Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth

Psalm 28:3``The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of majesty hath thundered, The Lord is upon many waters."


Baptism of Christ, by Guido Reni, 1623

Numbers 5:17"And he shall take holy water in an earthen vessel,
and he shall cast a little earth of the pavement of the tabernacle intoit."


For the Christian, water, as the matter of Baptism, is life. Tertullian(b. 160), making a play on words based on the Greek acrostic ICQUS , or Ichthys, meaning "fish" andindicating "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour", wrote in "De Baptismo,""But we, little fishes, after the example of our Ichthys Jesus Christ,are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than bypermanently abiding in water; so that most monstrous creature, who hadno right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill thelittle fishes, by taking them away from the water!" In the sametreatise, he wrote of water's symbolism:

"In the firstbeginning," saith Scripture, "God made the heaven and the earth. Butthe earth was invisible, and unorganized, and darkness was over theabyss; and the Spirit of the Lord was hovering over the waters." Thefirst thing, O man, which you have to venerate, is the age of the,waters in that their substance is ancient; the second, their dignity,in that they were the seat of the Divine Spirit, more pleasing to Him,no doubt, than all the other then existing elements. For the darknesswas total thus far, shapeless, without the ornament of stars; and theabyss gloomy; and the earth unfurnished; and the heaven unwrought:water alone -- always a perfect, gladsome, simple material substance,pure in itself -- supplied a worthy vehicle to God.

He continues:

See how manythen are the advocacies of nature, the special provisions of grace, thecustomary observances of conduct, the types, the preparations in act orword, which have laid down the rule for the sacred use of water. Thefirst, that when the people of Israel are set free from bondage inEgypt and by passing through the water are escaping the violence of theEgyptian king, the king himself with all his forces is destroyed bywater. This is a type made abundantly clear in the sacred act ofbaptism: I mean that the Gentiles are set free from this present worldby means of water, and leave behind, drowned in the water, theirancient tyrant the devil.

Secondly, water is healed of the blemish of bitterness, hand restoredto its own sweet usefulness, by the tree Moses throws in: and that treewas Christ, who from within Himself heals the springs of that naturewhich was previously poisoned and embittered, converting them intoexceedingly healthful water, that of baptism. This is the water whichflowed forth for the people of Israel from the rock that followed them:and as that rock was Christ, without doubt this shows us that baptismis made blessed in Christ by water. See how great is the grace thatwater has in the presence of God and His Christ for the corroborationof baptism.

Wherever Christ is, there is water: He himself is baptized in water:when called to a marriage He inaugurates with water the first rudimentsof His power: when engaged in conversation He invites those who areathirst to come to His everlasting water: when teaching of charity Heapproves of a cup of water offered to a little one as one of the worksof affection: at a well-side He recruits His strength: He walks uponthe water, by His own choice He crosses over the water, with water Hemakes Himself a servant to His disciples. He continues His witness toBaptism right on to His Passion: when He is given up to the Cross wateris in evidence, as Pilate's hands are aware: when He receives a woundwater bursts forth from His side, as the soldier's spear can tell.

St. Hipplolytus(d. 236), in his Discourse on the Holy Theophany, writes:

Good, yea, verygood, are all the works of our God and Saviour -- all of them that eyeseeth and mind perceiveth, all that reason interprets and hand handles,all that intellect comprehends and human nature understands. For whatricher beauty can there be than that of the circle of heaven? And whatform of more blooming fairness than that of earth's surface? And whatis there swifter in the course than the chariot of the sun? And whatmore graceful car than the lunar orb? And what work more wonderful thanthe compact mosaic of the stars? And what more productive of suppliesthan the seasonable winds? And what more spotless mirror than the lightof day? And what creature more excellent than man?

Very good, then, are all the works of our God and Saviour. And whatmore requisite gift, again, is there than the element of water? Forwith water all things are washed and nourished, and cleansed andbedewed. Water bears the earth, water produces the dew, waterexhilarates the vine; water matures the corn in the ear, water ripensthe grapecluster, water softens the olive, water sweetens thepalm-date, water reddens the rose and decks the violet, water makes thelily bloom with its brilliant cups. And why should I speak at length?Without the element of water, none of the present order of things cansubsist. So necessary is the element of water; for the other elementstook their places beneath the highest vault of the heavens, but thenature of water obtained a seat also above the heavens. And to this theprophet himself is a witness, when he exclaims, "Praise the Lord, yeheavens of heavens, and the water that is above the heavens."

Noe releasing a dove from the arkAt the Creation, "the spirit of God moved over thewaters," and then God "divided the waters that were under thefirmament, from those that were above the firmament." At the floodsurvived by Noe and his family, this was reversed when "all thefountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates ofheaven were opened." The earth was cleansed by this deluge of water --and it was the Spirit (wind, "ruach") that caused the waters to abate.Further foreshadowing Baptism, it was a dove that flew back to the arkbearing an olive branch, signalling to Noe that the flood was coming toan end. St. Peter makes this connection between the cleansing effectsof Noe's Flood and Baptism:

1 Peter 3:18-21
Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust:that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh,but enlivened in the spirit, In which also coming he preached to thosespirits that were in prison: Which had been some time incredulous, whenthey waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the arkwas a building: wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved bywater. Whereunto baptism being of the like form, now saveth you also:not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination ofa good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And, of course,there is Our Lord's Baptism, which St. Hippolytus describes sobeautifully in his Discourse, continued from above:

Nor is this theonly thing that proves the dignity of the water. But there is also thatwhich is more honourable than all -- the fact that Christ, the Maker ofall, came down as the rain, and was known as a spring, and diffusedHimself as a river, and was baptized in the Jordan. For you have justheard how Jesus came to John, and was baptized by him in the Jordan. Ohthings strange beyond compare! How should the boundless Rivers thatmakes glad the city of God have been dipped in a little water! Theillimitable Spring that bears life to all men, and has no end, wascovered by poor and temporary waters! He Who is present everywhere, andabsent nowhere -- Who is incomprehensible to angels and invisible tomen -- comes to the baptism according to His own good pleasure.

The Spiritappeared as a Dove over the waters of the Jordan on that day, therebymaking the symbolic connection between water and Spirit complete.

The Use of Water in the Church

The ritual useof this precious substance is ancient and rooted in the Old Testament.When the Israelites entered the Temple, they had to undergo purifcationby immersion in a mikvah (modern Jews still make use of mikva'ot on YomKippur, on wedding days, for purification after menstruation or cominginto contact with a dead body or semen, etc.). These ritualpurifications by water prefigured Christian Baptism, which we recallwhen we bless ourselves (cross ourselves) using holy water uponentering our churches. Devoutly blessing one's self with Holy Waterremits venial sins.

When you enter a church, you might find a holy water font (or "stoup")attached to the wall at one or both sides of each door, or you mightfind a free-standing font. Simply dip the tips of the fingers of yourright hand into the water and cross yourselfwhile mentally contemplating the words, "In the name of the Father, andof the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Don't rush through this; make itmeaningful, remembering the meaning of your Baptism and mentallyexpressing your gratitude to God. Many Catholics repeat this processupon leaving the church, too. (Note: you might see one Catholic dip hisfingers into the Holy Water and touch fingers with another Catholic toshare it if that second Catholic can't reach the font comfortably).

This holy water is also used by the priest to sprinkle the peoplebefore the beginning of Mass. He will have a pail-like vessel called an "aspersory" to hold the holywater, and into this he will dip a stick called an "aspergillum" (or an"aspergill"). The aspergillum has holes in it to catch droplets of thewater, and the priest's swinging it toward the congregation causes thedrops of water to fly out. This blessing of the congregation beforeMass is called "Aspérges" and the accompanying, chanted words come fromPsalm 50:


Aspérges me,Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbador.Miserére mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam

Thou shaltsprinke me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; Thou shaltwash me, and I shall become whiter than snow. Have mercy on me, O God,according to Thy great mercy

Holy water isblessed on the Feast of the Epiphany(January 6) and any time thereafter that holy water is needed. First,the salt to be added to the water is exorcizedand blessed. Then the water itself is blessed with these words:

Exorcizo te,creatura aquĉ, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis, et in nomine JesuChristi, Filii ejus Domini nostri, et in virtute Spiritus Sancti: utfias aqua exorcizata ad effugandam omnem potestatem inimici, et ipsuminimicum eradicare et explantare valeas cum angelis suis apostaticis,per virtutem ejusdem Domini nostri Jesu Christ: qui venturus estjudicare vivos et mortuos et sĉculum per ignem.

I exorcise theein the name of God the Father almighty, and in the name of Jesus ChristHis Son, our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Ghost, that you may beable to put to flight all the power of the enemy, and be able to rootout and supplant that enemy and his apostate angels; through the powerof our Lord Jesus Christ, who will come to judge the living and thedead and the world by fire.

Deus, qui adsalutem humani generis maxima quĉque sacramenta in aquarum substantiacondidisti: adesto propitius invocationibus nostris, et elemento huic,multimodis purificationibus prĉparato, virtutem tuĉ benedictionisinfunde; ut creatura tua, mysteriis tuis serviens, ad abigendos dĉmonesmorbosque pellendos divinĉ gratiĉ sumat effectum; ut quidquid indomibus vel in locis fidelium hĉc unda resperserit careat omniimmunditia, liberetur a noxa. Non illic resideat spiritus pestilens,non aura corrumpens: discedant omnes insidiĉ latentis inimici; et siquid est quod aut incolumitati habitantium invidet aut quieti,aspersione hujus aquĉ effugiat: ut salubritas, per invocationem sanctitui nominis expetita, ab omnibus sit impugnationibus defensa. PerDominum nostrum Jesum Christum filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnatin unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

God, Who for thesalvation of the human race has built your greatest mysteries upon thissubstance, in your kindness hear our prayers and pour down the power ofyour blessing into this element, prepared by many purifications. Maythis your creation be a vessel of divine grace to dispel demons andsicknesses, so that everything that it is sprinkled on in the homes andbuildings of the faithful will be rid of all unclean and harmfulthings. Let no pestilent spirit, no corrupting atmosphere, remain inthose places: may all the schemes of the hidden enemy be dispelled. Letwhatever might trouble the safety and peace of those who live here beput to flight by this water, so that health, gotten by calling YourHoly Name, may be made secure against all attacks. Through Our LordJesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unityof the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.

A very important note: Know that the exorcism of water is omitted in the new rite, just as it's been removed from the blessing of salt!

Holy Water for Personal Use

Where to getit
To get holy water to use in your home, bring a clean flask to yourparish church and look for a faucet that will probably be labelled"Holy Water." If there is no faucet, it might be kept in an urn of somesort. If you can't find it, don't be shy; just ask! Unlike votivecandles, there is no real cost to the church in making holy water, sothere is no offering expected.

How to use it
You can keep it in decorative bottles 1for storage at home or in little flasks, made for this purpose, tocarry with you. Most Catholics keep at least some in holy water fonts.

Holy water fontsfor the home come in all sizes and shapes, some tacky and plastic,others quite lovely and made of alabaster, marble, porcelain,sandstone, or metals -- as inexpensive or as expensive as you like --some resting on tables, most hanging on walls (one example is shown atright). You can buy one from most Catholic gift shops or make your own(consider using bivalve seashells as basins, or the shell motif indesign. The seashell is a very ancient symbol of Baptism, and the shells of large molluscs --weighing up to 500 pounds -- have been used in churches as basins forholy water). Tip: putting a thin sponge inside the font is said to makethe water evaporate less quickly.

Catholics often keep a font near their front door, in their bedrooms'doorways, and near the family altar. Use the water in the same way youdo at church, dipping your fingers into it and making the Sign of the Cross. Bless your children with it asyou tuck them in at night, using your thumb to sign them with a crossof holy water on their foreheads.

Most Catholics pray "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and ofthe Holy Ghost" when blessing themselves with Holy Water, but this isanother beautiful prayer:

By Thy PreciousBlood and by this Holy Water, cleanse me (him/her) from my (his/her)sins, O Lord.

Another use ofholy water is to give tiny sips to the sick or spiritually oppressed.It shouldn't be consumed as a beverage, mind you, but theingestion of small amounts, or adding a few drops to foods, is common.

How to dispose of
Holy water is usually made with a touch of salt which is apreservative, but if your holy water were to go a little, um, green,the proper way to dispose of it is the sameas for any sacramental: you want to return it to the earthlyelements. You should dig a hole and pour it into the earth.


Easter Water

Easter water, orbaptismal water, is the water that is blessed on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) and is used to baptizeCatechumens. This water receives a more solemn sort of blessing than"regular holy water": the Easter Candle is dipped into it three times,and the priest blows his breath over it thrice, recalling the Spiritover the waters at Creation, and the Spirit causing the waters of Noe'sflood to subside, and how the Spirit appeared as a dove over the watersat Christ's Baptism.

Mind you, any clean water can be used in Baptism, and often is, as incases of emergency; but the use of Easter water is the normal way ofdoing things.

Gregorian Water

And finally (onthe liturgical level), there is "Gregorian Water" -- holy water mixedwith wine, salt, and ashes -- which is used in the consecration ofchurches, altars and altar stones.

Non-Liturgical "Holy Water"

There are alsowaters derived from holy wells and from places associated with Saintlyapparitions, said waters having special curative properties by thegrace of God. The most famous of these sites is Lourdes, where Our Lady appearedto the young girl who was to become known as St. Bernadette andinstructed her to dig. St. Bernadette did so, with her hands, andrevealed a spring whose waters have cured many.
1 For an idea on how tomake a decorative bottle to store your Holy Water, see this page.

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