By Steven Zimmerman
This week’s story all started with a question, from a reader, about holy water.
“I go to a church that doesn’t have any holy water, and my boyfriend goes to a Catholic church that does have holy water. Why do some of them use holy water and others not? My church says the water is like an idol and we don’t worship idols.
Do they believe that the water makes them holy?”
After reading it, I began to think of the best way to answer Romana. I did reply to see what Church, or denomination she attends, and I discovered she is a Jehovah’s Witness.
I decided to reach out to different pastors to find the answer for Romana.
So, what is holy water?
The most basic definition of holy water is “water blessed by a priest and used in religious ceremonies.”
Holy water is just one of many sacramentals found within some liturgical churches. Holy water, like rosaries, religious medals, statues and other such items are an aid to devotion or a reminder of events within one’s religious life.
I’ll show you why Roman Catholics, as well as some Episcopal and Anglian Churches, use holy water, and then I’ll explain why other Christian communities do not.
For Roman Catholics, holy water reminds baptized members of the Church of their Baptism into the Church. Additionally, by making the sign of the Cross, faithful Catholics are reminded of the sacrifice Christ suffered for the salvation of mankind, and that God is a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“When we bless ourselves when we cross ourselves with holy water,” says Brother Miguel, a Benedictine Monk I’ve known since my days in New York City. “We are making a very public profession of our Catholic Faith.”
But does the use of holy water, in fact, make one holy?
“No,” says Brother Miguel. “The Catechism of the Church teaches that Sacramentals don’t confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way the Sacraments do. What Sacramentals do is prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with that received grace.”
Brother Miguel did mention that there are rituals that surround holy water and its uses that are not sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.
“There is a growing number of those in the Church who believe Holy Water has some sort of magical properties,” said Brother Miguel. “They believe that placing Holy Water on the four corns of their property will prevent evil from entering their home. Others simply believe that the carrying of Holy Water or possessing it in their homes or places of businesses will protect them or cause them to prosper.”
Yet, in the end, holy water is only a tool used by the Roman Catholic Church and its members to help prepare, as Brother Miguel said, to receive grace.
Yet, there are Churches within both the Reformation and Restoration lines of Christianity that do not use holy water at all.
“We don’t use it as an idol,” says Rev Dr Karl Heimer of San Pablo Lutheran Church.
“People use it as if it will cause a miracle to happen. We are told to Baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Rev Dr Heimer points to Matthew 28:19-20: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (New International Version)
“Water is an instrument,” says Rev Dr Heimer. “We don’t find any passage that calls us to worship, venerate, or use water beyond baptism.”
Pastor Mark Younger agrees.
“In the Old Testament we have the Jewish use of a Mikveh,” says Pastor Fienberg, a Christian pastor and convert from Judaism. “The Mikveh did not bestow grace or mercy but was rather a way to cleanse yourself.”
Jewish law requires that one immerse themselves in a mikveh as part of the overall process to conversion to Judaism. Also, before getting married, and for the laws of niddah (menstrual purity), women will also use a Mikveh. For many men within Hasidic communities, the Mikveh is a daily practice.
I can hear you asking now, what is a Mikveh?
The easy answer is a ritual bath. The more detailed answer is that a Mikvah gives the individual, the Jewish community and the Nation of Israel the gift of purity and holiness. Nothing else in Jewish practice can affect a Jew in this way.
“The Mikveh would not make us pure, much like a bath does not make us pure,” says Pastor Fineberg. “A lake, the ocean can be a Mikveh. The reason for immersion is not physical, but spiritual, cleanliness. For us, that Mikveh, that spiritual cleanliness if not found in water with which one crosses themselves but only in the waters of Baptism.”
While some Christian communities may not use holy water, they are using the waters of Baptism. Baptism, being the outward sign of an inward commitment to Jesus Christ and Salvation, is like a Mikvah in a way.
First, by being baptized, you are being buried to sin and resurrected to a new life in Christ. Next, you are also – in a way – being made pure by that one act.
For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, baptism is the first saving ordinance of the gospel. When you are baptized, you are showing your willingness to follow the Savor’s example.
In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin explains why it is important to take the name of the Savior upon ourselves:
“There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.”
So, while some Church communities, like the Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints do not use holy water because it is not expressly found in the Bible, we can argue that the waters of baptism are in a way holy for the change they signify when one is buried to sin and raised to eternal life.
For Catholics, the holy water is to remind one of their baptism and to help them prepare to receive the graces afforded by Mass or prayer. For other Christian, the holy water is the waters of Baptism.
I do hope this answers your question, Romana.