On the Ancient Blessing of Water Before Mass

ARTICLE VI
On the Blessed Water of the Asperges

(Translation from Lebrun’s Explanation)

Image result for asperges me domine + illuminated manuscript

The rubric in the Missal says that on all Sundays before the Mass the celebrant or another priest should bless water[1] for the aspersion that follows. To grasp the utility of this ceremony, we must understand the meaning of the exorcisms and benedictions performed over the salt and the water, and the meaning of the prayers that accompany the aspersion.

1. On the manner of blessing the water and its effects. Why salt is put in the water, and why there are exorcisms performed on each of them.

The priest takes salt and water, exorcises both, mixes them together and blesses them with signs of the Cross and various prayers.

1) The Church’s intention is to purify mankind and preserve them from everything that might soil or harm them. For this reason she joins to her prayers certain signs that are suitable for expressing this intention. The property of water is to wash; the property of salt is to preserve from corruption. The water and the salt, when mixed, blessed, and sprinkled on the people, are thus a very fitting symbol of the desire she has to purify and preserve them from every contagion. The prophet Elisha throws salt in the waters of Jericho to render them pure and useful for the land. He adds that these waters will no longer cause either death or sterility,[2] and likewise the Church also invokes the divine power over the salt so that it may preserve mankind from all that is harmful to their salvation.

2) The priest exorcizes the salt and the water. Exorcize is a word taken from the Greek language, and means to command or bind by oath. The term that refers only to those who speak with authority. The High Priest uses the word to compel Christ to tell him whether he is the Son of God; and the Church makes use of it to command the evil spirits and all things they may use for their evil purposes. She knows well that, through their disordered actions, men put things which should serve nothing but the glory of God into the power of the demon. This is what St. Paul means when he says that “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will.”[3] But she knows too that all things have been re-established and “gathered up in him, things in heaven and things on earth”; [4] and that everything is “sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.”[5] This is why she exorcizes and blessings so many creatures. She exorcizes salt and water, i.e., she she commands them in the name of God and inte merits of the Cross of Christ never to harm mankind and to become rather useful tools for their salvation. This is the ultimate reason for all the exorcisms performed upon inanimate creatures.

The first Christians were earnestly convinced of the power that God has permitted he devil over creatures, and of the necessity to resist this power by the authority of Jesus Christ. This is why they made signs of the Cross over everything that made use of. The Church has certain more solemn exorcisms and benedictions for creatures that are to serve sacred functions, and especially ones for expelling the devil. This is the origin of the exorcisms of the water blessed for Baptism, for the dedication of churches, and the aspersion of the people.[6] Nearly all these prayers are conceived in the same terms and they must be regarded as coming from the earliest antiquity. Tertullian makes an allusion to these exorcisms and and benedictions when he says that the waters are sanctified by invoking God.[7] St. Cyprian says more explicitly that the water must be purified and sanctified by the priest;[8] and St. Ambrose speaks in detail about the exorcism, invocation, and signs of the Cross;[9] the same is often supposed by St. Augustine when he speaks about Baptism and the effects of the sign of the Cross.[10] Saint Basil numbers these benedictions among the Apostolic traditions;[11] their virtue and mentioned and emphasized by St. Cyril of Jerusalem,[12] St. Gregory of Nyssa,[13] and the author of the Hierarchy writing under the name of St. Denys.[14]

3) The priest puts the salt in the water saying:

Commixio salis et aquae pariter fiat in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus sancti.

May this salt and water be mixed together, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.[15]

He mixes the salt and water, so that the blessed water may be the sign of ablution and the sign of preservation from corruption, and says, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, making signs of the Cross to signify that we expect the effects expressed by these signs to come only through the power of the Holy Trinity by the merits of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

4) The priest ends the benediction with prayers that teach us about the effects to be expected from the blessed water.

After the exorcism of the salt, he asks God

Ut sit omnibus sumentibus salus mentis et corporis; et quidquid ex eo tactum vel aspersum fuerit, careat omni immunditia, omnique impugnatione spiritalis nequitiae.

That this salt may serve for all those who receive it for the health of their body and soul, and that all who are touched or sprinkled with it may be preserved from every impurity and from every assault of the spirits of evil.

After the excorcism of the water, he says to God:

Elemento huic multimodis purificationibus praeparato, virtutem tuae benedictionis infunde: ut creatura tua mysteriis tuis serviens, ad abigendos[16] daemones, morbnsque pellendos, divinae gratiae sumat effectum: utquidquid in domibus, vel in locis fidelium haec unda resperserit, careat omni immunditia, liberetur a noxa: non illic resideat spiritus pestilens, non aura corrumpens: discedant omnes insidiae latentis inimici: et si quid est, quod aut incolumitati habitantium invidet aut quieti, aspersione hujus aquae effugiat: ut salubritas per invocationem sancti tui nominis expetita, ab omnibus sit impugnationibus defensa.

“Pour forth thy benediction upon this element which we consecrate with manifold purifications. Let this creature serve thee in expelling demons and curing diseases. Whatsoever it sprinkles in the homes of the faithful, be it cleansed and delivered from harm. Let such homes enjoy a spirit of goodness and an air of tranquility, freed from baneful and hidden snares. By the sprinkling of this water may everything opposed to the safety and repose of them that dwell therein be banished, so that they may possess the well-being they seek in calling upon thy holy name, and be protected from all peril.”

Finally, the priest recalls all these petitions in the final oration, saying:

Deus, invictae virtutis auctor, et insuperabilis imperii Rex, ac semper magnificus triumphator: qui adversae dominationis vires reprimis: qui inimici rugientis saevitiam superas: qui hostiles nequitias potenter expugnas: te Domine, trementes et supplices deprecamur, ac petimus; ut hanc creaturam salis et aquae dignanter aspicias, benignus illustres, pietatis tuae rore[17] sanctifices: ut ubicumque fuerit aspersa, per invocationem sancti nominis tui, omnis infestatio immundi spiritus abigatur, terrorque venenosi serpentis procul pellatur: et praesentia sancti Spiritus nobis misericordiam tuam poscentibus, ubique adesse dignetur. Per Dominum nostrum Iesum, etc.

“Author of invincible strength and king of an unconquerable empire, ever the gloriously Triumphant One! Who restrainest the force of the adversary, Who overcomest the fierceness of the devouring enemy. Who valiantly putteth down hostile influences! Prostrate and fearsome we beseech thee, Lord, consider kindly this creature of salt and water, make it honored, and sanctify it with the dew of thy sweetness. Wherever it is sprinkled in thy name, may devilish infection cease, venomous terror be driven afar. But let the presence of the Holy Spirit be ever with us as we implore thy mercy. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, etc.”

From these prayers we gather than we may expect four effects from the blessed water. The first is to put the devil to flight from the places he may have infested, and to turn back the evils he has caused. The second is to drive him far away from us, from the places we inhabit, and the things we use. The third is to serve as healing for our illnesses. Lastly, the fourth effect is to cause us to recall on every occasion the presence and help of the Holy Spirit for the good of our soul and body. It is a common opinion is the theologians for the last five centuries that holy water can cancel venial sins. In fact, the Church does not speak of this effect explicitly in her prayers. But there is room to infer it from the fact that she asks for the presence and help of God in general. This presence and this help should give us hope of preservation from all sorts of sins, and a means to wipe away the venial sins by inspiring in us the sorrow that wipes them away. None of these effects are promised infallibly like those produced by the sacraments, but we know that there are many ways to acquire graces, and that God attaches them principally to the prayers of the Church. There is reason to hope for them with all the more confidence, seeing that ever since the fourth century there have been so many miracles produced with holy water. We will mention some of them later, when we speak about the origin of the holy water blessing.

This much should suffice to encourage the faithful not only to take holy water in the church, but also to keep some in their homes, to use when they go to sleep and when they rise, and in many others times of the day, in order to drive away the spirit of darkness and to draw down the help of God in the thousand unforeseen dangers that may afflict their bodies or souls.

2. On the aspersion of the altar and assistants, and the prayers that accompany it.

On Sunday before the High Mass or Conventual Mass, the altar and assistants are sprinkled. Since the blessed water has been instituted to preserve men from the attacks of the devil and purify them from the contagion that he may have caused, they are sprinkled before the Mass so that the faithful, purified by this water, may assist at the Holy Sacrifice with more attention and piety.

1) The altar is sprinkled to chase away the spirit of darkness who, according to the most ancient Doctors of the Church, sometimes follows priests and ministers of the altar even up to the sanctuary in order to trouble their minds. The solemn orations that accompany the aspersion of the altar help us see that this is the reason why we sprinkle it. These orations are found in the most ancient Pontificals. Pope Vigilius[18] (in 535) and St. Gregory the Great[19] considered that aspersion with holy water was sufficient to purify temples from their false gods, to convert them into Church, and to make them suitable for the celebration of Mass.

2) The priests takes holy water for himself and then gives it to the assistants, so that he participates with them in all the graces that the Church has asked for in the prayers for the blessing of the water.

3) As he sprinkles he recites the Psalm Miserere in a low voice, because in order to obtain these graces one must enter into the sentiments of contrition expressed in this Psalm. These benefits are not owed to us. Sins has rendered us unworthy, and we can hope for nothing except through the mercy of God.

4) The antiphon is the verse of this Psalm that is most fitting for this ceremony. The choir sings only the first verse of Miserere, singing this antiphon before and after:

Thou wilt sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be cleansed. Thou wilt wash me, and I shall be washed whiter than snow.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor; lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

 The hyssop plant mentioned in Scripture is the tiniest of shrubs.[20] When pressed and bunched together, its leaves are able to retain the water for the aspersion. It’s virtue is to purify and dry the bad humors, and so it is a very fitting sign of corporal and spiritual purification. The Hebrews used hyssop to sprinkle the lambs’ blood on the doorposts.[21] The blood and ashes of the red calf,[22] as well as the water for purifying lepers,[23] were also done with hyssop. It is to all these aspersions and purifications that the verse Asperges alludes. But the real object the Prophet-King and the Church had in mind was the aspersion with the blood of Jesus Christ, of which the aspersions of the Law were nothing but figures. In this ceremony, therefore, what we must ask for is to be sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ, which is to say, for the application of the merits of his Precious Blood which alone can wipe away sins and preserve us from every evil.

5) In Eastertide, i.e. from Easter to Trinity Sunday, the antiphon in the Roman rite is

I saw water flowing out of the Temple, from its right side, Alleluia: And all who came to this water were saved, and they shall say: Alleluia, Alleluia.

Vidi aquam egredientem de Templo a latere dextro, alleluia: et omnes ad quos pervenit aqua ista salvi facti sunt et dicent, alleluia, alleluia.

These words are taken from the forty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel, and they are very fitting to represent the efficacy of the saving waters of Baptism,[24] which occupies all the Church’s attention in this time anciently set aside for Baptisms. They were assigned to the days of Easter and Pentecost, on which there was an aspersion with water from the baptismal fonts that had been blessed at the Vigil. This aspersion should inspire the faithful to desire with all their hearts a renewal of that purity and sanctity that their soul received in Baptism, and to ask for the helps necessary to keep themselves pure in the future.

6) Finally, the priest says this oration:

Hear us, O Holy Lord, Almighty Father, eternal God: and deign to send Thy holy angel from heaven to guard, cherish, protect, visit, and defend all who dwell in this house. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Exaudi nos, Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus, et mittere digneris sanctum Angelum tuum de Coelis, qui custodiat, foveat, protegat, visitet atque defendat omnes habitantes in hoc habitaculo. Per, etc.

This prayer in found in the most ancient Missals and Rituals, and it was composed to be said in private homes when visiting the sick or sprinkling the houses with water from the baptismal fonts, as is still done today in Milan, Lyon, and even in many Churches that follow the Roman Ritual.

Hear us, Almighty Father. The aid of the omnipotence of God is necessary for us to fight against the spirits of evil that are in the air.[25]

Send thy holy angel. Just as men did not lose their natural powers through sin, the fallen angels have not lost all their power, but they have been subjected to the good angels who are our protectors. God says to his people: I will send my angel before you. He sent one to Tobias, and it preserved him from the attacks of the evil spirit who had killed the seven husbands of Sara. This angel preserved Tobias in all sorts of perils, and kept him safe and healthy. The Church asks the same grace for the faithful.

Who dwell in this house. It is obvious that this expression was employed specifically for the private houses that were to be sprinkled.[26] But for five or six centuries the prayer has been said in the church, because everyone is assembled there, and so can learn it to say in his house when he carries the holy water there.


Notes:

[1] According to the Rubrics of the Roman Missal, the blessing of the water is done in the sacristy. But in most parishes, even in those that use the Roman Missal, it is done at the altar, in the choir, or in the nave. This is more in conformity with the practice of antiquity, and seems to please the people.

[2] 4 Kings 4:20, 21.

[3] Vanitati enim creatura subjecta est non volens (Rom. 8:20).

[4] Instaurare omnia in Christo, quae in coelis, et quae in terra sunt (Ephes. 1:10)

[5] Sanctificatur enim per verbum Dei et orationem (1 Tim. 4:5).

[6] These blessings share the same basic meaning in the Sacramentary of Bobbio, which Fr. Mabillon assigns 1000 years of age (Mus. Ital. vol. 1, p. 323); in the Gelasian Sacramentary, one hundred years before St. Gregory (Cod. Sacram. 106 and 237); in the ancient Gallican Missal (ibid., pg. 473); and in many other ancient Missals (Martenne, De Rit., vol. 1, pg. 173 and 182). They share the same terms with the exorcisms of salt and water for the consecration of churches, in the Sacramentary of St. Guilhem written 900 years ago (Sacram. Gellon., Martenne, vol. 3, pg. 244 and 245); and in the Sacramentary of Egbert, Archbishop of York, in the 8th century (Ibid., pg. 252); and also in the Pontifical of Séez, written around 1045 (Royal Library).

[7] Tertullian, On Baptism, chapter 4.

[8] Epist. 70.

[9] Ambrose, De iis qui initiantur, chapter 5.

[10] Lib. 8 de bapt. et tract. 18 in Joan.

[11] Basil, On the Holy Spirit, chapter 27: “Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?”

[12] Cyril, Mystical Catechesis 3: “If any man receive not Baptism, he has not salvation; except only Martyrs, who even without the water receive the kingdom. For when the Saviour, in redeeming the world by His Cross, was pierced in the side, He shed forth blood and water; that men, living in times of peace, might be baptized in water, and, in times of persecution, in their own blood.”

[13] Gregory of Nyssa, On Christian Baptism.

[14] Dionysius, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchies, chapter 2: “Whence, as I think, the Hierarch pouring the Muron upon the purifying font in cruciform injections, brings to view, for contemplative eyes, the Lord Jesus descending even to death itself through the cross for our Birth in God, benevolently drawing up, from the old gulping of the destructive death, by the same Divine and resistless descent, those, who, according to the mysterious saying, ‘are baptized into His death,’ and renewing them to a godly and eternal existence.”

[15] Trans. note: The translations in this section are taken from Fr. Philip T. Weller’s 3 volume Roman Ritual (Preserving Christian Publications, 2008).

[16] The alternate reading ad abjiciendos is found in the printed and manuscript sacramentaries going back all the way to St. Gregory and St. Gelasius. The Missal of Laon (1702) restored this reading. Nevertheless, the Carthusian Missal currently reads abigendos.

[17] According to the ancient books, both manuscripts and those printed up to the Missal of Pope Pius V (1570), it reads pietatis tuae more, not rore, therefore sanctify it according to your usual goodness. The Carthusians, the Missal of Milan, Langres in the previous century, and two or three others have retained the ancient reading. The Missals of Laon (1702) and Meaux (1709) have restored it.

[18] Epist. 1.

[19] Fana idolorum destrui in eadem gente minime debeant…Aqua benedicta fiat, in eisdem fanis aspergatur (Lib. 9 Epist. 71).

[20] Salomon…disputavit super lignis, a cedro quae est in Libano, usque ad hyssopum quae egreditur de pariete (3 Kings 4:33). Josephus, Antiquities, book 4, chapter 4, section 6.

[21] Exodus 12:22; Hebrews 11:28.

[22] Numbers 19 et seq.

[23] Leviticus 14 and 16.

[24] Rupert of Deutz, De Divinis Officiis, book 7, chapter 20: “Proprium hoc habet haec dies, quam fecit Dominus, idque ab eo sumpsit omnis prima Sabbati, quod aqua benedicta populis aspersis agitur processio solemnis. Verumtamen hac ipsa prima et principali Dominicarum omnium non benedicitur, neque die sancto Pentecostes, quia in praeteriti Sabbati vespera sumpta est de sacro fonte baptismi, antequam immergatur aliquis, et antequam chrisma immissum sit. Non enim ad hoc aspergimur, ut rebaptizemur, sed divini nominis gratiam super nos, cum hoc memoriali baptismatis nostri, frequenter invocare debemus. Et idcirco singulis aspergimur Dominicis, quia in sacrosancta primae huius Dominicae vespera, baptismum universaliter sancta celebrat Ecclesia, pro causa superius memorata. Unde et inter aspergendum hac die cantamus: Vidi aquam egredientem de templo a latere dextro, alleluia (Ezech. XLVII) , etc. De propheta Ezechiele sumptum est hoc. Civitatem illi ostenderat manus Domini facta super eum, aedificata super montem excelsum, et vergentem ad austrum, et in illa mirabile constitui templum (Apoc. I) .

[25] Contra spiritualia nequitiae in coelestibus (Ephesians 6:12).

[26] See the Gelasian Sacramentary, where we read, in this house of your servant (N.); defendat omnes habitantes…FAMULI TUI ILLIUS. The Gregorian Sacramentary gives the prayer the title Oratio quando aqua spargitur in domo. In the Diurnal of Saint-Victor (1580), the prayer is called Oratio in Dormitorio. According to a Pontifical-Ritual from Aix that is about four-hundred years old, it was said in the houses of the sick when the priest visited them. But the Customary of Cluny, written by the monk Bernard in the time of St. Hugh, notes it to be said in the church, as does a Missal of St. Quiriace of Province, written around 1200, called le Prônier. In a booklet of a more recent hand added to this Missal, after the words in hoc habitaculo, the words et in cunctis habitaculis bonis are added. These same words are found in the Missals of Sens (1556, 1575). In the Missal of Toulon from the 14th century we find habitantes in hac aula Dei. In the current Missal of Paris, we read in hoc templo Sancto tuo.

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