Friday, August 19, 2011

Why the priest "blesses" the water at the offertory of the Mass

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.


Peter said...

Thanks for those beautiful reflections, Father!

Although the water blessed at the offertory is not "holy water", nonetheless after Mass it is to be poured in the sacrarium and not just into a sink.

Anonymous said...

I liked this post very much. I hate the word "awesome", but I can't think of a replacement at the moment...what an awesome Church we have! And what an incredible blessing and gift to be a Roman Catholic!!

Thank you for this reflection, Father!


Lvdovicvs said...

disposal by sacrarium is necessary for the water from the washing of the sacred vessels and linens (i.e. from anything that might still containing particles of the consecrated Body or Blood). So not even "holy water" is treated this way, much less water that is not "holy".

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm sorry -- perhaps there is a language barrier -- but I cannot understand what the point of your comment is.

Are you saying that we should pour holy water down the drain? Are you saying that we should pour the water used at Mass down the drain?

Or, are you saying that it is not necessary?

I'm sure you are aware of the fact that Holy Water is not to be disposed of in a regular drain ... so I'm just confused as to your meaning.

In any case, there is a long tradition that the water used at Mass is not to be disposed of in a regular drain.

Lvdovicvs said...

I am sorry for the misunderstanding father,

If a Sacrarium is "A sink with it drain going directly into the ground usually fitted with a cover and lock which is used for the disposal of the following: The sacred linen wash and rinse water, used holy water, used baptismal water and blessed ashes. No other use is allowed."

My point was that the water we are talking about is neither used nor is it holy (blessed). So it can be disposed by the same way common water is.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for the clarification ... now I understand better your meaning.

I am not specifically aware of anything which requires that this water would be put down the Sacrarium, but I have understood that this is the long-standing tradition.
Indeed, I know that they do this at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (I personally have experience it on many many occasions).

I would be very interested if Peter or you would provide a source for more information here ... none of my usual resources mention the question.

GN said...

Fr. Ryan,

Thank you for your post. It's amazing how every gesture in the Sacred Liturgy has purpose. Thanks for bringing light to the mystery.

I just have one question of clarification. In your reference to Dom Gueranger, he says that "the Church has no jurisdiction over the souls in Purgatory." While I know this to be true, how does one account for indulgences granted by the Church? Would such an action be regarded as a form intersession?

Thanks again,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Correct, the jurisdiction of the power of the keys does not extend to the souls in purgatory, but the Church helps them greatly by her intercession. So too, the indulgences granted to the dead are not by way of jurisdiction (as for the living) but by way of suffrage and intercession -- and this prayer is certain.

Fr. Cornelius a' Lapide (following the great scholastic theologians) offers these words: "In fine it is more agreeable to truth that the Pope possesses judicial power to bind and loose those only who are living upon the earth, but not the dead. When therefore he gives indulgences applicable to the departed, it is not in the way of judicial absolution, because the dead are no longer under his jurisdiction, but by way of suffrages, as he is accustomed fully to express in his Bulls—namely, by expending for the dead so much of the treasure of the Church, of which he is the steward, as the departed owe of penalties to God. For this treasure is upon earth, and is at the disposal of the Pontiff. This is the opinion of S. Thomas, Bonaventura, Alensis, Gabriel, Major, Richardus, Cajetan, D. Soto, Navarre, and Bellarmine (Tract. de Indul.), whom Suarez cites and follows (de PÅ“nit: Disp. 53, s. 2. n. et seq.), who also adds, that properly and directly the Pontiff can neither excommunicate the dead, nor absolve them from excommunication, but only indirectly, in so far as he may directly forbid, or permit the living to pray for one who is dead, and by so doing may deprive the dead indirectly of the suffrages of the Church, as though they had been excommunicated—or, on the other hand, may give them a share in those suffrages, in the same manner as if he absolved them from excommunication."

[btw, great book review]

Peace! +

Mary42 said...

Dear Father, I need to be explained further on this. What do my departed husband and son gain when I offer Holy Masses for them? I have always done this for them on the Anniversary of their deaths on 22nd January, 1994 for my husband and 22nd December, 1996 for my son. I have always thought such Holy Masses do help to reduce their time in Purgatory - if that is where they are - the same way our prayers, indulgencies and suffrages for them do. With regard to the time of death, Jesus did explain to St. Faustina that God is ready with His Graces to forgive sins if the dying person turns to Him in repentance at that very final moment. She has recorded in her Diary - "Divine Mercy in my Soul" - the conversations between the Merciful God with the dying sinful Souls: (Nos.1485 - 1488). No.1489 is the Conversation of the Merciful God with a Perfect Soul.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You understand very well.
Just as you have said, Masses offered for the dead benefit the dead just like indulgences, prayers, and suffrages ... rather than the way that Sacraments work changes ex opere operato.

So, the words (said by a priest over bread) "this is my body", effect transubstantiation ... this is not the way that Masses help the dead. [i.e. not as a Sacrament worked upon them]
However, the indulgences and prayers through the Mass are still certain and sure. They will definitely help the person for whom the Mass is offered.

I hope this is clear: The priest cannot forgive the sins of the dead (hence he does not bless the water in Masses of the dead, as a reminder of this point), but the Mass being offered for the dead helps them tremendously (if they are indeed in Purgatory).

Peace and blessings to you! +

Steve, Dcn said...

Fr. Ryan,

As a Deacon in the Novus Ordo, who prepares the Chalice for the Priest, I have refrained from this practice of Blessing the water before receiving the Cruet from the Acolyte. After reading your insights, I believe that I should continue to refrain. Thoughts?

Steve, Dcn.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Steve, Dcn
Yes, you are correct - a deacon should not "bless" the water, neither in the OF or in the EF.

In the traditional Mass, the subdeacon holds the water out to the priest and requests his blessing.

Because the sign of cross points to the power of the keys (and especially to the power to forgive sins), a deacon should never "bless" the water at Mass.

Thanks for the clarification question! +

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