Holy water is water that has been blessed by a member of the clergy or a religious figure. The use for cleansing prior to a baptism and spiritual cleansing is common in several religions, from Christianity to Sikhism. The use of holy water as a sacramental for protection against evil is common among Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
In Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy and some other churches, holy water is water that has been sanctified by a priest for the purpose of baptism, the blessing of persons, places, and objects, or as a means of repelling evil.
The use of holy water in the earliest days of Christianity is attested to only in somewhat later documents. The Apostolic constitutions, which go back to about the year 400, attribute the precept of using holy water to the Apostle Matthew. It is plausible that in earliest Christian times water was used for expiatory and purificatory purposes in a way analogous to its employment in Jewish Law. Yet, in many cases, the water used for the Sacrament of Baptism was flowing water, sea or river water, and it could not receive the same blessing as that contained in the baptisteries in the view of the Roman Catholic church. However, Eastern Orthodox do perform the same blessing, whether in a baptistry or an outdoor body of water.
Use and storage
Sprinkling with holy water is used as a sacramental that recalls baptism. Holy water is kept in the holy water font, which is typically located at the entrance to the church (or sometimes in a separate room or building called a baptistery). Smaller vessels, called stoups, are usually placed at the entrances of the church, to enable people to sprinkle themselves with it on entering. In recent years, with the concerns over influenza, new holy water machines that work like an automatic soap dispenser have become popular.
In the Middle Ages the power of holy water was considered so great that in some places fonts had locked covers to prevent the theft of holy water for unauthorized magic practices. The Constitutions of Archbishop Edmund Rich (1236) prescribe that "Fonts are to be kept under lock and key, because of witchcraft (sortilegia). Similarly the chrism and sacred oil are kept locked up."
In Catholicism, holy water, as well as water used during the washing of the priest's hands at mass, is not allowed to be disposed of in regular plumbing. Roman Catholic churches will usually have a special basin (a Sacrarium) that leads directly into the ground for the purpose of proper disposal. A hinged lid is kept over the holy water basin to distinguish it from a regular sink basin, which is often just beside it. Items that contained holy water are separated, drained of the holy water, and then washed in a regular manner in the adjacent sink.
Holy water fonts have been identified as a potential source of bacterial and viral infection. In the late 19th century, bacteriologists found staphylococci, streptococci, coli bacilli, Loeffler's bacillus, and other bacteria in samples of holy water taken from a church in Sassari, Italy. In a study performed in 1995, thirteen samples were taken when a burn patient acquired a bacterial infection after exposure to holy water. The samples in that study were shown to have a "wide range of bacterial species", some of which could cause infection in humans. During the swine flu epidemic of 2009, Bishop John Steinbock of Fresno, California recommended that "holy water should not be in the fonts" due to fear of spreading infections. Also in response to the swine flu, an automatic, motion-detecting holy water dispenser was invented and installed in an Italian church in 2009.
As a reminder of baptism, Catholic Christians dip their fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross when entering the church. The liturgy may begin on Sundays with the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water, in which holy water is sprinkled upon the congregation; this is called aspersion, from the Latin, aspergere, to sprinkle. This ceremony dates back to the ninth century. An aspergill or aspergillum is a brush or branch used to sprinkle the water. An aspersorium is the vessel which holds the holy water and into which the aspergillum is dipped, though elaborate Ottonian examples are known as situlae. Blessed salt may be added to the water "where it is customary."
This use of holy water and making a sign of the cross when entering a church reflects a renewal of baptism, a cleansing of venial sin, as well as providing protection against evil. It is sometimes accompanied by the following prayer:
"By this Holy water and by your Precious Blood, wash away all my sins O Lord".
Protection against evil
Catholic saints have written about the power of holy water as a force that repels evil. Saint Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church who reported visions of Jesus and Mary, was a strong believer in the power of holy water and wrote that she used it with success to repel evil and temptations. She wrote:
"I know by frequent experience that there is nothing which puts the devils to flight like Holy water."
In Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics Henry Theiler states that in addition to being a strong force in repelling evil, holy water has the twofold benefit of providing grace for both body and soul.
The new Rituale Romanum excludes the exorcism prayer on the water. Exorcized salt used to be added to the holy Water as well. Priests can now use the older form if they wish according to Summorum Pontificum, an apostolic letter by Pope Benedict XVI.
There are two rites for blessing holy water: the "Great Blessing of Waters" which is held on the Feast of Theophany and at baptisms, and the "Lesser Blessing of Waters" which is conducted according to need and local custom during the rest of the year, certain feast days calling for the Lesser Blessing of Waters as part of their liturgical observance. Both forms are based upon the Rite of Baptism. After the blessing of holy water the faithful are sprinkled with it and each drinks some of it.
Holy water is drunk by the faithful after it is blessed and it is a common custom for the pious to drink holy water every morning. In the monasteries of Mount Athos holy water is always drunk in conjunction with consuming antidoron. Eastern Orthodox do not typically bless themselves with holy water upon entering a church as Western Catholics do, but a quantity of holy water is often kept in a font placed in the narthex (entrance) of the church, available for anyone who would like to partake of it or to take some of it home.
After the annual Great Blessing of Waters at Theophany (also known as Epiphany), the priest goes to the homes of the faithful within his parish and, in predominantly Orthodox lands, to the buildings throughout town, and blesses them with holy water.
When blessing objects such as the palms on Palm Sunday, Paschal eggs and other foods for Easter, candles, or liturgical instruments and sacred vessels (icons and crosses are not blessed, however, as they are considered intrinsically holy and redeemed), the blessing is completed by a triple sprinkling with holy water using the words, "This (name of item) is blessed by the sprinkling of this holy water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Throughout the centuries, there have been many springs of water that have been believed by members of the Orthodox Church to be miraculous. Some still flow to this day, such as the one at Pochaev Lavra in Ukraine, and the Life-Giving Spring of the Theotokos in Constantinople (commemorated on Bright Friday).
"Holy water" is not a term used in Church of England rites, although font water is sanctified in the Church of England baptism rite. In contrast, the Episcopal Church (United States) does expressly mention the optional use of holy water in some recent liturgies of blessing. More generally, the use of water within High Church Anglicanism or Anglo-Catholicism adheres closely to Roman Catholic practice. In many such Anglican churches baptismal water is used for the asperges. Stoups with sanctified water are sometimes found near the doors of High Church Anglican churches for the faithful to use in making the sign of the cross upon entering the church.
The use of holy water in some synods of Lutheranism is for the baptism of infants and new members of the church. The water is believed to be blessed by God, as it is used in a sacrament. The water is applied to the forehead of the laity being baptised and the minister performs the sign of the cross. Lutherans tend to have holy water fonts at the entrance of the church.
Other synods do not use holy water, however they do typically treat the water used for baptisms in a more respectful matter.
In the Methodist tradition, Holy Baptism is often administered by sprinkling or pouring holy water over the candidate. The official Baptismal Liturgy, as well as the liturgy for Reaffirmation of Baptism commonly done through asperges, has a prayer for the blessing of this water:
Pour out your Holy Spirit, to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that, dying and being raised with Christ, they may share in his final victory. All praise to you, Eternal Father, through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever. Amen.
The traditional Latin formula for blessing the water is as follows:
Exorcizo te, creatura aquæ, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis, et in nomine Jesu Christi, Filii ejus Domini nostri, et in virtute Spiritus Sancti: ut fias aqua exorcizata ad effugandam omnem potestatem inimici, et ipsum inimicum eradicare et explantare valeas cum angelis suis apostaticis, per virtutem ejusdem Domini nostri Jesu Christ: qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos et sæculum per ignem. Deus, qui ad salutem humani generis maxima quæque sacramenta in aquarum substantia condidisti: adesto propitius invocationibus nostris, et elemento huic, multimodis purificationibus præparato, virtutem tuæ benedictionis infunde; ut creatura tua, mysteriis tuis serviens, ad abigendos dæmones morbosque pellendos divinæ gratiæ sumat effectum; ut quidquid in domibus vel in locis fidelium hæc unda resperserit careat omni immunditia, liberetur a noxa. Non illic resideat spiritus pestilens, non aura corrumpens: discedant omnes insidiæ latentis inimici; et si quid est quod aut incolumitati habitantium invidet aut quieti, aspersione hujus aquæ effugiat: ut salubritas, per invocationem sancti tui nominis expetita, ab omnibus sit impugnationibus defensa. Per Dominum, amen.
In Ancient Greek religion, holy water called chernips (Greek: χέρνιψ) was created when a torch from a religious shrine was extinguished in it. In Greek religion, purifying people and locations with water was part of the process of distinguishing the sacred from the profane.
The Book of Numbers mentions using water in a test for the purity of a wife accused of marital infidelity. A ritual would be performed involving the drinking of water. If she participated in the ritual, and she was guilty, she is supposedly cursed to miscarry any pregnancy. If she was still able to bear children, then she was presumed innocent.
In Hinduism, water represents God in a spiritual sense which is the central theme in Mantra Pushpam from Taithreeya Aranyakam of Yajur Veda. Bathing in holy water is, thus, a key element in Hinduism, and the Ganges is considered the holiest Hindu river.
The idea of "blessed water" is used in virtually all Buddhist traditions. In the Theravada tradition, water is put into a new pot and kept near a Paritrana ceremony, a blessing for protection. This "lustral water" can be created in a ceremony in which the burning and extinction of a candle above the water represents the elements of earth, fire, and air. This water is later given to the people to be kept in their home. Not only water but also oil and strings are blessed in this ceremony. Most Mahayana Buddhists typically recite sutras or various mantras (typically that of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara for example) numerous times over the water, which is then either consumed or is used to bless homes afterwards. In Vajrayana Buddhism, a Bumpa, a ritual object, is one of the Ashtamangala, used for storing sacred water sometimes, symbolizing wisdom and long life.
The drinking of "healing water" (āb-i shifā) is a practice in various denominations of Shia Islam. In the tradition of the Twelver Shi’a, many dissolve the dust of sacred locations such as Karbala (khāk-i shifa) and Najaf and drink the water (āb-i shifā) as a cure for illness, both spiritual and physical. The Ismaili tradition involves the practice of drinking water blessed by the Imam of the time. This water is taken in the name of the Imam and has a deep spiritual significance. This is evident from the names used to designate the water, including light (nūr) and ambrosia (amṛt, amī, amīras, amījal). This practice is recorded from the 13th and 14th centuries and continues to the present day. The ceremony is known as ghat-pat in South Asia.
Holy water has also been believed to ward off or act as a weapon against mythical evil creatures, such as vampires. In eastern Europe, one might sprinkle holy water onto the corpse of a suspected vampire in order to destroy it or render it inert. Thereafter, the concept proliferated into fiction about such creatures.
Church of Santa Maria a Cintoia, Florence, Italy.
Church of Saints Saint Cajetan and Maximillian, Salzburg, Austria
- "Tracts on Principles of Divine Worship: No. 3. The Sprinkling of Holy Water". New York: Men's Guild, St. Ignatius' Church. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
Holy water has no power to beautify the soul here in time and the body in eternity, as Penance and the Eucharist have; but for those who reverently use it, having the right dispositions of faith and contrition, it has power to banish demons, dispel their deceits and vexations, cleanse the soul from stain of venial sins, avert earthly ills (other than those which God allows for our good), and to promote our temporal welfare.
- Henry Theiler, 2003 Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics ISBN 0-7661-7553-7 pp 13–15
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- Nathaniel Altman, 2002 Sacred water: the spiritual source of life ISBN 1-58768-013-0 pp 130–133
- Catholic encyclopedia on Holy water
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By having the font at the entrance of the church, and using the font every Sunday, we are intentionally and dramatically revealing the importance of Holy Baptism and highlighting it as foundational to our life in Christ. It symbolically reminds us that we enter into the life of the church, into the life of Christ’s body, through the birthing waters of the baptismal font, where we are born again from above. Dipping our fingers in the holy water of the font and making the sign of the cross, reinforces who and whose we are. We are reminded that we have been baptized; daily we die to sin and rise to new life in the Spirit. The font is also positioned so that from the font there is a direct and central path leading to the altar, highlighting how these two Holy Sacraments are intimately connected. As we leave the church, we see the baptismal font, reminding us that we have been baptized, named and claimed, to serve others in proclamation and service to others.
- Hannon, Dan (2014). "Baptism". Life Events. The United Methodist Church.
Holy Baptism is a Covenant between an individual and God. It is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love. Persons of all ages can be baptized at Christ Church. We baptize by sprinkling Holy Water. The United Methodist Church recognizes baptisms from other denominations and churches and therefore does not “re-baptize”.
- "This is your Baptismal Liturgy: A Resource for Understanding The United Methodist Ritual of Holy Baptism". The United Methodist Church. 2001.
Holy Spirit is invoked to bless and use the water, in anticipation that God will act again, even now.line feed character in
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- "This is your Baptismal Liturgy: A Resource for Understanding The United Methodist Ritual of Holy Baptism". The United Methodist Church. 2001.
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- Holy Water from various Churches
- Photo of Great Blessing of Waters at Theophany (Russian Orthodox)
- Photo of Lesser Blessing of Waters (Russian Orthodox)
- St Brigid's Well, County Kildare