Numbers 5:17 "And he shall take holy water in an earthen vessel,
and he shall cast a little earth of the pavement of the tabernacle into it."
For the Christian, water, as the matter of Baptism, is life. Tertullian (b. 160), making a play on words based on the Greek acrostic ICQUS , or Ichthys, meaning "fish" and indicating "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour", wrote in "De Baptismo," "But we, little fishes, after the example of our Ichthys Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water; so that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes, by taking them away from the water!" In the same treatise, he wrote of water's symbolism:
"In the first beginning," saith Scripture, "God made the heaven and the earth. But the earth was invisible, and unorganized, and darkness was over the abyss; and the Spirit of the Lord was hovering over the waters." The first thing, O man, which you have to venerate, is the age of the, waters in that their substance is ancient; the second, their dignity, in that they were the seat of the Divine Spirit, more pleasing to Him, no doubt, than all the other then existing elements. For the darkness was total thus far, shapeless, without the ornament of stars; and the abyss gloomy; and the earth unfurnished; and the heaven unwrought: water alone -- always a perfect, gladsome, simple material substance, pure in itself -- supplied a worthy vehicle to God.
See how many then are the advocacies of nature, the special provisions of grace, the customary observances of conduct, the types, the preparations in act or word, which have laid down the rule for the sacred use of water. The first, that when the people of Israel are set free from bondage in Egypt and by passing through the water are escaping the violence of the Egyptian king, the king himself with all his forces is destroyed by water. This is a type made abundantly clear in the sacred act of baptism: I mean that the Gentiles are set free from this present world by means of water, and leave behind, drowned in the water, their ancient tyrant the devil.
Secondly, water is healed of the blemish of bitterness, hand restored to its own sweet usefulness, by the tree Moses throws in: and that tree was Christ, who from within Himself heals the springs of that nature which was previously poisoned and embittered, converting them into exceedingly healthful water, that of baptism. This is the water which flowed forth for the people of Israel from the rock that followed them: and as that rock was Christ, without doubt this shows us that baptism is made blessed in Christ by water. See how great is the grace that water has in the presence of God and His Christ for the corroboration of baptism.
Wherever Christ is, there is water: He himself is baptized in water: when called to a marriage He inaugurates with water the first rudiments of His power: when engaged in conversation He invites those who are athirst to come to His everlasting water: when teaching of charity He approves of a cup of water offered to a little one as one of the works of affection: at a well-side He recruits His strength: He walks upon the water, by His own choice He crosses over the water, with water He makes Himself a servant to His disciples. He continues His witness to Baptism right on to His Passion: when He is given up to the Cross water is in evidence, as Pilate's hands are aware: when He receives a wound water bursts forth from His side, as the soldier's spear can tell.
St. Hipplolytus (d. 236), in his Discourse on the Holy Theophany, writes:
Good, yea, very good, are all the works of our God and Saviour -- all of them that eye seeth and mind perceiveth, all that reason interprets and hand handles, all that intellect comprehends and human nature understands. For what richer beauty can there be than that of the circle of heaven? And what form of more blooming fairness than that of earth's surface? And what is there swifter in the course than the chariot of the sun? And what more graceful car than the lunar orb? And what work more wonderful than the compact mosaic of the stars? And what more productive of supplies than the seasonable winds? And what more spotless mirror than the light of day? And what creature more excellent than man?
Very good, then, are all the works of our God and Saviour. And what more requisite gift, again, is there than the element of water? For with water all things are washed and nourished, and cleansed and bedewed. Water bears the earth, water produces the dew, water exhilarates the vine; water ma tures the corn in the ear, water ripens the grapecluster, water softens the olive, water sweetens the palm-date, water reddens the rose and decks the violet, water makes the lily bloom with its brilliant cups. And why should I speak at length? Without the element of water, none of the present order of things can subsist. So necessary is the element of water; for the other elements took their places beneath the highest vault of the heavens, but the nature of water obtained a seat also above the heavens. And to this the prophet himself is a witness, when he exclaims, "Praise the Lord, ye heavens of heavens, and the water that is above the heavens."
At the Creation, "the spirit of God moved over the waters," and then God "divided the waters that were under the firmament, from those that were above the firmament." At the flood survived by Noe and his family, this was reversed when "all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates of heaven were opened." The earth was cleansed by this deluge of water -- and it was the Spirit (wind, "ruach") that caused the waters to abate. Further foreshadowing Baptism, it was a dove that flew back to the ark bearing an olive branch, signalling to Noe that the flood was coming to an end. St. Peter makes this connection between the cleansing effects of Noe's Flood and Baptism:
1 Peter 3:18-21
Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit, In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison: Which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building: wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. Whereunto baptism being of the like form, now saveth you also: not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination of a good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And, of course, there is Our Lord's Baptism, which St. Hippolytus describes so beautifully in his Discourse, continued from above:
Nor is this the only thing that proves the dignity of the water. But there is also that which is more honourable than all -- the fact that Christ, the Maker of all, came down as the rain, and was known as a spring, and diffused Himself as a river, and was baptized in the Jordan. For you have just heard how Jesus came to John, and was baptized by him in the Jordan. Oh things strange beyond compare! How should the boundless Rivers that makes glad the city of God have been dipped in a little water! The illimitable Spring that bears life to all men, and has no end, was covered by poor and temporary waters! He Who is present everywhere, and absent nowhere -- Who is incomprehensible to angels and invisible to men -- comes to the baptism according to His own good pleasure.
The Spirit appeared as a Dove over the waters of the Jordan on that day, thereby making the symbolic connection between water and Spirit complete.
The Use of Water in the Church
The ritual use of this precious substance is ancient and rooted in the Old Testament. When the Israelites entered the Temple, they had to undergo purifcation by immersion in a mikvah (modern Jews still make use of mikva'ot on Yom Kippur, on wedding days, for purification after menstruation or coming into contact with a dead body or semen, etc.). These ritual purifications by water prefigured Christian Baptism, which we recall when we bless ourselves (cross ourselves) using holy water upon entering our churches. Devoutly blessing one's self with Holy Water remits venial sins.
When you enter a church, you might find a holy water font (or "stoup") attached to the wall at one or both sides of each door, or you might find a free-standing font. Simply dip the tips of the fingers of your right hand into the water and cross yourself while mentally contemplating the words, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Don't rush through this; make it meaningful, remembering the meaning of your Baptism and mentally expressing your gratitude to God. Many Catholics repeat this process upon leaving the church, too. (Note: you might see one Catholic dip his fingers into the Holy Water and touch fingers with another Catholic to share it if that second Catholic can't reach the font comfortably).
This holy water is also used by the priest to sprinkle the people before the beginning of Mass. He will have a pail-like vessel called an "aspersory" to hold the holy water, and into this he will dip a stick called an "aspergillum" (or an "aspergill"). The aspergillum has holes in it to catch droplets of the water, and the priest's swining it toward the congregation causes the drops of water to fly out. This blessing of the congregation before Mass is called "Aspérges" and the accompanying, chanted words come from Psalm 50:
Aspérges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbador. Miserére mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam
Thou shalt sprinke me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall become whiter than show. Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy
Holy water is blessed on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) and any time thereafter that holy water is needed. First, the salt to be added to the water is exorcized and blessed. Then the water itself is blessed with these words:
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.
I exorcise thee in the name of God the Father almighty, and in the name of Jesus Christ His Son, our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Ghost, that you may be able to put to flight all the power of the enemy, and be able to root out and supplant that enemy and his apostate angels; through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.
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 nostrum Jesum Christum filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
God, Who for the salvation of the human race has built your greatest mysteries upon this substance, in your kindness hear our prayers and pour down the power of your blessing into this element, prepared by many purifications. May this your creation be a vessel of divine grace to dispel demons and sicknesses, so that everything that it is sprinkled on in the homes and buildings of the faithful will be rid of all unclean and harmful things. Let no pestilent spirit, no corrupting atmosphere, remain in those places: may all the schemes of the hidden enemy be dispelled. Let whatever might trouble the safety and peace of those who live here be put to flight by this water, so that health, gotten by calling Your Holy Name, may be made secure against all attacks. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Holy Water for Personal Use
Where to get it
To get holy water to use in your home, bring a clean flask to your parish church and look for a faucet that will probably be labelled "Holy Water." If there is no faucet, it might be kept in an urn of some sort. If you can't find it, don't be shy; just ask! Unlike votive candles, there is no real cost to the church in making holy water, so there is no offering expected.
How to use it
You can keep it in decorative bottles 1 for storage at home or in little flasks, made for this purpose, to carry with you. Most Catholics keep at least some in holy water fonts.
Holy water fonts for the home come in all sizes and shapes, some tacky and plastic, others quite lovely and made of alabaster, marble, porcelain, sandstone, or metals -- as inexpensive or as expensive as you like -- some resting on tables, most hanging on walls (one example is shown at right). You can buy one from most Catholic gift shops or make your own (consider using bivalve seashells as basins, or the shell motif in design. The seashell is a very ancient symbol of Baptism, and the shells of large molluscs -- weighing up to 500 pounds -- have been used in churches as basins for holy water). Tip: putting a thin sponge inside the font is said to make the water evaporate less quickly.
Catholics often keep a font near their front door, in their bedrooms' doorways, and near the family altar. Use the water in the same way you do at church, dipping your fingers into it and making the Sign of the Cross. Bless your children with it as you tuck them in at night, using your thumb to sign them with a cross of holy water on their foreheads.
Most Catholics pray "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" when blessing themselves with Holy Water, but this is another beautiful prayer:
By Thy Precious Blood and by this Holy Water, cleanse me (him/her) from my (his/her) sins, O Lord.
Another use of holy water is to give tiny sips to the sick or spiritually oppressed. It shouldn't be consumed as a beverage, mind you, but the ingestion of small amounts, or adding a few drops to foods, is common.
How to dispose of
Holy water is usually made with a touch of salt which is a preservative, but if your holy water were to go a little, um, green, the proper way to dispose of it is the same as for any sacramental: you want to return it to the earthly elements. You should dig a hole and pour it into the earth.
Easter water, or baptismal water, is the water that is blessed on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) and is used to baptize Catechumens. This water receives a more solemn sort of blessing than "regular holy water": the Easter Candle is dipped into it three times, and the priest blows his breath over it thrice, recalling the Spirit over the waters at Creation, and the Spirit causing the waters of Noe's flood to subside, and how the Spirit appeared as a dove over the waters at Christ's Baptism.
Mind you, any clean water can be used in Baptism, and often is, as in cases of emergency; but the use of Easter water is the normal way of doing things.
And finally (on the liturgical level), there is "Gregorian Water" -- holy water mixed with wine, salt, and ashes -- which is used in the consecration of churches, altars and altar stones.
Non-Liturgical "Holy Water"
There are also waters derived from holy wells and from places associated with Saintly apparitions, said waters having special curative properties by the grace of God. The most famous of these sites is Lourdes, where Our Lady appeared to the young girl who was to become known as St. Bernadette and instructed her to dig. St. Bernadette did so, with her hands, and revealed a spring whose waters have cured many.
1 For an idea on how to make a decorative bottle to store your Holy Water, see this page.