Eastertide Holy Water and Statues

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Eastertide Holy Water and Statues


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I am hoping you can help me with two Eastertide questions. 1) At my parish, we use the sprinkling rite at the beginning of Mass on Sundays during the Easter season. The water used is taken from the font that was blessed during the Easter Vigil. Before the sprinkling begins, the presider blesses the water again. The reason given for this practice is that in the sacramentary, there are only two options for preparing the water, a blessing during ordinary time and a blessing during the Easter season. Is there no other option, especially one that would allow using, throughout the Easter season, water that has been most solemnly blessed during the Easter Vigil? 2) Many parishes (not ours) place a statue of the Risen Lord in a prominent place in the church during the Easter season. I have even seen some places that keep their altar-of-repose decorations up during Eastertide, replacing the actual repository with the statues. It has always been my understanding that the paschal candle is the primary symbol of the Risen Lord during Eastertide. Would not the use of the statue detract from the sign/symbol value of the paschal candle and be equivalent to introducing something new into current liturgical practice? — S.P., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A: With respect to the first question, I would say that the liturgical norms already presuppose a form of sprinkling with this water without a second blessing — but only on Easter Sunday itself. Thus the Holy See's circular letter on the Easter celebrations states: "97. Mass is to be celebrated on Easter Day with great solemnity. It is appropriate that the penitential rite on this day take the form of a sprinkling with water blessed at the Vigil, during which the antiphon 'Vidi aquam' or some other song of baptismal character should be sung. The entrance stoops to the church should also be filled with the same water."

On the other Sundays the rite would appear to presuppose that the water blessed during the Easter vigil is not the water used during the rite of blessing and sprinkling before Mass. Since the rite is called that of "Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water," it can be surmised that both elements are necessary and that Easter Day is an exception due to its particular character.

During other times of the year, previously blessed holy water is not used during this rite, even if readily available. So it is probable that the rite does not contemplate its use during the 50 days of Easter.

Likewise, it is not correct to bless water a second time. The water blessed during the vigil is above all reserved for the celebration of baptisms during Eastertide. In this case the rite of blessing the baptismal water is omitted.

Regarding the second question, I would say that while it is true that the Easter candle is the primary liturgical symbol of the Risen Christ, it need not exclude other devotional symbols.

Displaying a statue or pennant of the Risen Lord during this period can help to inculcate devotion and awareness of the mystery. In this sense it is analogous to the Christmas crèche. It is important to note that we are dealing above all with a devotional practice and not a liturgical object supplanting the paschal candle.

For this reason, care should be taken regarding the placement and location of these images so that they serve to enhance the message of Easter while not obscuring the primary liturgical symbol.

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Follow-up: Eastertide Holy Water and Statues [5-4-2010]

Pursuant to our comments on the use of a statue of the Risen Christ at Eastertide (see April 20), a reader from Lagos, Nigeria, asked about statues during Lent. The question was: "Please, why do we cover up all the statutes and crucifixes in the church with purple cloth, two weeks [prior] to Easter? Do we extend the practice to our individual homes by covering all the statues and crucifixes in our offices, homes, etc.? Any historical explanation?"

Although the custom is evidently a sign of sadness and penance that goes well with the overall Lenten climate, the historical origin of the custom is probably found elsewhere.

In all probability the custom derives from a medieval usage of extending a large veil or curtain in front of the altar at the beginning of Lent, hiding it completely from view. This fabric, of which there is evidence from the ninth century, was called the cloth of hunger (Hungertuch) in Germany.

This veil was removed on proclaiming the words "The veil of the temple was rent in two" during the reading of the Passion on Holy Wednesday.

There are probably several reasons for this practice. First of all, it was a practical way of informing an illiterate population that Lent had begun. It might also have been a vestige of the ancient practice of expelling public penitents from the church at the beginning of Lent. In time, public penance disappeared, but with the advent of Ash Wednesday all Christians in a sense ritually entered into the order of penitents. It being no longer possible to expel everybody from the church, this was done symbolically by shrouding the Holy of Holies until all were reconciled with God at Easter.

Following the same principle, many churches in the later Middle Ages began to cover the statues and crosses from the beginning of Lent. In the 17th century the bishops' ceremonial manual limited the veiling to Passiontide or from the Fifth Sunday of Lent, and this custom may still be followed. If not covered at this time, the images should be veiled or removed after the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday.

Given the historical context of the origin of this practice, there is no requirement to extend it to the home, school or other areas where sacred images are set up for devotional purposes.  


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