(Ps 29; Mt 3:13-17)
Psalm 29 sings of the glory of God, which thunders from heaven: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters, the God of glory thunders; the Lord is enthroned above the flood; the Lord is enthroned as king forever.”
The first time the voice of God was over the waters was at the dawn of creation, when the Holy Spirit went forth and separated the waters above from the waters below, bringing forth the world. The second time God was enthroned over the flood was when the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, went forth over the waters to bring Noah the olive branch. The third time God’s glory was manifested over the water was when God sent a mighty wind to part the waters of the Red Sea so that His people might be saved, and thus destroyed the army of the Egyptians.
Finally, the voice of the Lord was over the waters at the time of Christ’s baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of the Lord is the beginning of a new creation. In these waters made holy by the presence of God, a new world comes forth, full of holiness and goodness. Just as the “Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” created the world through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so the Father recreates and redeems the world through His beloved Son, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
The Baptism of the Lord signals a new flood which is the fulfillment of Noah’s flood. It is not a flood that destroys the world and mankind, but renews the world by destroying evil and preserving sinners. The waters of baptism do not harm man, they leave him whole, washing away the curse of sin and blessing him with eternal life. Christ enters the waters of the Jordan with sinners not because he himself is a sinner in need of cleansing, but in order that those waters might be consecrated and infused with the power to cleanse others from sin.
Through his baptism, Christ elevates the baptism of John from being a purely symbolic action, to being a Sacrament that not only symbolizes recreation and forgiveness, but accomplishes it!
The Baptism of the Lord is a new exodus, when God’s people are delivered from the tyranny of the devil and brought through the waters to God’s Kingdom.
Even though John is at first confused by Jesus coming to him: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me,” Jesus explains how this baptism fulfills all righteousness. It manifests the glory of God at the beginning of his work; it manifests the fact that he is the “Christ,” the one anointed by the Holy Spirit who will accomplish the recreation of the whole world.
Jesus’ public ministry begins with his baptism by John, and with the revelation of the Holy Trinity. And it ends with his command to the apostles that they go forth and baptize all nations, “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” They are the very last words of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 28:19).
I have, among my precious possessions, a small bottle of water that I took as a souvenir from the River Jordan when I visited the Holy Land. On special occasions I use some of that water to bless objects. We can use water from the River Jordan devotionally in this way because it was made holy by Christ himself.
But with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, any clean water can be blessed and made holy. At Easter, the priest solemnly blesses the water of the baptismal font by immersing the Paschal candle into the water three times, a reminder of Christ’s baptism, when he who is the light of the world entered the water to be baptized by John, and thus made those waters holy.
At our parish we maintain a font of holy water. It is kept in the sacristy, and every Saturday morning it is solemnly blessed and renewed. This water is used to replenish the holy water stoups at the entrances of the Church; it is used to bless devotional objects; and it is also given to the faithful to be used in their homes.
When the priest blesses holy water, he uses a solemn prayer which calls to mind the various Old Testament events that foreshadow Christ’s baptism, and then the priest specifically invokes the Holy Spirit upon the waters, and touches the water with his hand. Through this solemn blessing, Christ continues to be present in his Church, and renews the mystery of his baptism by means of Holy Water.
Even though it is a special thing to use actual water from the Jordan in the celebration of baptism, or when blessing people or objects, the fact is that any water blessed and consecrated by the bishop, priest, or deacon, is identical. It is made holy by Christ and the Holy Spirit, and it manifests the glory of the Father who speaks from heaven.
In one of his first sermons, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10:34-38), St. Peter explains that when “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, he went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” We still use holy water today for healing and protection, to liberate those oppressed by the devil.
Holy water has this effect: it washes away evil while preserving the sinner. Unlike the waters of the flood, which washed away the world’s evil by destroying sinners, the waters of Christ only destroy sin, and heal the sinner. Holy Water is always effective against the devil, and we use it often.
The first place we use Holy Water is when blessing ourselves upon entering or leaving the Church. Through Baptism we were washed clean of sin and the dominion of evil, and entered the Church. Every time we enter the church now, we renew that cleansing, purifying ourselves of the world so that we might come before the Lord in holiness. And when we leave the church we again bless ourselves as a reminder of the Lord’s commandment, which is our mission: go and baptize the world in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Every Catholic household should have a container of holy water. This can be used in the same way as at Church, to bless yourself when going in and out, and on special occasions. Likewise if there seem to be particular spiritual attacks and struggles, use holy water together with prayer.
When keeping Holy Water, make sure to use a special container or bottle marked as such and set aside for that purpose. Don’t use ordinary water bottles. And any time you need a refill, bring it after Mass and the sacristan will refill it for you.
There is never reason to use large containers such as milk jugs. We don’t drink holy water, we don’t wash with it, and we certainly don’t use it in superstitious rituals. We need to guard against the wrong use of holy water. There is a superstitious subculture which seeks holy water and other religious objects of the Catholic Church, to be used according to practices and customs that do not come from the Church, or the priests. For instance, curanderismo. We must not engage in those superstitious practices, or misuse holy water for purposes the Church has not instructed. If there are any doubts, ask the priest or deacon.
All you need is a little bottle, and sprinkle it, together with ordinary prayers and the sign of the Cross. If anyone is telling you to follow specific instructions more than this, or follow some kind of recipe, or perform some additional ritual activities, this is not Catholic; it comes from some source outside the Church.
In any case, the power of Holy Water is always related to the graces of baptism. Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan with sinners to overcome sin, not to perform magic. Holy Water will not substitute for the life of baptismal holiness, repenting of sin, and coming regularly to the Eucharist. Holy water overcomes the devil by renewing the grace of baptism. It requires a life pleasing to God. What God the Father spoke from heaven at the time of Jesus’ baptism, He desires to say for each of us: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Fr. Glen Mullan
The current of the cresting Jordan,
Charged the waters stall and harden
And form a firm ford of dry sod.
As Jordan curbed his path across,
the prophet spoke:
"Where is Elijah's God?
For eons darkness haunts
His query; silence taunts.
But hear now as all at once,
As if from storm clouds overloaded,
The Embodied Word long silence boded
Booms bold above the Jordan font
And dawns the Light no dark can daunt.