Born the Jews and the Gentiles used lustral water in their religious ceremonies. The former did so by the express command of God; the latter borrowed the rite from the Jews, or adopted it from the evident symbolism of water, its natural fitness for expressing the cleansing of the soul. We must recollect that the Mosaic Liturgy preceded, by centuries, the culmination of polytheism and hero-worship, in the refined mythologies of Greece and Rome. For ourselves, however, we are inclined to adopt the second explanation. The tradition of the Fall and of the necessity of expiation was handed down, in substantial integrity, from generation to generation, and endured in spite of the corrupting influences of the dominant Pagan superstition. The offering of bloody sacrifices and the sprinkling of water on things and persons were sensible expressions of man’s conviction of his sinfulness and of his need of purification. When the Catholic Church uses Holy Water in her benedictions, when she bids her children reverence it and apply it to their persons, she is not copying a Jewish or Pagan rite; she is but expressing a truth, detached from the mists which hung around it for the common run of Hebrew minds, and from the errors with which Gentilism disfigured it—the Fall of Adam and the consequent mystery of Redemption. The religious ceremonies of the ancient world prefigured the Messiah and the graces of the Incarnation; those of the Church represent Him as present in the Blessed Eucharist and apply His graces.
We said that God commanded the Jews to use water in the performance of sacred rites. “Water being put into it, (the brazen laver which stood between the tabernacle and the altar,) Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and feet in it, when they are going into the tabernacle of the testimony, and when they are to come to the altar, to offer on it incense to the Lord, lest perhaps they die. (Exodus xxx, 18, 19, 20, 21.) The nineteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers contains the law concerning the water of expiation. Christ has sanctified water by making it the matter of Baptism and by the contact of His own Sacred Body in the river Jordan.
The present rite of blessing water, by prayer and an admixture of salt, is frequently referred to Pope St. Alexander I., who reigned from 109 to 119. Fornici, in his Institutiones Liturgicæ, says : “From the words which St. Alexander uses, in his decree, it would appear that the rite is more ancient than the time of that Pontiff: ‘We bless, for the use of the people, water sprinkled with salt’ . . and we command the same to be done by all priests.” He does not say: “We decree that water shall be blessed but we bless, to indicate a ceremony already in use.” It is more probably that the rite is of Apostolic origin.
There are three kinds of holy water: 1st, baptismal water; 2d, that which can be blessed only by a bishop; and 3d, common holy water which may be blessed by a priest.
The first, which, as its name indicates, is used in conferring the Sacrament of Baptism, is publicly blessed on the eves of Easter and Pentecost either by bishop or priest. The Oil of Catechumens and Chrism are mixed with it. The abridgment of the Roman Ritual, used in the United States, contains a formula, approved by Pope Pius VIII, to be employed in private benediction of baptismal water.
The water used in consecrating churches and in reconciling consecrated churches which have been profaned is blessed by a bishop. It is called Gregorian water, because Pope Gregory IX. made its use obligatory for the purposes specified. Wine, ashes and salt are mingled with it.
Common holy water, which a priest may bless, contains a small quantity of salt. It is this which is placed at the doors of churches, and which is used in most ecclesiastical benedictions.
The union of water and salt is not without mystery. The property of the first is to cleanse, of th second to preserve. The Church wishes that this Sacramental should help to wash away sin from her children and to preserve them from a relapse. Water quenches fire and fosters the growth of plants; thus, in the spiritual order, holy water serves to quench the fire of the passions and to promote the growth of virtues.
Salt is the symbol of wisdom; it typifies the Eternal Wisdom, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Water represents human nature. Hence the mingling of the two substances is emblematic of the Incarnation, of the assumption of human nature by the Eternal Word. Water represents repentance for past offences; salt, from its preservative properties, represents the care which the true penitent takes to avoid future falls.
There is a remarkable instance in the Fourth Book of Kings (2d chapter) of the sacred efficacy which God attaches to salt. The inhabitants of Jericho complained to the prophet Eliseus that the water of their town was bad and the ground barren. The holy man then said to them: bring me a new vessel and put salt into it. And when they had brought it, he went out to the spring of the waters and cast the salt into it, and said: Thus saith the Lord: I have healed these waters, and there shall be no more in them death or barrenness.
The water and salt are both exorcised before being blessed, that is, the evil spirit is commanded, in the name of the true and living God, to withdraw any power he may have over these substances. The prayers which the priest then recites over them beautifully express the spiritual effects which the Church wishes them to produce, and which, in virtue of her benediction, they will produce, unless the unworthy dispositions of the faithful prevent. The benediction of the salt is as follows: “Almighty and Eternal God! we humbly implore Thy boundless clemency, that Thou wouldst mercifully deign to bless and sanctify this salt, Thy creature, which Thou hast given for the use of mankind, that it may bring salvation of mind and body unto all that take it; and that whatever is touched or sprinkled with it, may be freed from all uncleanness and from all attacks of spiritual wickedness.” We see from this prayer that the Church begs God to attach a triple efficacy to blessed salt: 1st, that it may be a means of salvation to the soul; 2d, that it may be a preservative against corporal dangers; 3d, that it may sanctity every thing with which it comes in contact. It does not produce these effects of itself, as a Sacrament does, but it obtains actual graces for the pious user, which will, if co-operated with, obtain them. The same remark applies to the efficacy of the water.
The prayer for the blessing of this latter substance is this: “Oh God! Who, for the salvation of mankind, hast wrought many great mysteries and miracles, by means of the substance water, listen propitiously to our invocations, and infuse into this element, prepared by manifold purifications, the power of Thy benediction : in order that Thy creature (water) being used as an instrument of Thy hidden works, may be efficacious in driving away devils and curing diseases; that whatever in the houses or in the places of the faithful shall have been sprinkled with this water, may be freed from all uncleanness and delivered from all guile: let no pestilential spirit reside there, no infectious air: let all the snares of the hidden enemy be removed; and if there should be any thing adverse to the safety or repose of the indwellers, may it be put entirely to flight, by the sprinkling of this water, that the welfare which we seek, by the invocation of Thy holy Name, may be defended from all assaults; through our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.” This formula of prayer implores the following effects for holy water: 1st, to drive away the devils; 2d, to cure diseases; 3d, to free houses and their contents from all evil, particularly from a plague-infected atmosphere. After these prayers the priest puts a little salt into the water, saying, “May this commingling of salt and water be made in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
Let us consider now the uses of Holy Water. The Church employs it in nearly all her benedictions, the longest and most solemn as well as the shortest and last sacred. Her reverence for it seems to equal that which she pays to the holy sign of the cross. She prescribes, in the rubrics of the Missal, that one of her ministers shall bless water, on every Sunday, before High Mass, and then proceed to sprinkle it over the clergy, and the faithful. [The rubric of the Missal de ordine ad faciendam aquam Benedictam is as follows: Die Dominica, in sacristia praeparalo sale et aqua benedicenda, sacerdos celebraturus Missam, vel alius ad id deputatus, alba, vel superpelliceo iudutus cum stola circa collum, primo dicit, etc. If the celebrant performs the function, the stole must be of the color of the day; if another priest, the stole ought to be purple. As a general rule purple is to be used in all benedictions in which exorcisms enter. Abbe Guillois, in the fourth volume of his Catechism says: “Liturgists all agree that holy water is to be blessed every Sunday before High Mass: Singulis diebus dominicis fieri debet benedictio aquæ lustralis, atque adeo renovari singulis hebdomadis, projecta in sacrarium alia præcedentis hebdomadæ. Quarti—Adeo rigorosum est præceptum de benedicenda aqua singulis diebus dominicis, ut nunquam omitti debeat—Baruffaldi.” The Missal excepts two Sundays from this general regulation, Easter and Pentecost, because water has been solemnly blessed on the eves of these festivals, and the Cæremoniale Episcoporum excepts all those on which the bishop celebrates solemnly. The benediction is of precept on Sunday, it may however be performed, if the holy water should be exhausted, on any other day. . . . The Sacred Congregation of Rites has prescribed the following rules for the aspersion before Mass: lst, It is to be performed only by the celebrant; 2d, Celebrans aspergens populum aqua benedicta associari debet a diacono et subdiacono et ministris altaris et recitare psalmum Miserere, Die 31, Julii 1665 in Nullius ad 13; 3d, Ritus aspergendi aqua benedicta populum restringitur ad dies Dominicos tantum, (hence it is not to be done on holidays of obligation occurring during the week); 4th, This is prescribed by the Missal: Sacerdos celebraturus facit aspersionem indutus pluviali coloris oflicii. . . We give one more decree for the benefit of our clerical readers : In ultimo Majoris Hebdomadæ triduo removenda est a vasis Ecolesiæ aqua benedicta.] She thereby admonishes her children to purify their hearts by the waters of contrition, in order that they may assist without blame at the venerable mysteries of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. She places vases of holy water in the vestibules of her temples to teach those who enter that they ought to be clean of hand and cleaner of thought and affection if they wish to stand in the midst of the adoring bands of angels who cluster around the altar of the Mass. This custom of putting holy water at the entrance of the church dates from the earliest ages.
Our reverence for holy Water should be modeled on that of the Church. We ought to make this Sacramental as ubiquitous as the crucifix or the cross. No Catholic family should be without a vase of holy water, and one too which is kept for use not merely for ornament. Thank God! our Catholic poor are exemplary in their devotion for the sacred things of the Church. Many a good old dame is richer in her rosary, her cross and her holy water than some of her brethren in the faith are in their learning. Let us love knowledge, not that which puffeth up, but that which edifieth unto charity. Then we shall learn to love the Sacramentals of the Church; we shall become poor in spirit and merit the blessing pronounced by our Divine Lord on those who have learnt from Him to be meek and humble of heart.
(C See Appendix.)