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.
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.
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.
Everything in the Mass means something, from the structure of the Mass to the movements of the priest and ministers, and understanding this symbolism can help us to better understand the Mass, pray the Mass, and get something out of the Mass. A symbol, like a stop sign, is something that means something or points to something else. When you see a stop sign you know it means that you’re supposed to stop, but it doesn’t make you stop. Some symbols do seem to have power, though, like language. All language is symbolic because words point to something else; words mean things. When the president says, “I pardon John Doe of his crimes,” that sentence affects his legal status and makes him pardoned. When the priest says, “I absolved you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” it affects your soul and wipes away your sins. The symbols of the Mass, through the power of the Holy Spirit, make present the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Even the structure of the Mass is symbolic. The Mass starts with The Introductory Rites, continues with The Liturgy of the Word, goes into The Liturgy of the Eucharist, and finishes with The Concluding Rites. The Introductory Rites prepare us for the Mass. We begin with the sign of the Cross and then the priest greets the Church, saying, “The Lord be with you,” and they respond, “And with your spirit.” The greeting is both to remind us that the Lord is indeed with us and also to call the Lord down, which is why you respond by calling down the Lord upon my spirit as well. We continue with the Penitential Act by confessing our sinfulness and asking the Lord to have mercy on us three times. We must be purified of our sinfulness in order to worthily enter into the Mass. Finally, we sing or recite the Gloria, reminding us that the purpose of the Mass is for us to glorify the Lord.
The Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist go together. We listen to the Word of God and hear the priest or deacon interpret it, encouraging us, calling us to repentance, and spurring us to action. The Word of God in the Bible prepares us to recognize and receive the Word of God present in the Eucharist. It puts us in the proper mindset or spiritual disposition to celebrate the Mystery of the Eucharist. These two parts of the Mass go all the way back to our Jewish roots. The Jewish people went to synagogues and to the Temple in Jerusalem. In the synagogue, the Scriptures were read and then the rabbi would interpret them for the people. In the Temple, the Jewish Levitical priests would offer the sacrifice. There were many different things offered in the Temple, like different grains, bulls, goats, doves and pigeons, and oxen, but the three most common offerings, which were offered every day, were unleavened bread, wine, and lambs. The points to Christ who is the Lamb of God and gives us His flesh in the form of unleavened bread and wine. Both the synagogue and Temple worship are present in the Mass, because the Liturgy of the Word is based on what they did in the synagogue and the Liturgy of the Eucharist replaces what they did in the Temple.
We finish by being blessed and sent forth to live what we have heard and received.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.