Ash Wednesday's Holy Water


Sometimes class discussions veer in a direction I don’t intend. For example, I don’t remember what aspect of the Incarnation I was trying to present, in a class of freshman college students, when a young man suddenly asked, "Where does Holy Water come from?" I was still taking in the question when a young woman jumped in with, "Yeah, how do you make Holy Water?"


I began with my standard opening, especially useful when one’s discussion horse is bolting, "That’s a good ques...."

"Wait! You make Holy Water?" A young woman of Hindu background had entered the melee.

"Of course, they make it. Where else would you get Holy Water?"

"We don’t make Holy Water. We find it," the young Hindu woman confidently responded.

At this point I felt a bit like Professor Severus Snape, with my portions course at Hogwarts bubbling over. Finally, I had a chance to join the conversation. "The Ganges River, right? You bathe in its waters because they’re holy."

"That’s right!" The young woman replied, clearly pleased that the class had encountered something of her tradition as well. That little moment of interreligious understanding helped to highlight — as they often do — a deeper truth about what we as Christians believe.

First, it makes sense to find Holy Water in nature. From the beginning of human history, men and women have encountered the Holy — the truly other and whole, as opposed to the fragmented and the human — in the great things of nature. I haven’t seen the Ganges, but having witnessed a Kansas sunrise, I can certainly understanding that movement of the Spirit.

Yet, awkward as it sounds, especially voiced by a freshman, we Christians do make — rather than find — Holy Water, because our primary encounter with the Holy is in history, not nature. Nature makes her own holies. We Christians declare — one might better say "Christen" — water to be holy because of history, the record of who Christ was and what he did among us. Christ made water to be holy.

Christians confess that Christ brought life from death, not as nature does, far beyond what nature can do. Christ took the fragmentation, the disintegration of human life choosing death and wrought wholeness, meaning, life itself. We enter Christ’s Passover from death to life in the Waters of Baptism. Holy Water is Baptismal Water. Our Protestant brothers and sisters are rightly nervous when we Catholics forget that fact.

Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of the Easter Season, our great return to the waters of Baptism. Easter ends in those Spirit-bestowing waters. It begins in ashes, with what withered in fire for lack of water, so that we might see that God’s Spirit requires no more of us than the willingness to surrender that which is not holy, which is not of God, so that God might quicken our souls with the waters of life. "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God" (Jl 2:12).

Forget the waters of Baptism, and Holy Water becomes magic. Ignore the waters of Baptism, and ashes on the forehead are nothing more than gimmick. Christ made the waters of Baptism to be holy; wash in those waters and you will live. "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2).

Joel 2: 12-8 2 Corinthians 5: 20 - 6:2 Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18

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