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Holy water is water that has been blessed by a member of a clergy or religious figure. The use for cleansing prior to a baptism and spiritual cleansing is common in 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 the precept of using holy water to the Apostle Matthew. It is plausible that in earliest Christian times water was used for expiatory and purificatory purposes in a way analogous to its employment in 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 that as contained in the baptisteries in the view of the Roman Catholic church. However, Eastern Orthodox do perform the same blessing whether in a baptistry or an outdoor body of water.
Holy water is used as a sacramental in the baptismal ceremony. Holy water is kept in the holy water font, which is typically located at the entrance to the church (or sometimes in a separate room or building called a baptistery). 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 that 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 contained 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. 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."
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".
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.
In Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite holy water is used frequently in rites of blessing and exorcism, and the water for baptism is always sanctified with a special blessing.
There are two rites for blessing holy water: the "Great Blessing of Waters" which is held on the Feast of Theophany and at baptisms, and the "Lesser Blessing of Waters" which is conducted according to need and local custom during the rest of the year, certain feast days calling for the Lesser Blessing of Waters as part of their liturgical observance. Both forms are based upon the Rite of Baptism. After the blessing of holy water the faithful are sprinkled with it and each drinks some of it.
Holy water is drunk by the faithful after it is blessed and it is a common custom for the pious to drink holy water every morning. On Mount Athos holy water is always drunk in conjunction with consuming antidoron. Eastern Orthodox do not bless themselves with holy water upon entering a church as Catholics do; however, a quantity of holy water is often kept in a font placed in the narthex (entrance) of the church, available for anyone who would like to partake of it or to take some of it home.
After the Great Blessing of Waters on Theophany the priest goes to the homes of the faithful and, in Orthodox lands, to the buildings throughout town, and blesses them with holy water.
When blessing objects such as the palms on Palm Sunday, Easter eggs and other food on Easter, 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 in 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.
In the Methodist tradition, Holy Baptism is often administered by sprinkling or pouring holy water over the candidate. The official Baptismal Liturgy, as well as the liturgy for Reaffirmation of Baptism commonly done through asperges, has a prayer for the blessing of this water:
Pour out your Holy Spirit, to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that, dying and being raised with Christ,they may share in his final victory. All praise to you, Eternal Father, through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever. Amen.
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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.
The Book of Numbers mentions using water in a test for the purity of a wife accused of marital infidelity. A ritual would be performed involving the drinking of water. If she participated in the ritual, and she was guilty, she is supposedly cursed to miscarry any pregnancy. If she was still able to bear children, then she was presumed innocent.
The idea of "blessed water" is used in virtually all Buddhist traditions. In the Theravada tradition, water is put into a new pot and kept near a Paritrana ceremony, a blessing for protection. This "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 Mahayana Buddhists typically recite sutras or various mantras (typically that of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara for example) numerous times over the water, which is then either consumed or is used to bless homes afterwards. In Vajrayana Buddhism, a Bumpa, a ritual object, is one of the Ashtamangala, used for storing sacred water sometimes, symbolizing wisdom and long life.
The drinking of "healing water" (āb-i shifā) is a practice in various denominations of Shia 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 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.