As part of our annual Christmas tradition, our family visits several of the local Catholic churches to enjoy the elaborate nativity scenes that decorate the season. Some of these beautiful “nacimientos” are almost life-sized, while others seamlessly blend New Testament details with Andean scenery.
This year, however, it wasn’t a llama visiting the manger that caught my eye, but the interesting sign posted beside a holy water font in the entryway of the Belen church.
The sign read,
“If you are a Christian Catholic, please do not bathe in the holy water. Use it only for crossing yourself.”
My earliest (and actually only) experience with holy water happened when I was very young, and we were visiting our great uncle and aunt. Uncle Tom was from the branch of the McDonald family tree that had stayed true to its Catholic roots ever since our great-great Grandfather Patrick sailed over from Ireland. The branch I grew on is not Catholic because our Grandpa, who was Uncle Tom’s brother, married a Protestant and got kicked out of the Catholic church. So that little tidbit of family history explains why I didn’t know anything about holy water on that day when Mom caught my older sister and me dipping into Aunt Joan’s holy water. In our nervousness over being caught, we accidentally dumped the vial that was on her bedroom doorpost, so we re-filled it with tap water from the bathroom. Shortly thereafter, Aunt Joan passed away from cancer, and Becky and I spent quite a bit of time worrying that maybe changing out the holy water for bathroom water was part of the problem.
Like I said earlier, I don’t know much about Catholic holy water, but I don’t think that’s how it works. And this brings me back to the church that we visited at Christmas, with the note warning Christian Catholics NOT to bathe in the holy water. The beautifully carved stone font was bone dry, and I couldn’t help but wonder if too much illicit bathing had taken place, using up all of the water. Or maybe the priest had just given up on his wayward and apparently dirty flock, and had stopped filling the font.
Then I started to wonder what would happen if the water really WAS holy? What if it could not only wash dirty skin, but also clean out the ugly grime in the crevices of a heart? I’m guessing that the priest who posted the sign would have changed his words to say, “PLEASE DO wash yourself in the holy water.”
In fact, if churches had access to actual holy water, it seems like they would do well to dig a 10 foot moat around their buildings and MAKE their parishioners swim through it before entering. Imagine a service where no one complained about the Bible translation that the pastor used, or argued over hymns vs. worship music, or what color the new carpet should be, or if there even should be new carpet. What if a swim through the moat of holy water gave each person a cheerful smile and an genuine sense of love toward each other? What if the water was able to completely take away the stains and shame of even the “worst” of sins?
I know that if I could get some holy water like this, I would put a big tank of it outside our front door and make everyone (including myself!) take a dunk before coming inside. Not only would it keep my house free from all of the mud that kids & husband & friends & sneaky pets track in during rainy season, but I’m pretty sure it would also check at the door all of the bad attitudes & bickering & gossip & grouchiness & everything else that’s ugly.
It’s tempting to feel a bit let down that there really isn’t sin-erasing holy water, either in a fancy font in the church, or in a crystalline Andean lake this this one. But as I was recently re-reading the familiar passage in Ephesians 5, God directed my focus away from what we typically see about how wives and husbands should get along. This time I read, almost as if for the first time, that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her in order “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…” The passage goes on to say that once the church (read: the family of Christ) is washed in this water, she will be “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:26-27
Now there’s some true holy water for you! And as far as I can tell from reading these verses, this water is available to us any time we want to soak in it: it’s called THE WORD. I’m guessing that most of us have multiple copies of it on our bookshelves and in our phones, in various translations and maybe even in a few different languages.
This makes it physically closer to us and much easier to reach than the clear, sparkling water of the Andean lakes and streams in my pictures. And it’s so much more real than the dried-up liquid from the Catholic church’s holy water font. So what are we waiting for? The Word is our holy water! Go ahead, dive right in!