Liturgical Worship – Holy Water, Incense and Candles

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Have you ever wondered where did the Catholic tradition of Holy water come from? What about incense and candles; why are they used in the Liturgy of the Mass? Even for those of you who are cradle Catholics, you may not know the answer or really never thought about it that much.

Holy Water:
The origin of holy water came very early in the life of the Church. There is evidence that as early as the forth century it was used. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis, who lived from 310 – 402A.D., described a certain blessing that took place over the water and it concluded with “making over the vessel with his finger the seal of the cross” (Against All Heresies 30:12). Today, when a priest says the solemn prayer over the water, he prays that those who use this water may not fall into sin; may be free from the power of the devil and from diseases, etc. So, when someone does use the water, they get the benefit of all these prayers.

Holy water is used to signify the “washing” or “cleansing of the soul” through our baptism. St. Paul tells us, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).” St. Gregory Nazianzus had this to say about baptism, “Let us be buried with Christ by Baptism to rise with him; let us go down with him to be raised with him; and let us rise with him to be glorified with him (Oratio 40,9).” Every time a Catholic dips their hand in the holy water font at church and blesses themselves with the sign of the cross, they are renewing their baptismal covenant with the Almighty God.

The Catholic Church’s tradition of using holy water to bless people, places and things comes from the understanding of baptismal regeneration.

Incense and Candles:
Incense is a sweet smelling aroma that is offered up to God as praise and worship. It symbolizes the prayers ascending to God. It was used in the Temple ceremonies of Jewish worship and continued to be used early in Christian worship. The Apostle St. John wrote about what he saw in his vision of the heavenly liturgy, “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God (Revelation 8:3-4).”

Once the Catholic Church came out of hiding when Christianity was made legal by the Emperior Constantine, incense started to be used more and more. By the forth century, there was widespread use of it in the liturgy of the Eastern churches, along with candles. It was at this point that the priests vestments started to become more stylish. The candles started to be used as a part of the ceremonies on the altars, as opposed to earlier times when they were only there to light up the room. By the middle ages, the practice of using incense and candles also became widespread in the West. It is a tradition that is still in the Mass today.

Until next time, God bless.

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