“Water, water, everywhere.”
The Gospel today gives us that image as Peter jumps into the Sea of Galilee to swim to shore to meet the risen Lord.
Water plays a large part in our liturgical and devotional practices. This is especially true during the 50 days of Easter. Some parishes place a fountain or waterfall near the sanctuary. Those baptismal fonts that have water functions are running. There’s also the sprinkling done during the penitential rite on the Sundays of Easter.
What a contrast to Lent, when water was minimal. Some parishes capped their fonts and access to holy water may have been reduced at others. All that served to remind us of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and of our own 40-day journey to Calvary with Jesus. Those 40 days have led us to new life.
But water in church isn’t just meant to remind us that it’s Easter, or to contrast with Lent. It should always remind us of the sacraments, given by the Lord to bring the promise of Easter “to all nations.”
Holy water — used for blessings and placed at the entrance of church — reminds us of baptism and our first entry into the church. This is also why it is also used to bless a casket at the funeral Mass; to remind us that we were raised up in baptism and promised eternal life. Holy water is a sacramental, imparting some of the grace of the sacrament it resembles when used in a prayerful manner. That is why holy water also reminds us of reconciliation. The use of holy water can, with proper disposition, remove the stain of venial sins.
Easter water is holy water from the Easter font. Blessed with the paschal candle, it is used for Easter baptisms and is often taken by the faithful to use at home. The sprinkling rite is done with Easter water. While an aspergillum (water holder) is sometimes used, many parishes use evergreen branches. Evergreens are both symbols of new life and a reminder of the great penitential psalm, the Miserere (Ps 51), which pleads for God to “cleanse me with hyssop (an evergreen) and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”
Moving deeper into the Mass, we see two other uses of water:
Washing with water, done by the priest before the consecration, reminds us of our need for reconciliation and preparation to receive the Eucharist. The priest’s words, “Wash me of my iniquity, and cleanse me of my sins” speak both of reconciliation and of the royal priesthood to which we are all called. In ancient Israel, priests washed themselves before entering God’s presence in the Temple.
Water in wine. This commingling, done before the eucharistic prayer, reminds us that we are joined to Christ through this greatest of the sacraments. St. Cyprian, in the third century, said that if we only used wine at the consecration at Mass, we would disassociate Christ’s blood from ourselves; and, if we only used water, we would separate ourselves from Christ. However, “when both are mingled, and are joined with one another by a close union, there is completed a spiritual and heavenly sacrament.”
The water and wine, we and Jesus, all become one. That should mean the start of lots of new life, both at Easter and forever.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers.”