Holy Water

Holy Saturday, as I’ve often said, is the only day of the entire year that does not have a liturgical celebration for it. (The Easter Vigil, often improperly referred to as an evening Holy Saturday Mass – yuck! – is the solemn, festive beginning of Easter, even if our clocks want to tell us it’s still Saturday.) It is a day of total emptiness. We are quietly mourning the absence of the Lord, his body lying cold in the dark tomb.

A question was put to me by a correspondent this morning about holy water. It seems they left holy water in the fonts at the doors of his church this year, and he recalls that every year in the past, it was removed. He wondered why. I’d like to share with you my answer:

The custom of placing holy water at the entrance of the church has Roots going back to Late Antiquity (ca. 300-700 AD). Originally, water was placed in a large basin for purification before entering the church. (The Muslim practice of ablutions before prayer, and having fonts for this purpose outside the mosque entrance actually derives from both Christian and Jewish practices of the time.)

Eventually, the practice of washing before entering the church, originally for purposes of hygiene, took on the meaning of a renewal of the sacrament of baptism in preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist. At this time, the practice of sprinkling the people at the beginning of Mass began to have the same connotation. As these ablution fonts became more common, the hygienic dimension gave way to the symbolic, and “holy water” was associated with baptismal water. Thus, touching the holy water and making the sign of the cross became a way of calling to mind our baptism as we enter the church for the Eucharist.

This whole process developed from place to place over about 1000 years, say, 500 to 1500 AD, before it became universal in the West. The East – exemplified by the Orthodox today – has its own somewhat parallel practices.)

Now the practice of “blessing yourself” with holy water upon entering the church has several symbolic dimensions, all associated with baptism:

  • the holy water represents baptismal water with the power to preserve and protect from evil;
  • the sign of the cross is actually the first gesture in the rite of baptism, by which the newly baptized person is welcomed into the church through our most precious possession, the saving cross of Jesus Christ;
  • and the words signify not only faith in the Three Persons in One God, but our entry into the life of the Trinity through our participation in the sacraments.

Blessing oneself upon leaving the church developed as a later custom and probably signifies our desire to bring the spirit and the effect of the sacraments with us into our daily lives, in which we encounter the challenges of the secular world infused with the power of the life and mission of Jesus Christ.

The readily available online Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent survey of the history of holy water and holy water fonts. Although it dates from 1913, it is still a valuable resource.

Actually, this development is another manifestation of the meaning and purpose of the sacraments, centering on the Eucharist, as the “the summit and source of the Christian life and mission.” Each one of those words, and their relationship with each other, needs careful attention.

So, why is the holy water removed from the fonts at the doors of the church during the Triduum? First of all, let’s be clear that there are no liturgical nor canonical directives (laws) concerning this use of holy water. It’s a custom — parenthetically, along with many other practices that seem to be close to the heart of our life as Catholics.

The Triduum begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening and ends with the last Mass of Easter Sunday. It’s best considered as one great feast, with distinct parts, rather than three or four distinct feasts. The liturgical directives (called “rubrics” because they’re usually printed in red in the missal) state that after the Mass on Holy Thursday, the church is stripped bare of all usual objects of veneration and ornamentation. Specifically, the tabernacle is to remain empty, but this directive would logically seem to include holy water as well. This bare emptiness remains until the celebration of the Easter Vigil, which should take place in “the dead of night” between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. It really has the nature of an all-night vigil. During the Easter Vigil, the usual accessories in the church are restored, and in the solemn celebration of baptism during the rite, holy water is renewed as well.

Thus, the fonts, which have been empty since Holy Thursday night, are refilled with the same water that is used in the baptism of the neophytes, the water by which the new Christian passes from the old life of sin and darkness to the new life of grace and light.

Obviously, there’s a lot more that can be said about the rich array of symbolic elements of these days, but that’s for another time.

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