Q. I have a holy water font in my home. Recently, a non-Catholic friend of mine noticed it and told me that he thought that this practice of using holy water seemed superstitious. How might I explain the reason that we use holy water?
A. Jesus himself used the sign of water during his ministry. He submitted himself to be baptized in the Jordan River by John, which was not a mere sentimental gesture. John’s baptism was a sign of repentance, but Jesus had no need to repent. Because Jesus embraced this sign of water, he blessed the waters of baptism, and revealed his self-emptying humility, as he made himself appear to be a sinner.
Some of the last recorded words that Jesus spoke on earth before he ascended to his Heavenly Father were “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28). In commanding the disciples to baptize, he tells them to use water, a material thing, as the means by which Original Sin is forgiven and grace is received.
In fact, during the blessing and invocation of God over the waters of Baptism in the Rite of Baptism, the celebrant offers a prayer that recalls how God has used the sign of water throughout all of salvation history. For instance, through the waters of the great flood, God made an end to sin and began a new period of goodness. And through the waters of the Red Sea, God freed the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, and guided them to their own land.
Holy water continues to be a great sign of God’s grace in the world. It reminds us of our baptism, of our baptismal promises, and the fact that God welcomes us into his family.
Holy water is an example of a sacramental, which are “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church” (CCC 1667). The Church desires that we make use of holy water. This is why churches have holy water fonts and usually urns from which the faithful may draw water for their own spiritual use.
Just as God used water as a sign of something greater in the past, he continues to do this through a sacramental like Holy Water.
Through the blessing of the priest, water is made holy, that is, set apart to aid our faith. The Old Testament itself alludes to the use of water in this way. The Book of Numbers states, “[A]nd the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water” (Num 5:17).
Holy water is made holy by the blessing of a priest, which he does by virtue of his priestly ordination, where he acts as “another Christ” in the world. The blessing of objects, including holy water is a continuance of the sanctifying work of Jesus.
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