Project Canterbury

Holy Water
By J. G. H. Barry

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IT WOULD seem that in no time or place has man been free from the sense of sin. In all times the conviction of his impurity has haunted him; in all human history sin has been a terrible reality. We are familiar with the Old Testament experience. It is woven into the Story of man's origin; and essentially the hope of the Old Testament is hope in the coming of a time and of a Deliverer when and through whom the burden of sin shall be lifted.

In the mean time the sense of sin is a sense of alienation, of separation from God. In Israel the outward and visible sign of this is separation from the Congregation, from the people of God. The aim of the sinner who repents is, therefore, to be restored to the fellowship of the Congregation. For this there are ways provided. In the first place, there is the way of sacrifice--the application of the cleansing blood. There are other instruments of purification such as incense; but the one that concerns us now is water. The symbolism of water is obvious--for all peoples, as an instrument of the cleansing of the body it has symbolised the cleansing of the soul. The cleansing rites of the Israelites were but a local adaptation of worldwide ceremonial. We will cite but one illustration of this--the ceremonial that was in use at the consecration of priests. "Aaron and his sons thou shalt bring unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and shalt wash them with water." (Ex. 29, 4.) In subsequent execution of their office the priest washed their hands and feet. (Ex. 30, 19, 20.) The formula for the preparation of the water of cleansing is in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 19. The direction for use is as follows: "For an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: and a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons" and so forth. There is an echo of this in Ps. 51, 7: "Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."

A vast amount of religious thought and action has at all times centered about the ceremonial use of water. Springs of living waiter have been especially venerated and used as means of healing and cleansing--the living water being thought of as being such by virtue of a certain divine action in and through it. In the Old Testament the fountain becomes an outstanding symbol of the action of God or even of God Himself. "For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold no water." (Jer. 2, 13.) The hope that is held out to Israel of purification and restoration to the favor of God is expressed through the same symbolism.. ''And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem ......And the Lord shall be king over all the earth.''

While a good many of the utterances of the Old Testament, especially in the formal laws, seem to contemplate no more than what is called ceremonial purity, and speak of no inner state, yet when the Old Testament is taken as a whole and in the totality of its teaching it is plain that much more than ceremonial purity is contemplated where the offence is deeper than ceremonial offence. The classical instance of the Old Testament attitude is Ps. 51: "Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences. Wash, me thoroughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin." The Psalmist has indeed penetrated so far into the meaning of sin that he understands that the merely ceremonial act must be coupled with an interior act of the spirit to be really efficacious. ''The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise." *

When we pass to the New Testament we find our Lord condemning the Pharisaic insistence upon the ceremonial washings while neglecting to make clear any spiritual content of the rites, yet himself stressing the symbolic value of water. To the woman of Samaria He said: "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." And on the feast day, when the pouring of water was one of the ceremonial acts, our Lord "stood and cried, saying, if any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his wells shall flow rivers of living water." S. John adds: "This he spake of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive.''

The notion of a necessary purification of human nature runs through the whole New Testament teaching. This purification is connected with the whole action of our Lord and especially with His sacrifice. The passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews brings out the contrast between the old and the new and at the same time the fulfilment of the old by the new. "For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God!" (Heb. 9:13, 14) Often the method of cleansing is not specified, it being taken for granted that the reader will understand what it is. General statements are of frequent occurrence, e. g., "Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit." (II Cor. 7:1.) "And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure." (I S. John III, 3.) "Seeing that ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit'' and so forth. (I. S. Pet. 1:22.)

We find however passages in which this purifying action is connected with the sacraments, especially with the sacrament of baptism, where once more, we are met with the symbolism of water. Our Lord's words to Nicodemus are familiar. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (S. John III, 5.) "And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God." (I. Cor. VI: 11.) "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify it and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word." (Eph. V, 25, 26.) Baptism is also called "the washing of regeneration." (Tit. III, 5.) The notion of living water also meets us in one of the very earliest of Christian writings where it is directed that baptism shall be in running water, if possible.

The notion of cleansing that is fundamental in baptism and is symbolised by the use of water meets us again in the sacrament of forgiveness. Such is the frailty of human nature that the cleansing of baptism is followed by a falling away into sin. How was this to be dealt with? The sacrament of penance, the sacrament of cleansing, is the established means. Our Lord commissioned his ministers to restore the lost purity of baptism in those who are penitent. "Whoseso sins ye remit" and so on.

The custom of blessing the baptismal water is very early. The first notices we have of it in the writings of Tertullian at the close of the second century speak of it as an established thing. The actual formulas for blessing that have come down to us are of a later date, some time in the fourth century, That in the Apostolic Constitutions reads:

"Look down from heaven and hallow this water; give it grace and power; that whosoever shall be baptised therein according to the precept of thy Christ, may with him be crucified, dead, buried, raised again, and be in him adopted as thy son, that he may die unto sin and live in grace."

In another fourth century document, Bishop Serapion's Prayer Book, we have an elaborate formula for the blessing of the water of baptism:

"King and Lord of all things and Artificer of the world, who gavest salvation freely to all created nature by the descent of thy only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, thou who didst redeem the creation that thou didst create by the coming of thy ineffable Word: see now from heaven and look upon these waters and fill them with thy Holy Spirit. Let thine ineffable Word come to be in them and transform their energy and cause them to be generative as being filled with thy grace, in order that the mystery which is now being celebrated may not be found in vain in those that are being regenerated but may fill all those who descend into them and are baptised therein with the divine grace. O loving benefactor, spare thine own handiwork, save the creature that has been the toil of thy right hand. Form all that are being regenerated after thy divine and ineffable form, in order that having been formed and regenerated they may be able to be saved and counted worthy of thy kingdom. And as thy only-begotten Word coming down upon the waters of the Jordan rendered them holy, so now may he also descend on these and make them holy and spiritual, to the end that those who are being baptised may be no longer flesh and blood but spiritual and able to worship thee the uncreated Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, through whom to thee is the glory and the strength both now and to all the ages of ages. Amen."

From this time there is abundant evidence for the blessing of the water to be used in baptism. A western tradition of the sixth century carries back the benediction of water mingled with salt for the blessing of houses to the second century. In the above quoted1 Prayer Book of Bp. Serapion there is a formula for the benediction of oil and water for the blessing of the sick. The usage of blessed water without special designation is frequent from early times. There was no need of special liturgical form for this. It was blessed with the sign of the Cross, accompanied with the imposition of hands, and with some improvised invocation.

In the early Middle ages water mingled with salt, the symbol of incorruptibility, became of general use in the blessing of houses and the inmates of them. From this the custom would appear to have been extended to the congregation assembled for Mass. Holy water vases were placed at the entrance of the church that the faithful might take it from these and carry it home to bless their houses. From this it was but a step to the present personal use in blessing oneself with the Holy Water on entering or leaving the church.

The ordinary use of Holy Water serves to remind us that we have been baptised and are members of the Body of Christ. It is intended to excite in those who use it faith and devotion and is a manner of prayer whereby we hope to attain pardon of venial sins. By virtue of the blessing given it by the Church the water acquires a certain quasi-sacramental power, so that the person taking Holy Water with the sincere desire to be cleansed from sin and further consecrated to the service of God is thereby united in his prayer to the prayers of the whole Church. He may therefore expect blessing and increase of grace.

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