What is Holy Water?
Holy water is water that has been blessed by a priest or bishop. Holy water is used only in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.
Holy Water in Roman Catholicism
Holy water figures in Roman Catholic rituals of exorcism. It is also the usual water used in baptisms that occur in a church; however, the use of specifically consecrated water is not required for a valid baptism under Roman Catholic religious law.
A quantity of holy water is typically kept in a font, an item of church architecture that typically appears in a baptistery; a smaller font, called a stoup, may be placed near the entrance of the church. Roman Catholics bless themselves when entering the church by dipping their fingers in the holy water and making the sign of the cross. Holy water is also sometimes sprinkled upon the congregation during the Mass; this is called aspersion.
In the theology of Roman Catholicism, holy water is a sacramental, a "sacred sign which bear(s) a resemblance to the sacraments." Holy water recalls the sacrament of baptism. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1667, 1668.)
Varieties of Holy Water
Roman Catholic rituals distinguish four different kinds of holy water. There are:
- Holy water per se, of the kind found in the stoup, which has been blessed with a small amount of salt as a preservative. This is the holy water used in aspersions and blessings;
- Baptismal holy water, to which a slight amount of chrism (anointing oil) and the oil of catechumens has been added, used in church baptisms;
- Gregorian water, also called "water of consecration"; small amounts of wine, salt, and ashes are added to it, and it is used by bishops at the consecration of a church; and
- Easter water, which is distributed to the faithful on Easter Sunday for use at home.
Rituals Associated with Holy Water
The ritual of consecrating holy water traditionally is performed on Holy Saturday and during the vigil of Pentecost. Once consecrated, more ordinary water can be added to the supply of holy water, and the entire quantity of water remains consecrated provided that the amount added is less than the amount of water that was there. Holy water can in fact be consecrated upon any day in the liturgical calendar except Easter Sunday and Pentecost itself. The ritual of preparing holy water is itself in form an exorcism; the priest first exorcises the salt, and then the water itself; the traditional Latin formula for exorcising and blessing the water is:
Exorcizo te, creatura aquæ, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis, et in nomine Jesu Christi, Filii ejus Domini nostri, et in virtute Spiritus Sancti: ut fias aqua exorcizata ad effugandam omnem potestatem inimici, et ipsum inimicum eradicare et explantare valeas cum angelis suis apostaticis, per virtutem ejusdem Domini nostri Jesu Christ: qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos et sæculum per ignem.
I exorcise thee in the name of God the Father almighty, and in the name of Jesus Christ His Son, our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Ghost, that you may be able to put to flight all the power of the enemy, and be able to root out and supplant that enemy and his apostate angels; through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.
Deus, qui ad salutem humani generis maxima quæque sacramenta in aquarum substantia condidisti: adesto propitius invocationibus nostris, et elemento huic, multimodis purificationibus præparato, virtutem tuæ benedictionis infunde; ut creatura tua, mysteriis tuis serviens, ad abigendos dæmones morbosque pellendos divinæ gratiæ sumat effectum; ut quidquid in domibus vel in locis fidelium hæc unda resperserit careat omni immunditia, liberetur a noxa. Non illic resideat spiritus pestilens, non aura corrumpens: discedant omnes insidiæ latentis inimici; et si quid est quod aut incolumitati habitantium invidet aut quieti, aspersione hujus aquæ effugiat: ut salubritas, per invocationem sancti tui nominis expetita, ab omnibus sit impugnationibus defensa. Per Dominum, amen.
God, Who for the salvation of the human race has built your greatest mysteries upon this substance, in your kindness hear our prayers and pour down the power of your blessing into this element, prepared by many purifications. May this your creation be a vessel of divine grace to dispel demons and sicknesses, so that everything that it is sprinkled on in the homes and buildings of the faithful will be rid of all unclean and harmful things. Let no pestilent spirit, no corrupting atmosphere, remain in those places: may all the schemes of the hidden enemy be dispelled. Let whatever might trouble the safety and peace of those who live here be put to flight by this water, so that health, gotten by calling Your holy name, may be made secure against all attacks. Through the Lord, amen.
These prayers and exorcisms show the uses and powers that have been attributed to holy water in Roman Catholic tradition.
Eastern Orthodox Holy Water
Holy water is used in Orthodox rituals of exorcism and blessing. It is also the usual water used in baptisms that occur in a church; however, the use of specifically consecrated water is not required.
A quantity of holy water is typically kept in a font, an item of church architecture that typically appears in a baptistery; a smaller font may be placed near the entrance of the church. Orthodox Christians may bless themselves when entering the church by dipping their fingers in the holy water and making the sign of the cross. Holy water is also sometimes sprinkled on items or people when they are blessed, as part of the prayers of blessing. For instance, in Alaska, the fishing boats are sprinkled with holy water at the start of the fishing season as the priest prays for the crews' safety and success.
The use of holy water is based on the story of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and the Orthodox interpretation of this event. In this view, John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, and the people came to have their sins washed away by the water. Since Jesus had no sin, but was God himself, his baptism had the effect of Jesus blessing the water, making it holy, that is used fully for its original created purpose to be an instrument of life.
Jesus' baptism is commemorated in the Orthodox Church at the Feast of Theophany (literally "God shining forth") on January 6. At the Vespers of this feast, a font of holy water is typically blessed in the church, to provide holy water for the parish's use in the coming year. The next morning, the prayers often include a trip to a nearby river, lake or other public source of drinking water, to bless that water as well. This represents the redemption of all creation as part of humanity's salvation. In the following weeks, the priest typically visits the homes of the parish's members and prays prayers of blessing for their families, homes and pets, sprinkling them with holy water. Again, this practice is meant to visibly represent God's sanctifying work in all parts of the people's lives.
Other Holy Waters
Some Roman Catholics believe that water from Lourdes and other holy wells and shrines has supernatural powers, such as for healing. This water, technically, is not holy water since it has not been consecrated by a priest or bishop. Other Christian groups have sold water from the Jordan River and called it holy water as well.
The Sikhs prepare a sort of holy water, which they call amrit, and use in a ritual similar to baptism.
- "Holy water." Wikipedia, 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_water>