In your pre-pandemic life, how frequently did you walk in or out of a church sanctuary, dip your fingers in Holy Water, and bless yourself with the sign of the cross? If you are like many others, you may have took this practice for granted, without full gratitude for the gift of having Holy Water readily available in our church. Now, without Holy Water available, do you reflexively try to dip your fingers in the dry fonts? Do you notice young children (perhaps your own, perhaps others) gaping at the empty Baptismal font? Even though Holy Water is not a central or necessary part of our Liturgy, the sacred ritual of blessing ourselves with Holy Water is a beautiful act of faith, repeated over and over throughout one’s faith journey. Perhaps in our Holy Water’s absence, we might take a closer look at its presence, and gain greater awareness and appreciation for it upon its return.
Why Holy Water?
Holy Water is a simple but sacred sign intended to inspire your devotion to Jesus and quench your thirsty heart. It invites you to gaze backward while looking forward — backward with gratitude for Christ’s work within you, beginning with your Baptism; forward with joyful anticipation of His continued saving work. Holy Water is a sacramental — it does not effectively confer divine grace upon us in the manner of a Sacrament, but (when used sincerely with prayer) it does prepare our hearts to better receive and cooperate with divine grace (CCC 1670). The Baptismal Font is also a sacred symbol; placed at the entry of our church, it symbolizes our spiritual entry into the Church. The continually flowing water symbolizes the “rivers of living water” (Jn. 7:38, cf. Isa. 12:3) flowing through all who remain in Christ. There are 3 main purposes behind the use of Holy Water: it symbolizes cleansing from sin, it protects us from evil, and it reminds us of our Baptism.
Water symbolizes salvation throughout scripture. Sin is destroyed and creation saved through the great flood. The Israelites passed through the Red Sea to escape slavery and through the Jordan river to enter into the Promise Land. Psalm 51 compares cleansing with water to cleansing from sin. St. John the Baptist preaches repentance and baptizes in the Jordan. We are called to literally and symbolically enter these cleansing waters, receiving what we cannot create for ourselves: the pure and perfect heart of Christ.
The blessing of water prayer in the Sacramentary includes this supplication: “We ask you to bless this water, as we use it in faith … save us from all illness and the power of evil.” Holy water is not just used to cleanse us from sin, but to avoid sin. Holy water is a symbol of our Lord’s protection against the power of evil and — particularly appropriate now — against illness!
We “remember” (although most of us cannot actually remember!) our Baptism when we bless ourselves with Holy Water. This remembrance is not a passive sentimentality, but an active “yes.” The water that flowed from the pierced heart of Christ is symbolized in the waters of Baptism. Through Baptism we received the “free” gift of eternal life, but this “free” gift was given at the greatest cost. The efficacy — or transforming power — of the Sacrament of Baptism (which is not a mere ceremony!), flows through Christ’s total sacrifice. When we bless ourselves with Holy Water, we are invited to “re-receive” His perfect gift; we renew our vow to follow Him.