1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Holy Water
HOLY WATER, technically the water with which Christian believers sign the cross on their foreheads on entering or leaving church. The edict of Gratian lays down that it should be exorcized and blessed by the priest and sprinkled with exorcized salt. This rite is found in the Gelasian, Gregorian and other sacramentaries. In the East the water was blessed once a month, in the Latin Church it is now blessed every Sunday. In the 4th century in the East it was usual to wash the hands on entering the church (see Ablution).
In the early church water was not expressly consecrated for baptisms and other lustrations. “Water,” says Tertullian in his tract on baptism, “was the abode at the first of the divine Spirit, being more acceptable then (to God) than the other elements.” He pictures the world in the beginning: “total darkness, formless as yet, without tending of stars, the melancholy abyss, the earth unprepared, the heaven undevelopt. The liquid alone an ever perfect material, smiling, simple, pure in its own right, as a worthy vehicle underlay the God.” Water was similarly pure in itself in the old Persian religion.
The Canons of Hippolytus, or Egyptian church order, of about A.D. 250, give no prayer for consecration of fonts, but enact that “at cock crow the baptismal party shall take their stand near waving water, pure, prepared, sacred, of the sea.” The Teaching of the Apostles, c. 100, merely insists on “living,” that is, clear and running water. The ancient feeling, especially Jewish, was that in lustrations the same water must not pass twice over the body. A stagnant pool was useless. Bubbling waters too seemed to have a spirit in them.
Either because running water was not always at hand, or as part of the growing tendency of the church to multiply ceremonies, rituals arose late in the 3rd century for consecrating water. The sacramentary of Serapion, c. 350, provides a prayer asking that the divine Word may descend into the water and hallow it, as of old it hallowed the Jordan. In the Roman order of baptism the priest prays that “the font may receive the grace of the only begotten Son from the holy Spirit, and that the latter may impregnate with hidden admixture of His light this water prepared for the regeneration of mankind, to the end that man through a sanctification conceived from the immaculate womb of the divine font, may emerge a heavenly offspring reborn as a new creature.” The water is then exorcized and evil spirits warned off, and lastly blessed. During the prayer the priest twice signs the water with the cross, and once blows upon it.
The first mention of a special consecration of water for other ends than baptism is in the Acts of Thomas (? A.D. 200); it is for the purgation of a youth already baptized who had killed his mistress because she would not live chastely with him. The apostle prays: “Fountain sent unto us from Rest, Power of Salvation from that Power proceeding which overcomes and subjects all to its own will, come and dwell within these waters, that the Charisma (gift) of the holy Spirit may be fully perfected through them.” The youth then washes his hands, which on touching the sacrament had withered up, and is healed.
The church shared the universal belief that holiness or the holy Spirit is quasi-material and capable of being held in suspense in water, just as sin is a half material infection, absorbed and carried away by it. So Tertullian writes: “The water which carried the Spirit of God (probably regarded as a shadow or reflection-soul) borrowed holiness from that which was carried upon it; for every underlying matter must needs absorb and take up the quality of that matter which overhangs it; especially does a corporeal so absorb a spiritual, as this can easily penetrate and settle into it owing to the subtlety of its substance.”
“Water,” he continues, “was generically hallowed by the Spirit of God brooding over it at creation, and therefore all special waters are holy, and at once obtain the sacrament of sanctification when God is invoked (over them.) For the Spirit from heaven instantly supervenes and is upon the waters, hallowing them out of itself, and being so hallowed they drink up a power of hallowing.”
What is done in material semblance, he then argues, is repeated in the unseen medium of the Spirit. The stains of idolatry, vice and fraud are not visible on the flesh, yet they resemble real dirt. “The waters are medicated in a manner through the intervention of the angel, and the Spirit is corporeally washed in the water and the flesh is spiritually purified in the same.”
Tertullian believed that an angel was sent down, when God was invoked, like that which stirred the pool of Bethesda. As regards rival Isiac and Mithraic baptisms, he asserts that their waters are destitute of divine power; nay, are rather tenanted by the devil who in this matter sets himself to rival God. “Without any religious rite at all,” he urges, “unclean spirits brood upon waters, aspiring to repeat that primordial gestation of the divine Spirit.” And he instances the “darkling springs and lonely rivers which are said to snatch, to wit by force of a harmful spirit.” In the sequel he defines the rôle of the angel of baptism who does not infuse himself in waters, already holy from the first; but merely presides over the washing of the faithful, and ensures their being made pure for the reception of the holy Spirit in the rite of confirmation which immediately follows. “The devil who till now ruled over us, we leave behind overwhelmed in the water.”
From all this we conclude that what is poetry to us—akin to the folk-lore of water-sprites, naiads, kelpies, river-gods and water-worship in general—was to Tertullian and to the generations of believers who fashioned the baptismal rites, ablutions and beliefs of the church, nothing less than grim reality and unquestionable fact.
See John, marquess of Bute, and E. A. Wallis Budge, The Blessing of the Waters (London, 1901); E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London, 1903). (F. C. C.)