21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 16:13-20
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the priest makes the sign of the Cross over the water which is to be mixed with the wine at the offertory of the Mass. This practice is preserved by some priests also in the Ordinary Form, although it is not explicitly present in the rubrics.
Rather than discussing the historical development of the practice or entering into the question of whether the Novus Ordo rubrics allow (or should allow) for its continuation, it will be good to notice that this little sign of the Cross expresses the theology of this Sunday’s Gospel (in the Lectionary of the Ordinary Form).
Why does the priest make the sign of the Cross over the water? Because the keys given to St. Peter have the power to forgive the sins of the living, but not those of the dead.
The time for forgiveness is NOW, not after death
“Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.” (CCC 1021) It is a dogma of the Church that there is no second chance for repentance or forgiveness after death (for those who die in mortal sin), just as there is no danger of a fall from glory (for those who die in the state of grace). At the moment of death, the human soul becomes inexorably fixed and nothing can ever or will ever change this orientation.
Some persons, moved primarily by sentimentality rather than by the Revelation given us in Christ Jesus, will claim that there is a moment at the very last in which a man may choose either for or against God. This is a theoretical possibility, though it is not at all supported by the Tradition. Still, it is a possibility. As long as we admit that there is no moment AFTER death in which a man may choose either for or against Christ, we remain within the household of the faith.
The time for salvation is now and we chose either for or against our Savior with our life. If we die in grace, we will come to glory. If we die outside of grace, we will suffer a second death. So let us choose life that we may live!
Only the living are under the “power of the keys”
“[The Church] has received the keys of the Kingdom of heaven so that, in her, sins may be forgiven through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit’s action. In this Church, the soul dead through sin comes back to life in order to live with Christ, whose grace has saved us.” (CCC 981, quoting St. Augustine)
In this Sunday’s Gospel, our Savior gives to St. Peter the “keys of the Kingdom” by which he may bind or loose sins upon earth. However, although whatever the Church binds or looses upon earth will be bound or loosed in heaven, the Church has no jurisdiction over the souls of the dead by which she could bind or loose their sins. What we mean is this: The power of the keys to forgive sin extends only to the living and is of no benefit to the dead.
Christ himself expressed this truth when he said whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth […] and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth. St. Peter received the keys as a means of binding and loosing ON EARTH, that is, in this life. The ministry of reconciliation, which the Church is able to exercise only in this life, has great consequences for life eternal.
The sign of the Cross over the water, and the Requiem Mass
With a clearer understanding of the power of the keys and there relation to life and death, we turn now to the meaning of the water at the offertory of the Mass.
The water symbolizes humanity, as the wine symbolizes Christ’s divinity. The water represents not only the particular human nature of our Lord, but also humanity in general. And, when the priest “blesses” the water, what he is really doing is expressing the power of the keys – for the Church was given the keys as a means of reconciling and sanctifying all men in Christ Jesus. [hence, the water is not “holy water” and the sign of the Cross signifies something other than a “blessing” of that water]
It is quite noteworthy, however, that the priest does not make the sign of the Cross over the water at a requiem Mass (i.e. a Mass of the dead and/or a funeral Mass) – Why, we ask, does the priest refrain from this action at these Masses only?
Consider the answer of Dom Gueranger: “In Masses of the Dead, the Priest does not bless the water, and here we are touching a second mystery. As we have said, the Water represents the faithful, and the Wine, Our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of Water and Wine is then the figure of two mysteries at once: the mystery of the union of the human with the Divine Nature in Our Lord; then, the union of Jesus Christ with His Church, which is composed of all the Faithful. Now, the Church has no jurisdiction over the souls in Purgatory; she can no longer exercise over them the Power of the Keys. So long as her children are on earth, she makes use, in their regard, of the Power given her, by Our Lord, of binding and loosing; and thus does she lead each soul, either to the Church Triumphant, - and then the Church on earth bows down in honour before that happy soul; - or, to the Church Suffering, and then the Church on earth prays for that poor soul. But as to exercising any jurisdiction whatsoever, over that soul, she can do so no longer; intercession is all she now has to offer. This is what Holy Church expresses, by omitting the blessing of the Water, in Masses of the Dead; she thereby shows that she can exercise no authority over the souls in Purgatory.”
Perhaps, if the profound theology behind this little gesture had been more widely recognized, it would not have been omitted from the rubrics of the Novus Ordo. Indeed, we should think that the mystical lesson of this “blessing” would serve also as a means of communicating to the faithful that the time of forgiveness and salvation is not after death but is now, for only the living can benefit from the blessed power of the keys.