Holy Waters Run Deep

By Unsworth, Tim | U.S. Catholic, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Holy Waters Run Deep


Unsworth, Tim, U.S. Catholic


BEFORE THEY PUT ME INTO THE GROUND, THE priest will sprinkle the gaping grave with holy water. My grieving relatives will be relieved. Their sturdy faith will have convinced them that holy water can cool the fires of hell in a race for my soul. (My Irish mother believed that holy water wouldn't even boil.) My family will have to wait for Judgment Day to see if the water will have spared me. Meanwhile, the gesture with water will symbolize external cleansing and internal purification.

Throughout my life, I have been comforted by holy water. At Baptism, the specially blessed baptismal water, first introduced in the African Church in the third century, was poured on my forehead, washing away the original sin I inherited. Each time I entered church, the font invited me to dip my hand into the water and cross myself, a gesture that was said to wash away the residue of venial sin. If I missed the font, there was a good chance that the asperges, a sprinkling by the priest that dates to the ninth century, would raise my heart and mind to God.

At Mass, water is added to the wine in accordance with a Greek practice that dates to Christ's time. The water is said to symbolize Christ's humanity while the wine symbolizes his divinity. The blessed water was part of my Confirmation and marriage ceremony and will be part of my final anointing. My home has a holy water bottle for house blessings, especially on stormy nights. In school, I was introduced to water blessed in honor of certain saints, such as Albert, Ignatius, Vincent de Paul, Vincent Ferrer, and others who were said to have waged war with the devil by using holy water. At the Easter Vigil, the plunging of the Pascal Candle three times into the blessed water was said to recall the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan whereby he sanctified the water and gave it the power of regeneration. Others say that the gesture symbolizes intercourse from which new life would spring. Finally, my casket will be sprinkled by the priest before and after my funeral liturgy. The symbolism has faded somewhat, but even the coffin is shaped like an ancient baptismal font, with the arched lid symbolizing a partial halo.

In virtually every culture, water is seen as a symbol of happiness and divine blessing. Hindus, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews all engaged in ritual washings before they entered their places of worship.

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