Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
“From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”
— Mark 7:14-15; 21-23
Our life in Christ begins with a washing, with our baptism. We take holy water when we enter the church doors. The priest washes his hands at holy Mass at the offertory and even after distributing Holy Communion. He may sprinkle the faithful with holy water at the beginning of Sunday Mass. Our altars and churches, our wedding rings, our icons and other images, rosaries and medals and scapulars, are blessed with holy water. We even have our houses and our vehicles and even our pets blessed with holy water. The old covenant ritual law also had its washings, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph accepted these without question.
Obviously, then, Our Lord is not inveighing against sacred and liturgical washings in themselves. His point is not to criticize the belief that material elements can bring about a spiritual benefit (quite the contrary). The Savior is simply declaring that the inner dispositions of the heart are what render a man clean or unclean, defiled or, as it were, “kosher.”
As important as outer, bodily expressions of faith and prayer are for our human nature, which is a corporeal, sensible one, it remains nonetheless true that the image of God in which we are made is principally in our spiritual soul, as the catechism teaches us. Thus we are not to evaluate our own or anyone else’s spiritual state simply by our outer observances.
So, then, what is the benefit of using holy water? Quite simply it is a powerful protection against the evil one and his minions. It is also an exercise of our faith in the power of the Church’s prayer of blessing and of the Lord’s incarnation, which sanctified the whole material universe in all its parts. He is “the firstborn of all creation” and creation began with the Holy Spirit brooding over the waters. As we read in Genesis, from Eden flowed the rivers of life-giving water, the world was purged of sin by the waters of the flood, and the hand of God through his servant Moses held back the waters of the Red Sea to free his people from slavery in Egypt. (There are many other such examples from the story of our salvation.) Nor should any Protestant reader be critical of the use of holy water, which was so much taken for granted as a Christian practice that Luther and George Herbert approved its use.
Let us hear what a Doctor of the Church and expert in the ways of holiness and prayer says about holy water and the spiritual struggle. What St. Teresa of Avila tells us in the thirty-first chapter of her Autobiography from 1562 is worth quoting at length:
From long experience I have learned that there is nothing like holy water to put devils to flight and prevent them from coming back again. They also flee from the cross, but return; so holy water must have great virtue. For my own part, whenever I take it, my soul feels a particular and most notable consolation. In fact, it is quite usual for me to be conscious of a refreshment which I cannot possibly describe, resembling an inward joy which comforts my whole soul.
This is not fancy, or something which has happened to me only once. It has happened again and again and I have observed it most attentively. It is, let us say, as if someone very hot and thirsty were to drink from a jug of cold water: he would feel the refreshment throughout his body. I often reflect on the great importance of everything ordained by the Church and it makes me very happy to find that those words of the Church are so powerful that they impart their power to the water and make it so very different from water which has not been blessed.
One night, too, about this time, I thought the devils were stifling me; and when the nuns had sprinkled a great deal of holy water about I saw a huge crowd of them running away as quickly as though they were about to fling themselves down a steep place.
I will only describe something that happened to me one night of All Souls. I was in an oratory: I had said one nocturn and was repeating some very devotional prayers which follow it—they are extremely devotional: we have them in our office-book—when actually the devil himself alighted on the book, to prevent me from finishing the prayer. I made the sign of the cross and he went away. I then began again and he came back. I think I began that prayer three times and not until I had sprinkled some holy water on him could I finish it. At the same moment I saw several souls coming out of purgatory: their time there must have been nearly up and I thought that perhaps the devil was trying to impede their deliverance.
So wash yourself as much as you want as part of the spiritual struggle. This will be a sign that what comes from your heart is truly good and full of faith and perseverance!