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The use for cleansing prior to a baptism and spiritual cleansing is common among several religions, from Christianity to Sikhism. The use of holy water as a sacramental for protection against evil is common among Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
In Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and some other churches, holy water is water that has been sanctified by a priest for the purpose of baptism; the blessing of persons, places, and objects; or as a means of repelling evil.
The use of holy water in the earliest days of Christianity is attested to only in somewhat later documents. The Apostolic constitutions which go back to about the year 400, attribute to the precept of using holy water to Apostle Matthew. Hence the first historical testimony goes back to the fifth century. However, it is plausible that, in the earliest Christian times, water was used for expiatory and purificatory purposes, in a way analogous to its employment under the Jewish Law. Yet, in many cases, the water used for the Sacrament of Baptism was flowing water, sea or river water, and it could not receive the same blessing as that contained in the baptisteries.
Holy water is kept in the font, which is typically located at the entrance to the church (or sometimes in a separate room or building called a baptistery); its location at the entrance serves as a reminder of the centrality of baptism as the primary rite of initiation into the Christian faith. Smaller vessels, called stoups, are usually placed at the entrances of the church. In recent years, with the concerns over influenza, new holy water machines that work like an automatic soap dispenser have become popular.
In the Middle Ages the power of holy water was considered so great fonts had locked covers to prevent the theft of holy water for unauthorized magic practices: the Constitutions of Archbishop Edmund Rich (1236) prescribe that "Fonts are to be kept under lock and key, because of witchcraft (sortilegia). Similarly the chrism and sacred oil are kept locked up.".
In Catholicism, holy water, as well as water used during the washing of the priest's hands at mass, is not allowed to be disposed of in regular plumbing. Roman Catholic churches will usually have a special basin (a Sacrarium) that leads directly into the ground for the purpose of proper disposal. A hinged lid is kept over the holy water basin to distinguish it from a regular sink basin, which is often just beside it. Items that contain holy water are separated, drained of the holy water, and then washed in a regular manner in the adjacent sink.
Holy water fonts have been identified as a potential source of bacterial and viral infection. In the late 19th century, bacteriologists found staphylococci, streptococci, coli bacilli, Loeffler's bacillus, and other bacteria in samples of holy water taken from a church in Sassari, Italy. More recently, in a study performed in 1995, thirteen samples were taken when a burn patient acquired a bacterial infection after exposure to holy water. The samples in that study were shown to have a "wide range of bacterial species," some of which could cause infection in humans. During the swine flu epidemic of 2009, Bishop John Steinbock of Fresno, California recommended that "holy water should not be in the fonts" due to fear of spreading infections. Also in response to the swine flu, an automatic, motion-detecting holy water dispenser was invented and installed in an Italian church in 2009.
As a reminder of baptism, Catholics dip their fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross when entering the church. The liturgy may begin on Sundays with the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water, in which holy water is sprinkled upon the congregation; this is called aspersion, from the Latin, asperges ("to sprinkle"). This ceremony dates back to the ninth century. An aspergill or aspergillum is a brush or branch used to sprinkle the water. An aspersorium is the vessel which holds the holy water and into which the aspergillum is dipped, though elaborate Ottonian examples are known as situlae. Blessed salt may be added to the water "where it is customary."
Asperges is the name given to the rite of sprinkling a congregation with holy water. The name comes from the first word in the 9th verse of Psalm 51 in the Latin translation, the Vulgate, which is sung during the Traditional form of the rite, except during Eastertide.
This use of holy water and making a sign of the cross when entering a church reflects a renewal of baptism, a cleansing of venial sin, as well as providing protection against evil. It is sometimes accompanied by the following prayer:
"By this Holy water and by your Precious Blood, wash away all my sins O Lord".
Some Catholics believe that water from specific shrines such as the Lourdes Spring are means by which God chooses to bring healing. This water, technically, is not holy water in the same sense as traditional holy water since it has not been consecrated by a priest or bishop.
Catholic saints have written about the power of holy water as a force that repels evil. Saint Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church who reported visions of Jesus and Mary, was a strong believer in the power of holy water and wrote that she used it with success to repel evil and temptations. She wrote:
I know by frequent experience that there is nothing which puts the devils to flight like Holy water.
In Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics Henry Theiler states that in addition to being a strong force in repelling evil, holy water has the twofold benefit of providing grace for both body and soul.
The new Rituale Romanum excludes the exorcism prayer on the water. Exorcized salt used to be added to the holy Water as well. Priests can now use the older form if they wish according to Summorum Pontificum, an apostolic letter by Pope Benedict XVI.
There are two rites for blessing holy water: the Great Blessing of Waters which is held on the Feast of Theophany, and the Lesser Blessing of Waters which is conducted according to need during the rest of the year. Both forms are based upon the Rite of Baptism. Certain feast days call for the blessing of Holy Water as part of their liturgical observance.
Although Eastern Orthodox do not normally bless themselves with holy water upon entering a church like Catholics do, a quantity of holy water is typically kept in a font placed in the narthex (entrance) of the church, where it is available for anyone who would like to take some of it home with them.
Often, when objects are blessed in the church (such as the palms on Palm Sunday, Icons or sacred vessels) the blessing is completed by a triple sprinkling with holy water using the words, "This (name of item) is blessed by the sprinkling of this holy water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Throughout the centuries, there have been many springs of water that have been believed by members of the Orthodox Church to be miraculous. Some still flow to this day, such as the one at Pochaev Lavra in Ukraine, and the Life-Giving Spring of the Theotokos in Constantinople (commemorated on Bright Friday).
Holy water is not a term used in Church of England rites, although font water is sanctified in the Church of England baptism rite. In contrast, the Episcopal Church (United States) does expressly mention the optional use of holy water in some recent liturgies of blessing. More generally, the use of water within High Church Anglicanism or Anglo-Catholicism adheres closely to Roman Catholic practice. In many such Anglican churches baptismal water is used for the asperges. Stoups with sanctified water are sometimes found near the doors of High Church Anglican churches for the faithful to use in making the sign of the cross upon entering the church.
The use of holy water within Methodism and some synods of Lutheranism is for the baptism of infants and new members of the church. The water is believed to be blessed by God, as it is used in a sacrament. The water is applied to the forehead of the laity being baptised and the clergyperson performs the sign of the cross. Lutherans tend to have holy water fonts at the entrance of the church. However, in the Lutheran church, the water is typically not distinguished as being "holy".
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In Ancient Greek religion, a holy water called chernips (Greek: χέρνιψ) was created when a torch from a religious shrine was extinguished in it. In Greek religion, purifying people and locations with water was part of the process of distinguishing the sacred from the profane.
In Jewish law, the Torah mentions using holy water in a test for the purity of a wife accused of marital infidelity. A ritual would be performed involving the drinking of holy water. If she participated in the ritual, and she was guilty, she is supposedly cursed to miscarry any pregnancy. If she is still able to bear children, then she is presumed innocent.
In Wicca and other ceremonial magic traditions, although the term holy water is not normally used, a similar substance is produced when salt is mixed with water. It is consecrated and used in many religious ceremonies and rituals.
Although the term holy water is not used, the idea of "blessed water" is used among Buddhists. Water is put into a new pot and kept near a Paritrana ceremony, a blessing for protection. Thai 'Lustral water' can be created in a ceremony in which the burning and extinction of a candle above the water represents the elements of earth, fire, and air. This water is later given to the people to be kept in their home. Not only water but also oil and strings are blessed in this ceremony. Most Chinese Buddhists typically recite various mantras (typically that of Avalokitesvara for example) numerous times over a glass of water, consuming the blessed water afterwards. Bumpa, a ritual object, is one of the Ashtamangala, used for storing sacred water sometimes, symbolizing wisdom and long life in Vajrayana Buddhism.
The drinking of "healing water" (āb-i shifā) is a practice in various denominations of Shi’a Islam. In the tradition of the Twelver Shi’a, many dissolve the dust of sacred locations such as Karbala (khāk-i shifa) and Najaf and drink the water (āb-i shifā) as a cure for illness, both spiritual and physical. The Ismaili tradition involves the practice of drinking water blessed by the Imam of the time. This water is taken in the name of the Imam and has a deep spiritual significance. This is evident from the names used to designate the water, including light (nūr) and ambrosia (amṛt, amī, amīras, amījal). This practice is recorded from the 13th and 14th centuries and continues to the present day. The ceremony is known as ghat-pat in South Asia.
Holy water has also been believed to ward off or act as a weapon against mythical evil creatures, such as vampires. In eastern Europe, one harboring this belief might sprinkle holy water onto the corpse of a suspected vampire in order to destroy it or render it inert. Thereafter, the concept proliferated into fiction about such creatures.