Water, Liturgical Use of

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Symbolism. The natural symbolism of water led to its liturgical use. Water, of course, serves to cleanse from filth and impurity; consequently, washing is an apt symbol of interior cleanliness and purification. Water is necessary for the existence of all living things humans, animals and plants; it is therefore a symbol of life. The mobility of water, with its property of evaporating (resembling human breathing), increases this vital symbolism. The force of water rushing in a wadi after a rain storm was for the people of the Near East a symbol of the majesty and power of the divinity. An abundance of water was, and still is, for the peoples of parched lands a symbol of happiness and divine blessing. On the other hand, the raging sea tossing ships helplessly about and striking terror into the hearts of sailors is a symbol of any terrible danger. However, water was employed in Christian liturgy primarily as a symbol of purification and life.

Water in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, water was used in rites of purification. Purification with water might be accomplished in different ways. Sometimes the subject to be purified was sprinkled with lustral water. The Book of Numbers (19.122) gives minute instructions for the preparation and use of lustral water in which the ashes of a red heifer were mixed. This water was used to remove legal uncleanness. Sometimes the subject of purification was required to wash his hands and feet or some other part of the body. Thus Aaron and his sons had to purify themselves before entering the tabernacle (Ex 30.1820). Solomon made a large vessel of cast bronze, the "molten sea" (1 Kgs 7.23). According to 2 Chr 4.6, "the sea was for the priests to wash in." In certain circumstances, objects such as garments had to be washed completely (Lv 6.20; 11.28, 32, 40; 13.6; 14.8, 9, 47; 15.511, 13, 2122). In connection with the Feast of Tabernacles, at the morning service on each of the seven days of the feast, water from the pool of Siloam was carried in procession to the temple. Subsequently, the water and also wine were poured out simultaneously as libations.

Water in the New Testament. In the New Testament, John the Baptist prepared the way for the Savior by baptizing with water. The rite of baptizing was employed by several Jewish sects of the period, for example, the Essenes. Thus John was not an innovator in this respect. Following the command of Christ (Mt 28:1820), the Church in every age and place has sought to baptize those who have embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Baptism may be administered in the ancient manner by immersion, or by sprinkling or pouring water on the subject. At the Last Supper, Jesus "poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples" (Jn 13.5). (see washing of the feet.) The example of Jesus on this occasion led to the introduction of the washing of the feet into the liturgy.

Blessing of Baptismal Water. It is uncertain when baptismal water first began to be blessed. The Didache (90100) and Justin Martyr (d. c. 165), for example, say nothing of the consecration of baptismal water. The first mention of such a consecration seems to come from the African Church. Cyprian (d. 258) says: "It is required then that the water should first be cleansed and sanctified by the priest, that it may wash away by its Baptism the sins of the man who is baptized" [Epist. (70.1) Synodica ad Januarium; J. D. Mansi, Scarorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 1:923]. The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 400) contains a prayer that God may sanctify the water of Baptism that it may accomplish its spiritual effect (7.43; J. Quasten, ed., Monumenta eucharista et liturgica vetusissima 19294). The first written formula for blessing baptismal water is found in the Euchologion of Serapion (d. 392): "King and Lord look upon these waters and fill them with the Holy Spirit that those who are being baptized may be no longer flesh and blood but spiritual" (19; F. X. Funk, ed., Didascalia et constitutiones apostolorum 2:18183).

Today in the Eastern Churches it is customary to bless baptismal water immediately before the administration of the Sacrament. Part of the rite is to pour blessed oil or chrism into the water. In the Roman Rite, baptismal water is solemnly blessed at the easter vigil service. The blessing consists of an introductory oration, a preface accompanied by such actions as dipping the paschal candle into it. The Roman Ritual, however, contains formulas for blessing baptismal water apart from the Easter Vigil. The contemporary rite of consecrating baptismal water is based on such documents as the Gelasian Sacramentary, the Gregorian Sacramentary, and the 11th Roman Ordinal.

Blessing of Holy Water. Holy water is blessed by a bishop or priest who solemnly implores God's blessing upon those who use it. As a sacramental, holy water obtains favors from God through the prayers of the Church offered for those who make use of it and through the devotion it inspires. The most ancient testimony about the use of blessed water is found in the apocryphal Acts of Peter (2d century). These acts report that a Christian sanctified his home in which Simon Magus had lived by sprinkling it and invoking the name of Jesus [R. A. Lipsius and M. Bonnet, Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha (Leipzig 1891) 1:59, 66]. The Euchologion of Serapion (representing Egyptian practices of the 3d and 4th centuries) contains a formula for blessing oil or water for the benefit of the sick (17; Didascalia et constitutiones apostolorum 2:179181). In the Apostolic Constitutions there is a blessing of water that is supposed to stem from the Apostle Matthias (8.29; Didascalia et constitutiones apostolorum 1:533).

The first document representative of the Latin Church is the Liber pontificalis (6th century), which ascribes to Alexander I (d. c. 116) a prescription about blessing water mixed with salt for blessing homes (Liber pontificalis, ed. L. Duchesne, 1:127). The ascription is not based on fact, but it probably does reflect a Latin practice of the 6th century. The modern Roman formula of blessing holy water, found in the Roman Ritual and Roman Missal, is based upon the supplement of Alcuin (d. 804) to the Gregorian Sacramentary and even earlier documents. The use of holy water for blessing persons and objects is most frequent. Its use upon entering a church is meant to recall one's baptism.

The Asperges. The Asperges is the liturgical rite of sprinkling altar, clergy, and people with holy water on Sundays, so-named after the antiphon Asperges me (but during Paschal time, Vidi aquam ) which accompanies the sprinkling. Pope Leo IV (d. 885) decreed that each priest should bless water every Sunday in his own church and sprinkle the people with it (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 115:679). At the same time Hincmar (d. 882), Archbishop of Reims, made a similar disposition for his diocese:

Every Sunday, before the celebration of Mass, the priest shall bless water in his church; and, for this holy purpose, he shall use a clean and suitable vessel. The people, when entering the church, are to be sprinkled with this water; and those who desire may carry some away in clean vessels so as to sprinkle their houses, fields, vineyards, and cattle, and the provender with which these last are fed, as also to throw over their own food. (Capitula synodica 5; Patrologia Latina 125:774)

Other Uses of Water in the Mass. In the Mass, water is added to the wine in accordance with a Greek practice observed in Palestine in Christ's time. Justin Martyr mentions the practice in the 2d century (Apol. 1.65, 67). The Church Fathers attached great meaning to the addition of this water. In the Roman liturgy a little water is added to the wine in the chalice at the preparation of gifts. In the Byzantine liturgical tradition, warm water (in Greek, zeon ) is poured into the chalice of wine. The Roman Rite of the Mass also calls for the washing of hands (in Latin, lavabo ) or liturgical vessels, either for actual cleansing (e.g., the cleansing of liturgical vessels) or symbolic purification (as is the case with the lavabo ).

Bibliography: p. reymond, L'Eau: Sa Vie et sa signification dans l'ancien Testament (Vetus Testamentum Suppl. 6; Leiden 1958). j. quasten, Monumenta eucharistica et liturgica vetustissima (Florilegium Patristicum 7; Bonn 193537). a. franz, Die kirchlichen Benediktionen im Mittelalter, 2 v. (Graz 1960). h. schmidt, Hebdomada Sancta, 2 v. (Rome 1956). b. neunheuser, "De benedictione aquae baptismalis," Ephemerides liturgicae 44 (1930) 194207, 25881, 369412, 45592. c. goeb, "Asperges," Orate Fratres 2 (192728) 33842. j. a. jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, tr. f. a. brunner, 2 v. (New York 195155) 2:3844.

[e. j. gratsch/eds.]