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Holy waters run deep.

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. Christians took water into their faith with such enthusiasm that Tertullian (160-225) had to point out to them that one could pray without first washing one's hands. Yet, less than 200 years later, Saint John Chrysostom was still proclaiming, "though our hands may be already pure, unless we have washed them thoroughly, we do not raise them in prayer." As churches were built, they included a porch or courtyard where people could wash before entering. The ritual was a reminder to Christians that they were entering a holy place, away from the noise of the piazza outside the church.

Christians are initiated into the church by holy water, a practice that dates to John the Baptizer and one clearly understood to represent the cleansing away of sin. By the fourth century, the procedure had moved from the river to the church, and with it the imagery changed from cleansing to rebirth, emphasizing Christ's words: "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (John 3:5). The three immersions--later pourings--signified the Trinity and, some say, the three days Christ spent in the tomb. Holy water also suggests innocence, reminding one of Pilate's gesture when he washed his hands, saying: "I am innocent of this man's blood. Look to it yourselves" (Matt. 27:24).

Few other sacramentals respond so universally and dramatically to the needs and culture of the Christian people as holy water. Its roots are very humble, but its applications are broader than any other sacramental. It doesn't confer the grace of the Holy Spirit the way a sacrament does, but it prepares us to receive grace.

Holy water (and other sacramentals) faded somewhat after World War II. Now, however, it is flowing again. Many churches have moved the baptistry to the narthex of the church and use it as a holy-water font. The custom of family blessings is returning with fathers and mothers sprinkling children and home. The rediscovered rituals of other cultures have reawakened interest in Catholic signs and symbols. Since holy water is used to bless all other sacramentals, not to mention homes, cars, and boats, it is regaining its place in the Catholic imagination.

I am pleased. Holy water has kept my soul scrubbed much as hot water has cleaned my body.
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Title Annotation:Practicing Catholic; significance of holy water
Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 1, 1996
Previous Article:See you in the funny papers.
Next Article:Catholicism is more than meets the press.

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