, but according to the Catholic faith, we receive only “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Usage of holy water is thus not a subsequent baptism, but it is used to bless, to exorcise, to protect from sin, and to grant forgiveness of venial sins. It maintains an important place in Church life in that it is the gift of grace of the eternal wellspring of the love of Christ. Given its spiritually rejuvenative effects, and its reminder of the one baptism received for our regeneration in the life of Christ, we enter the Temple ready to offer prayer and sacrifice, in these days especially when we celebrate His Resurrection.
This article was brought to you by the Theology Club’s Zossima Project: Making prayer an education. For a complete works cited, please email zossimaprojectnd@gmail.com. Thank you for your readership.