"Zeal for your house will consume me" (Ps 69:9)

Thoughts of a parish priest…

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why did I just do that?


Have you ever thought to yourself, “Why did I just do that?” I am referring to the times that we walk into a Church and out of habit dip our finger into holy water and bless ourselves. What about when we walk to our seat and genuflect before getting into the pew? These may seem like small and insignificant gestures, but when we actually think about them and why we are performing them, we come to understand the great realities that they symbolize.

Let’s start with holy water – I have often said jokingly that one of my favorite parts of being a priest is being able to sprinkle people with holy water during the sprinkling rite at Mass on Palm Sunday and Easter. When I was a high chaplain, I had been known to fill a squirt gun with holy water and bring it to the senior prom and homecoming dances. Perhaps it seems a bit juvenile at first, but if we think about what holy water is and why we use, it makes perfect sense.

Holy water is meant to remind us of our baptism, the day in which we became children of God, were freed from original sin, and given the grace to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. When at a dance and observing someone not acting in a way that communicates that they are a disciple of Jesus Christ, sprinkling them with holy water serves to remind them of their baptism… or at least cool them down.

Do we think of our baptism every time we dip our finger into the font and bless ourselves? Do we think of how God has used water throughout history as a symbol of his love for us? When water is blessed, the prayer calls to mind God’s saving actions that involve water. We first hear of water in the second verse of the Bible at the dawn of creation, when darkness covered the abyss and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. God blessed water and made it a sign of both cleansing and nourishment.

The waters of the great flood remind us of the covenant that God made with Noah. When the world had turned away from God and was lost to sin and death, the waters cleansed the earth and God revealed his plan to bring about our salvation. Years later, Moses would lead the Israelites out of Egypt and God would separate the waters of the Red Sea and to allow his people to escape slavery. This passing through water foreshadows what Baptism would eventually bring about in a sacramental way – freedom from the slavery of sin.

After wandering throughout the desert in search of the Promised Land, Moses was instructed by God to strike the rock and from it water flowed forth giving refreshment to his people. When we bless ourselves with holy water, we are reminded of our journey of faith and that God strengthens us along the way.

Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan River and was baptized by John the Baptist making baptism the means by which we become sons and daughters of our heavenly Father and by which we are cleansed of our sins. And just after our Lord died upon the cross and the soldier pierced his side with the lance, the Gospel tells us that blood and water flowed from his side, symbolizing the sacraments that Christ established and gave to the Church as way of sustaining us in our efforts to be his faithful disciples.

Are these the things that we think about when we dip our finger into the holy water font? It is so easy to allow such a meaningful symbol of our faith to become so routine and common. It is so easy to go through the motions in such a way that we forget why we are doing it in the first place.

Holy Water is just one of those symbols. What about what we do immediately after we dip our finger into the Holy Water – we bless ourselves, we make the sign of the cross. Perhaps each of us has had an experience when that sacred action of blessing ourselves is done in such a sloppy or haphazard way that it hardly resembles the Cross upon which our Lord died for our sins.

In 1956, Romano Guardini wrote of this: “When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real Sign of the Cross. Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large unhurried sign, from forehead to chest, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us. Think of these things when you make the Sign of the Cross. It is the holiest of signs.” (Sacred Signs, p. 13-14). When we make the sign of the cross, let us call to mind not only the sacred action of blessing ourselves, but also of the sacred and holy symbol of the cross that it represents.

Finally, the act of bowing or genuflecting – I have heard of more than one person, myself included, who finds themselves in the embarrassing situation, when at a movie cinema or theatre, they are genuflecting in the aisle before going to there seat. Again, genuflecting is another routine action that out of force of habit can sometimes lead us to forgetting why we do it. We genuflect in an act of reverence to the tabernacle where Jesus Christ is truly present. This act of humble adoration is meant to remind us that we are in the presence of the sacred and the holy.

Each time we enter a Church, we can be reduced to going through the motions and forgetting why we bless ourselves with holy water or genuflect. If we are going to “put into the deep,” let us take a moment to reflect upon what we are doing and do it with utmost reverence. Let us take a moment to ask why we are doing it and do it out of love and gratitude to the Lord of heaven and earth.why