Blessing Holy Water

You may have heard the old joke… “How do priests make holy water?  They boil the hell out of it!”  Comedy aside, there is no boiling involved, but getting “the hell out of it”, properly known as exorcism, is actually part of the process.

Below is a liturgy for the blessing of water, adapted from A Manual for the American Priest, originally made as a companion to the 1928 BCP, which underwent several editions.  If you’re a priest, and you want to prepare holy water but don’t know how, consider this your best go-to American Anglican resource in contemporary language!

But first, perhaps a quick introduction is in order.  What is holy water and what is it used for?  Water imagery in the Bible is frequently associated either with chaos (the sea and its mysterious creatures) or with life (usually a fountain or river).  Sprinkling, washing, or cleansing with water is one of the most common images for purification and rebirth.  Holy Baptism is, of course, the Christian’s primary ritual use of water.  Holy water is subsidiary to that concept: the baptismal water is prepared in the Baptismal Rite itself, but water may also be blessed for lesser applications.  When blessing people on special occasions or objects for sacred use, it was customary since ancient times to sprinkle the subject(s) in question with holy water.  It was not a baptism of those objects, nor a re-baptism of the people, but it was a reminder of baptism, an application or enactment of the new life, the redemption of creation, that the Gospel brings.

Two possible uses for holy water are coming up in the next two weeks: blessing the palms for the Palm Sunday procession, and sprinking (or asperging) the congregation at the Easter Vigil or on Easter morning either in a procession or at the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.  Unless you’ve got a baptismal font of water already blessed for use, a separate blessing of holy water will need to be done.

One last note on the liturgy itself for blessing holy water: a second ingredient is used: salt.  Salt is another object used throughout the Bible to denote purification or preservation.  Elisha used salt in 2 Kings 2 to bless a bitter spring.  This was both miraculous and symbolic.  It was miraculous in that a handful of salt obviously wouldn’t make unhealthy water safe to drink (not to mention that salt water is far less good to drink than fresh water!) and it was symbolic in that the salt purified the water to make it clean.  So when holy water is made, first the salt is prepared and exorcised; then the water is prepared and exorcised; then they are mixed together and the whole compound is blessed.

With that introduction, here’s the liturgy (which I’ve adapted into contemporary English).  The + indicates when the priest should make the sign of the cross with his hand over the salt or water in question.  If at all possible, conduct these prayers with people around!  It will both de-mystify holy water somewhat for the hearers, and expose them to some of the rich biblical imagery behind this ancient custom.

BLESSING OF WATER

Salt, and pure and clean water, being made ready in the church or sacristy,
the Priest, vested in surplice and purple stole, shall say:

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. The maker of heaven and earth.

And immediately he shall begin the Exorcism of the salt.

I adjure you, O creature of salt, by the living + God, by the true + God, by the holy + God, by God who commanded you to be cast, by the prophet Elisha, into the water to heal its barrenness, that you become salt exorcised for the health of believers. Bring to all who receive you soundness of soul and body, and let all vain imaginations, wickedness, and subtlety of the wiles of the devil, and every unclean spirit fly and depart from every place where you, O salt, be sprinkled, adjured by the Name of Him who shall come, to judge both the living and the dead, and the world by fire.  Amen.

Let us pray.

Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly beseech your great and boundless mercy, that it may please you in thy loving-kindness to bless+ and to hallow+ this creature of salt, which you have given for the use of man.  Let it be, to all who take of it, health of mind and body; and let whatever that shall be touched or sprinkled with it to be free from all uncleanness, and from all assaults of spiritual wickedness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Exorcism of the water

I adjure you, O creature of water, by the Name of God the Father + Almighty, by the Name of Jesus + Christ his Son our Lord, and by the power of the Holy + Spirit, that you become water exorcised for putting all the power of the enemy to flight.  Be empowered to cast out and send away that same enemy with all his apostate angels: by the power of the same, our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall come to judge the quick and the dead, and the world by fire.  Amen.

Let us pray.

O God, who for the salvation of mankind has ordained that the substance of water should be used in one of your chief Sacraments: favorably regard us who call upon you, and pour the power of your benediction+ upon this element, made ready by careful cleansing; that this your creature, fitting for your mysteries, may receive the effect of divine grace. May it so cast out devils and put sickness to flight, that whatever shall be sprinkled with this water in the dwellings of your faithful people may be free from all uncleanness and delivered from all manner of hurt.  Let no spirit of pestilence abide there, nor any corrupting air.  Let all the wiles of the hidden enemy depart from there, and if there be anything that lays snares against the safety or peace of those who dwell in the house, let it flee from the sprinkling of this water: so that the health which they seek through calling upon your holy Name may be protected against all things that threaten it; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Then the Priest shall cast the salt into the water in the form of a Cross, saying:

May this salt and water be mingled together: in the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.
Let us pray.

O God, who are the Author of unconquered might, the King of the Empire that cannot be overthrown, the ever-glorious Conqueror, who dominates the strength of the dominion that is against you, who rules the raging of the fierce enemy, who mightily fights against the wickedness of your foes: With fear and trembling we entreat you O Lord, and we beseech you graciously to behold this creature of salt and water; mercifully shine upon it and hallow it with the dew of you loving-kindness; that wherever it shall be sprinkled, with the invocation of your holy Name, all haunting of the unclean spirit may be driven away; let the fear of the venomous serpent be cast far from there; and wherever it shall be sprinkled, there let the presence of the Holy Spirit be given to all of us who should ask for your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

What is liturgy?

One of the most prominent differences between Anglicanism and other Protestant traditions is the liturgy.  We hold to a way of worship that is rooted not in the whims and wiles of the local congregation, but in the wisdom of the historic Church.  Although a great many local variances can be found in different times throughout history and places across the globe, the liturgical tradition puts into action a set of principles and practices regarding corporate worship.  In conversation with visitors and members of other traditions, therefore, one of the biggest questions we can be asked (and which we need to know how to answer) is “what is liturgy?

From a Greek verb and noun that appears several times in the New Testament, liturgy means “public work” or “work of the people.”  That second quote is the more popular definition offered, but it can be misleading with the connotation that it’s the work by the congregation specifically.  There are examples in the Epistles of St. Paul of “liturgy” or “ministry” being carried out by individuals on behalf of others.  Although the context does not concern worship directly, it is illustrative of the reality that congregational worship does not always necessarily take place at the initiative of the congregation.  Some aspects of worship are individuals-driven, other aspects are representative (or led by particular ministers on others’ behalf).

All corporate worship is by definition liturgical.  And our tradition is cognizant of that.  Something that comes up here and there today is the offering of multiple worship services according to different styles.  This is not inherently wrong, but something that is a very bad idea for an Anglican Church is to label certain services as “liturgical” and others as something else like “modern” or “contemporary.”  No, all worship services are liturgical.  To attribute the term “liturgical” as a label only for certain things we do is to turn the very nature of worship on its head.

Instead, we need to understand what it means for our worship to be specifically and properly liturgical.  Here’s a quick and easy answer that will help you and anyone else clarify your understanding:

The book of common prayer is our liturgy.

Putting our answer of Anglican worship in this way can be a valuable reorientation of common assumptions.

  1. It gets you away from thinking of liturgy as a style, which is the worst mistake that I’ve come across in conversation with other Christians.  Liturgical worship is not merely a flavor of Christian tradition, it is a set of biblical and theological principles in concrete ritual order and action that can be (and is) written down in a book for all to use.
  2. It gets you away from thinking of liturgy as the order of service, which is also a very common mistake but at least is closer to the truth.  There is a sense in which “the liturgy” does refer to the ordering and contents of a particular worship service.  But in its fullest sense, liturgy is bigger than that.
  3. It gets you thinking about liturgy as everything.  The liturgy includes the Daily Offices, the Communion on Sundays and Holy Days, the Calendar, Baptisms, Burials or Funerals, Marriages, everything.  The entire Christian life, as enacted and celebrated in worship, is the Church’s liturgy.  And the genius of Anglicanism, historically, has been that we’ve tied that together into one single book that’s accessible to anyone who can read.

In short, liturgy is the church’s life together.  It’s what we do when we’re together.  When Anglicans gather for worship, the Prayer Book is the expression (and rule) of how we go about it.  To eschew the Prayer Book in favor of the Roman Mass, other Protestant worship books, extemporaneous prayer and praise, or any other tradition, is to surrender that which makes us Anglican.  That doesn’t mean we can’t learn and borrow from other traditions at all.  But if we reach for those materials more instinctively or frequently than we reach for the Prayer Book, our “Anglican-ness” is not in good shape.

Tomorrow: Saint Francis Day!

October 4th is the commemoration of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, and beloved medieval Saint.  One of the popular traditions that accompanies his (minor) feast day is the blessing of animals.

Naturally, such a specific tradition is not mandated, nor even mentioned, in the Prayer Books.  But many parishes have preserved forms of this old practice.  If you want to take this opportunity to bless your pets or other animals, or visit those of your friends or neighbors, here is a sample prayer you could use:

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures.  You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air, and animals on the land.  You inspired Saint Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters.  [We ask you to] bless this A.  By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan.  May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation.  Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures.  Amen.

If you’re a priest or bishop, you may omit the words “We ask you to” and gesture the sign of the Cross over the animal at that point.  Sprinkling with holy water is optional – be considerate of animals that might spook!

Just for fun: Can you bless the water in a fish tank?  What happens if you do?  Leave a note in the comments! 😉