Why do we use water to bless ourselves when we enter Church and to sprinkle in our homes, cars, places of business, etc.? We know that we need to use water for baptisms, but how did the Church start using separate, blessed holy water for these other things? After all, in the earliest times of the Church baptisms took place in rivers, streams, and lakes, so they didn’t have baptismal fonts full of holy water in their churches. In fact, since Christianity was illegal, they didn’t even have churches in most places.
The Church probably used holy water from the earliest days since water was used in Jewish homes for purification, and the earliest Christians were mostly Jews. However, the earliest recorded use of holy water is from the fourth century. It’s a blessing of water to protect from disease, evil spirits, and all maladies. As soon as Christianity was legalized, churches began keeping the water from baptisms for people to use throughout the year. In the seventh century we begin to have records of churches keeping water at the entrance of the Church for people to bless themselves with or to take home with them.
Today, we use holy water for basically the same reasons. We bless ourselves, our homes, and our religious articles with holy water to ask God to purify them, to protect them from demonic influence, and to bestow His grace on them. When we bless ourselves with holy water whenever we enter Church, we’re doing at least two things. First, we’re reminding ourselves of our baptism, through which we first entered the Church and became children of God. Second, we’re asking God to purify us of sin and fill us with His grace. We recognize that we’re entering a holy place and ask God to make us worthy to enter his house.
Holy Water is a sacramental, not a sacrament. Sacraments, like baptism, work in and of themselves because of the power that God has given them. Sacramentals require the faith of the person using them to have an effect. If we just bless ourselves with holy water without really thinking about it, but just because that’s what we always do, then it’s not having much of an effect. So, every time you enter a Church and bless yourself with the holy water, ask God to stir up the graces of baptism in your soul, to forgive your sins, and to fill you with His lifegiving grace.
The burning of incense at Mass is a traditional Catholic practice that is used more or less by each priest. Here at Lourdes, we tend to use incense on Holy Days of Obligation and other important feasts, as well as at most funeral Masses, although I never us incense at the 9:00 AM Mass to leave it available for people who are allergic to incense.
Some people like the incense, and some people don’t like, but whether we like it or not is beside the point. We use incense because it is a truly ancient tradition going back even before the time of Christ into Old Testament times. We read in the book of Exodus that God told Moses to have an altar made for the burning of incense. It says, “And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony…and Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it every morning…and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord.” (Ex 30:6-8). The Israelite priests would burn incense before the Ark of the Covenant twice every day as an offering to the Lord.
The burning of incense, and the smoke rising up, represent our prayers rising up to God. The book of Revelation says, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with the golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8). Psalm 141 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”
The incense also represents the presence of God. In the Bible God’s presence is seen as a cloud. When the Lord descends upon Mt. Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments, a cloud envelopes the mountain. When Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up Mt. Tabor, God the Father speaks to them from a cloud. The First Book of Kings records what happened when King Solomon dedicated the first Temple, “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Ki 8:10-11).
We use incense at Mass, in Eucharistic processions, and in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament as a visible reminder that God is present among us. In the Mass we incense the altar, the Book of Gospels, the priest, the people, and the Eucharist, because God is present in His Church, in His Word and in His priest, and in His people, and God is sacramentally present in His Body and Blood. That incense represents the prayers, worship, and praise that we offer to God, that they may rise up to the Lord and be pleasing to Him.
On February 11, 1858, 13 year old Bernadette Soubirous was out collecting firewood with 2 other children. The others had run ahead and left Bernadette behind, and as she was preparing to cross the Gave River she heard a peculiar sound. Looking up, Bernadette noticed that one of the caves by the river bank was glowing with a golden light. She then saw a beautiful lady dressed in a pure white robe with a blue sash, a veil over her head, a rosary in her hands, and yellow roses at her feet. The Lady asked her to pray her rosary, and by the time she had finished praying the Lady had vanished.
She went back the next Sunday and saw the Lady again, and the next time she went back the Lady told Bernadette that she should return every day for 15 days. She asked Bernadette to pray for the conversion of sinners and to tell the priests to build a chapel on that site. She also told Bernadette to scrape away the soil in a particular spot, revealing the spring of water that is still there today. Bernadette was kept from going to the Grotto several times, but during the sixteenth apparition, on March 25, 1858, which is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, when the Archangel appeared to Mary to announce the conception of Jesus in her womb, the Lady finally revealed her identity to Bernadette. She told her, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” revealing herself to be the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Bernadette didn’t understand what this meant, but others did, and people flocked to Lourdes in even greater numbers than before.
The finding of the spring of water and the miraculous healings that have resulted from it are proof that the apparition was true, and that the Lady really was the Mother of God. On one occasion in 1902 Dr. Alexis Carrell, an agnostic and a physician, accompanied the train bringing the sick to Lourdes as a favor to a friend, and out of professional curiosity about what was causing these stories of miraculous healings. On the train he met a girl, Marie Bailly, who was suffering from tuberculous peritonitis. He was standing right behind her when the Lourdes water was poured over her stomach and saw her physical symptoms, abdominal distension with large hard masses, gradually disappear. By the next day she was able to get up and dress herself, to eat without stomach pains, and to take the train ride back to Lyon. Subsequent testing showed her to be completely and inexplicably cured. It would take another 40 years for Dr. Carrell to fully accept the faith, but he would eventually return to the Catholic Church. In the meantime, he lost he job with the medical faculty of Lyons for defending the account of the event and being open to a miraculous explanation.
These miracles are an awesome proof of Our Lady of Lourdes, but we must remember that they point us back to Our Lady herself and the message that she gave to St. Bernadette. She told her to pray for the conversion of sinners and to urge people, “Penitence, penitence, penitence!” On the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and the anniversary of her first appearance to St. Bernadette, let all remember to pray not only for cures of physical ailments, but also for conversion of heart for ourselves and for all sinners.
Are we willing to stand up for what is true and right and be counted, or do we go along to get along. Most of us don’t like arguing and fighting. We like to be liked, and we don’t like to be criticized. We can become very emotional about important issues. No one seriously argues about the best flavor of ice cream, but we do argue about politics and religion. Two weeks ago hundreds of thousands of people went to Washington, DC, to participate in the March for Life, and hundreds of thousands more participated in smaller marches for life in their own states, such as the Louisiana Life March in Baton Rouge. Some of those people paid a price for their willingness to stand up and be counted, such as the students from Covington Catholic High School who were targeted for who they were and what they believed in, but they kept their heads, exercised patience, and kept the situation from escalating to physical violence.
This is a good example of how to stand up for the faith. First, educate yourself. Make sure that you know why we believe what we do and are able to explain it to others. Second, live the faith. Don’t be embarrassed to visibly live the faith or be afraid of what people will think of you. Sure, some people may give you a funny look or call you a Jesus Freak, but that’s okay. That’s a small way of participating in the suffering of Christ and it brings you closer to Him. We should always care more about God’s opinion than those of other people. Third, don’t sink to the level of those who use physical or verbal violence against those who disagree with them. We don’t need to use violence if we stand in the truth.
Finally, always speak the truth with charity. In the phrasing of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, we must “Love in Truth.” Speaking the truth in an uncharitable way can be harmful, but to fail to speak the truth at all is not charitable either. It’s precisely because we love our neighbor that we stand up for the truth, so that they might see what is true and live it out in their lives. Ideas have consequences, and the things we believe affect our lives. We may suffer consequences for what we believe, but we place our trust in Jesus and remember His words, “Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12).
Catholic Community Radio
WGNO 690 AM
As you may or may not be aware, a few years ago Catholic Community Radio out of Baton Rouge expanded to New Orleans and opened a radio station here, 690 AM. They have local programming, like The Church in the Homeand Lagniappe Theology, and programming from EWTN radio, like Catholic Answers Liveand Kresta in the Afternoon. They also broadcast the Mass from St. Louis Cathedral at 11:00 AM on Sundays and noon Monday through Friday. The weekday Mass is followed by the Rosary.
I just recently learned that they also have an app for iPhone and Android. You can listen to the live radio broadcast through the app, but you can also watch videos that they’ve uploaded of their broadcasts. It also has a news section, a section for the readings for the daily Mass, the broadcasting schedule, and an alarm clock function so you can wake up to Catholic radio. It’s well designed, attractive, and easy to use.
Someone shared with me that they had recently started paying attention to the lyrics of their favorite songs and found that many of them were about terrible things or encouraging immoral behavior. I know another person who used to be a big Billy Joel fan until she realized what the lines about Catholic girls in Only the Good Die Youngis about. A least with Catholic Community Radio you can be pretty sure that what you’re listening to is helping to build you up as a person and as a follower of Christ.
You’ve all heard of the seven deadly sins, pride, sloth, lust, anger, gluttony, greed, and envy, but you may not have heard of the unofficial eighth deadly sin. In the tradition of the Benedictine monks, they add one sin to the list of seven deadly sins, the “sin of monks,” but which can afflict all of us, murmuring or complaining. If you follow social media, you may have noticed that the big thing right now is that people are resolving, in this new year, to be more positive. People noticed that last year was marked by negativity and complaining, and they’re tired of it; they want to turn over a new leaf in this new year. However, we can’t let this new resolution to stop complaining turn into complaining about other people being negative and complaining.
Murmuring, or grumbling and complaining, is so damaging to the monastic life because it’s contagious. It spreads from one person to the next sapping people’s energy and motivation. The purpose of the monastic life is to for the brothers, or sisters in a convent, to strive to help each other to grow in holiness, and it’s very hard to do that when you’re always complaining about one another. Complaining does the same thing in our lives and families and in the communities that we belong to. Instead of helping to build one another up we bring one another down.
The remedy to any sin is to find out what the opposite virtue is and to try to grow in that virtue, and the opposite of complaining is gratitude. When we grow in gratitude for the gifts in our lives, for the good in the people around us, and for the blessings that God gives us, then we naturally complain less. Let’s all challenge ourselves to be more grateful. Every time we find ourselves complaining about something, stop and think of one thing that you’re grateful for that day, and thank God for it. In that way we replace the deadly sin of murmuring with the life giving virtue of gratitude.
Since today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I’ve been thinking a lot about baptism. John the Baptist said about Jesus, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt. 3:11). The only thing necessary for baptism is to use real water, to intend to do what the Church intends, and to use the formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” However, there are other rites and symbols in a Catholic baptism which the Church uses to show us what’s happening in baptism, such as the water, the white garment, and the candle.
Water is necessary for the baptism to be valid, but it isn’t used on accident. We use water because water does physically for the body what baptism does spiritually for the soul. Water is used to clean things because almost everything dissolves in water, and baptism “cleans,” or purifies, the soul since it removes all traces of sin, both personal sin and original sin. Water is also necessary for life. We need to drink water to live, our bodies are filled with water, and we are born from water. In baptism, we’re reborn through water into the family of God and given the new life of the Holy Spirit.
After the person is baptized they are clothed in a white garment. As this is done the celebrant prays, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity…bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” This visibly shows the cleansing of the soul that happens in baptism and reminds us not to stain ourselves by falling back into sin.
Then someone, usually one of the godparents, lights the baptismal candle from the Paschal Candle, which is lit for every baptism. The Paschal Candle, or Easter Candle, represents the resurrected Christ. At the Easter Vigil Mass the Paschal Candle is lit outside and then brought into the Church in procession, representing Jesus Christ returning to the Church after His death on the Cross on Good Friday. As St. Paul tells us, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rm. 6:3-4). The baptism candle therefore represents the Resurrection of Jesus Christ giving new life to the soul of the baptized and the hope for our own resurrection to eternal life in heaven.
There are other rites in the Rite of Baptism, like the two anointings and the ephphatha (and yes, that’s spelled correctly), but I chose to reflect on these three to show us that baptism is supposed to be about being cleansed of our sins and anything that is not of God and receiving the new life of the Holy Spirit. May we all live out the grace of baptism in our lives.
The Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is the celebration of the epiphany, the “making-known” or coming-into-the-light, of Jesus Christ. We focus on the three magi who came from the east, probably from Persia, to greet the newborn King of the Jews and to give him homage. They were the first gentiles, or non-Jews, to recognize Jesus Christ. The prayers of Epiphany also make references to three other epiphanies of the Lord: the birth of Jesus, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and Jesus’ first miracle at the Wedding Feast at Cana. All of these are points when Christ is made known for Who He is.
There are two traditional Catholic practices that are specifically done on the Feast of Epiphany. They are the blessing of water for Epiphany and the Blessing of Chalk. There is a special rite for the blessing of Epiphany Water which is much more in depth than the typical blessing. It begins with a litany of the saints and chanting psalms 28, 45, and 146. Then the salt and water are both blessed and then mixed together. The blessing of chalk is also just for Epiphany. The Epiphany Water and the blessed chalk are taken home the faithful and used to bless their homes. The water is sprinkled in every room of the house while the family say prayers together, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. Then the chalk is used to mark the outside lintel of every exterior door like this:
20 + C + M + B + 19
The door is marked with the year, as a reminder of when the blessing occurred. It’s also marked with the initials C, M, and B, with a cross between each of the initials and the date. The initials refer to two things. First, they refer to the names of the three kings, Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar. It also refers to the Latin phrase, “Christus mansionem benedicat,” meaning, “May God bless this house.” The point of this rite is to recognize the coming of Christ, to ask Him to fill your home with His grace, peace, and love, and to protect the people who live there from the attacks of the Ancient Enemy. In other words, as we celebrate the coming of the Lord into the world and His becoming known at Epiphany, in this blessing you are asking the Lord to come into your home and make Himself known to you.
The world experienced 200 years dominated by revolutions beginning with the American Revolution in the middle of the 18thCentury, continuing with the French Revolution at the end of that century and ending with revolutions in South and Central America and Africa in the middle of the 20thCentury. These were political revolutions aimed at overthrowing old regimes and setting up new governments. Some of them were successful and others failed. Some of them resulted in more freedom and rights for the people and some in oppression and terror. However, all of them were political revolutions. The celebration of Christmas offers us a chance to join a spiritual revolution.
Jesus Christ may have been born the child of a poor carpenter, but an army of angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of the new king in the city of David and proclaiming him to be the “Christ the Lord.” This was during the reign of the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, who was hailed as the Lord of the world and commanded the strongest army in the world at that time, the Roman legions. Jesus of Nazareth was the true Lord of the world, and He commanded an army of angels. Caesar Augustus came to conquer and obtain power for himself, and Jesus Christ came “not to be served but the serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). The legions of Caesar came with swords, but Jesus told St. Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52).
Christmas is an invitation to join this spiritual revolution, which we do by imitating Jesus Christ. Come, Lord Jesus, and set us free from the tyranny of sin. Let your kingdom come and your will be done in our lives and in the world as it is in heaven. Arm us with the sword of the Spirit and armor us with the helmet of salvation. Do not let us give any space to the enemy in our hearts, but allow Christ to reign in every corner of our lives.
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, take the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
May you all have a merry and most blessed Christmas.
At Mass about a month ago a made a comment about the reason that we do so much kneeling, sitting, and standing at Mass, and I got so many comments about it that I decided to expand on that a bit more in this article. It amazes me that this is one of the most common complaints about the Mass and is used as a reason for people not to go to Mass. The Mass isn’t something that we passively sit through but is something that we have to actively participate in. It isn’t just about what God is giving us, the Eucharist, but it’s also about what we are offering Him, our own lives, even if His gift to us is far greater than our gift to Him. That’s why we need to actively participate in the Mass in different ways: mentally, by paying attention to the readings homily, etc., spiritually, by praying along with the prayers, and physically, by using our bodily posture and gestures.
We kneel, sit, or stand at specific times in the Mass based on what’s happening in the Mass at that time. We sit down during the readings from the Old and New Testament and the homily to show that we are receptive to what we’re hearing. We stand during certain prayers and during the readings of the Gospel to show reverence and respect and that we are actively participating in those prayers, not just letting someone else pray for us. We kneel during the Eucharistic prayer and after receiving Communion because we recognize that Jesus Christ is now present with us in the Eucharist and desire to worship Him.
This shows that we worship God with both our soul and our body. Yoda may think that we are really only our souls, like he said to Luke in Star Wars, episode V, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” but Christians believe that God created us body and soul, that the body is good, and that our bodies will be resurrected at the end of time. If our bodies are gifts from God, temples of the Holy Spirit, and destined to be raised up to heaven after the Resurrection of the Dead, then we should use them even now to worship God.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.