Recovering Liturgies: The Asperges

As I’ve said several times, we are the Christian Church, not the Christian Historical Society. We don’t do what we do because it’s old, we do it because it proclaims the Gospel.

That having been said, like Matthew’s scribes training for the Kingdom of Heaven, we should periodically assess our treasures old and new and consider which of them best proclaim the Gospel in our time and place. There’s one treasure I’ve been looking at quite a bit recently…the Asperges (“Sprinkling”).

There’s no question that one of the great theological centers of the ’79 BCP is Baptism; the Baptismal Service and Covenant holds a prominent place in current Episcopal thinking (or, at least people give it lip-service despite actions to the contrary [ahem–CWOB!]). Indeed, one of the major complications for the acceptance of the bishop-elect of N. Michigan is his “edits” to the Baptismal liturgy.

However, despite the centrality of this Sacrament, nothing in our regular weekly services point to directly it. Why not? My suggestion would be to recover the Asperges, a liturgical action that a) is thoroughly within the historic Western liturgy, and b) clearly relates Baptism to the forgiveness of sins and the life of the Church.

As written in the current Roman Rite, the Asperges is parallel to the Penitential Rite that opens Mass. We’ve got a Penitential Rite (however rarely used) and an Asperges rite would be a perfect counterpoint to it. Here’s the rite as it stands in the Roman Missal:

[This would, for Sunday Masses,  follow the normal Beginning Dialogue with its seasonal variations]

Invitation to prayer:

Dear friends, this water will be used to remind us of our baptism. Let us ask God to bless it and to keep us faithful to the Spirit he has given us.

[Clear and direct without being overly didactic]

After a moment of silence, the priest says one of the following
prayers:

God our Father, your gift of water brings life and freshness to the earth; it washes away our sins and brings us eternal life. We ask you now to bless this water, and to give us your protection on this day which you have made your own. Renew the living spring of your life within us and protect us in spirit and body, that we may be free from sin and come into your presence to receive your gift of salvation. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.

Or:

Lord God almighty, creator of all life, of body and soul, we ask you to bless this water: as we use it in faith forgive our sins and save us from all illness and the power of evil. Lord, in your mercy give us living water, always springing up as a fountain of salvation: free us, body and soul, from every danger, and admit us to your presence in purity of heart. Grant this through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.

During the Easter Season:

Lord God almighty, hear the prayers of your people: we celebrate our creation and redemption. Hear our prayers and bless this water which gives fruitfulness to the fields, and refreshment and cleansing to man. You chose water to show your goodness when you led your people to freedom through the Red Sea and satisfied their thirst in the desert with water from the rock. Water was the symbol used by
the prophets to foretell your new covenant with man. You made the water of baptism holy by Christ’s baptism in the Jordan: by it you give us a new birth and renew us in holiness. May this water remind us of our baptism, and let us share the joy of all who have been baptized at Easter. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.

[So, all of these 1) mention Baptism as the forgiveness of sin, 2) mention salvation in connection with Baptism, and 3) make some solid biblical connections.]

If salt is to be added to the holy water, the priest says:

Almighty God, we ask you to bless this salt as once you blessed the salt scattered over the water by the prophet Elisha. Wherever this salt and water are sprinkled, drive away the power of evil, and protect us always by the presence of your Holy Spirit. Grant this through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.

[Because of salt’s sterilizing properties it was used as a symbol/creature/means of exorcism and played a role in the Baptismal Rite. Our rite no longer has the salt bit, rendering this optional though, as Elliott points out, it does help keep the water cleaner if used in holy water stoups and such during the week…]

The priest then pours the salt into the water.
He then goes through the church sprinkling the assembly, while one of the following antiphons is sung:

You will sprinkle me with hyssop, 0 Lord, and I shall be cleansed; you will wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow.

During the Easter season:

I saw water issuing forth from the Temple, on the right side, alleluia; and all those to whom this water came obtained salvation and they exclaimed: “Alleluia, alleluia”.

[Music available upon demand in English or Latin as is your preference. And—oh look, some nice biblical passages that connect the sprinkiling to purification of sins and our new life in Christ within the Church!]

When he returns to his place the priest says:

May Almighty God cleanse us of our sins, and through the eucharist we celebrate make us worthy to sit at table in his heavenly kingdom.
R. Amen

My thought is that instead of/in addition to this prayer we could go back to the good ol’ Collect for Purity which also fits here just fine and flow back into the rest of the service…

IIRC, Smokey Mary’s uses the Asperges on Sundays and Feast Days. I should check my back bulletin file and see exactly how they do it.

23 Replies to “Recovering Liturgies: The Asperges”

  1. Derek,

    This makes sense. In trying to tie this with BCP language and prayers, might it not make some sense to use something from our own baptism/reaffirmation rite?

    The Collect of Purity is perfect here.

  2. I find it odd that unlike LBW and ELW, we don’t have a host of Baptimsal Thanksgiving liturgies. Though those in the latter are deficient, except for the one in the Funeral rite–I guess at death we get clear about what’s what. A certain someone refers to the other rites as “warm tubby” liturgies.

  3. I’ve always found it odd that so much ink has been spilled over the idea that we’re a “baptismal people,” but no rite for sprinkling has ever been authorized.

    However, I find the new Roman rite for the Asperges–like so much of the new Roman rite generally–to be overly verbose.

    Why not just sprinkle the people and follow that with, if you prefer an Anglican formulation, the Collect for Purity? Water is blessed with great solemnity at Easter and Pentecost, and perhaps also on the other “baptismal days” provided for in the new Prayer Book. Do we need to have it as a public rite every week? I think this is why it’s so rarely used in ordinary parishes.

  4. As you well know, Paul, and as Ritual Notes directs, in former days the blessing was done in the sacristy beforehand and things proceeded about as you laid out.

    The advantage here is that the rite itself makes clear what’s happening and how it ties to Baptism. Yes, even without that folks should get the point—but with the current state of liturgical catechesis I wouldn’t count on it…

  5. At StMV, the Asperges immediately follows the “Entrance Song” (Introit). After the choir completes the singing of the Introit, they then begin to sing the Asperges Me or (as now, in Eastertide) the Vidi Aquam – both of which you have typed out above – in Latin, during which the Celebrant and an assistant walk together down the middle aisle with aspergillium and sprinkle all the congregants.

    There is no introduction to either of these two rituals, but a description of each, along with the words in Latin and English, are in the bulletin, so that people can follow what’s happening.

  6. at our former parish, we did the vidi aquam during easter and the asperges…during lent? I don’t remember but it wasn’t every sunday until we got our new priest, who does it every sunday. we use a dreadful setting of the asperges but the vidi aquam was beautiful.

  7. FYI, I found the Vidi Aquam in several place in the Spanish version of the BOS, including on page 266, in the “Restauración de cosas profanadas” (“the Restoration of things profaned” or something like that):

    Durante la procesión se puede cantar o decir el Salmo 118 con la siguiente
    antífona:

    Vi agua que salía del templo; fluía del lado derecho, aleluya; y
    todos los que entraban en contacto con ella, eran salvos y decían, aleluya, aleluya.

    Después de la procesión, el Celebrante se dirige a cada objeto profanado y puede limpiarlo simbólicamente empleando los signos de purificación, tales como agua o incienso. Luego toca o extiende una mano sobre cada
    objeto profanado y dice:

    Declaro este _____ restaurado al uso para el cual se había
    dedicado y consagrado.

    It’s in a few other places, too. And that rite seems to involve the sprinkling of water (or censing).

  8. I’ve grown accustomed to (and a bit fond of) the way it’s done at Ascension, Chicago (my parish):

    As the opening hymn begins, the altar party enters from the sacristy and proceeds to three sides of the foot of the altar, where they kneel as the celebrant sprinkles the altar, then himself. Then they bow and are sprinkled. Then celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon, and MC with pail (yes, I know the real word for it!) proceed down the center aisle and the celebrant sprinkles the people. At the west end of the aisle, they turn around and wait for the introit chant to begin, at which time they cross themselves and proceed up to the altar and prepare incense. No Asperges me or Vidi aquam is sung except on Easter Day.

    This proceeds naturally and smoothly…works for us!

  9. It’s never occurred to me to do the asperges at regular weekly services (I was raised Presbyterian after all), we do use it at St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn at bapitisms. And one of my favorite parts of our Easter Vigil is the asprges procession to “I saw water”.

  10. We do sprinkling at the four major baptismal feast days. There’s a desription of it in Leonel Mitchell’s “Great Fifty Days” (published by Cowley). The water is blessed in the font (which get moved to the head of the center aisle), and then the deacon and I each take a small bowlful of the water (our parish does not own an aspergillium)and sprinkle the people and each other. Nothing is sung during this time, but as we are sprinkling we say “Remember your baptism and thankful.” Not traditional words, I am sure, but the first time I experienced this was in seminary at Drew and so most likely this has a more Methodist flavor. Nevertheless, in a small middle-of-the-road kind of parish this works well. I’m not sure how it would go on a weekly basis, however.

    I also have a brief story about holy water stoups. I was assisting at my cousin’s (the bride)wedding. Her church had holy water stoups. The groom’s family were all Midwestern Mennonites and Southern Baptists. At the wedding rehearsal one of the grooms nephews (about age 5) saw the stoup and put his fingers in the water. His mother nervously chastised him and told him to stop. “Why?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just know you shouldn’t do that.” Because I was standing right there the boy asked me what the stoup was for. What to tell a five year old Southern Baptist, I wondered. Then it hit me: “Some people use the water to make the sign of the Cross to remind them that Jesus died for their sins.” “Oh,” said the boy, gave me a big smile and skipped away!

    Vicki+

  11. Derek,

    I take your point about the general failure of catechesis in this day and age, but I still say that the answer is not to turn every Mass into an Instructed Eucharist. There was much enthusiasm for this in the ’50s and ’60s. The idea was that a “commentator” would describe the liturgical rites as they were enacted. It was a dismal failure, although selected parts have survived as the introductions to the various special services: the Asperges, the Blessing of Palms, the Footwashing, and the Easter Vigil. I think it’s overly pedantic. Print them in the bulletin or something similar, but let the liturgical actions speak for themselves.

  12. Paul,

    I hardly think a one-line opener turns it into an “instructed Eucharist”. The point is, a lot of the people in the pews don’t make the connections that you and I think are obvious (come to think of it, some of them may not peruse Ritual Notes in their spare time [!]). I see nothing wrong with using the one line introduction as the practice is being introduced. Once it’s taken hold, then yes I think it could be dropped.

    That having been said, I would still keep the blessing of the water (and salt) as public events. We need to talk about sin; we need to talk about Baptism; we need to talk about redemption. This keeps these together in front of us all.

    The other issue is indeed frequency. I’d think every week would be over-much. Every week in Easter as our prime Baptismal season seems fitting. The Penitential Rite in Lent instead of sprinkling also seems fitting. How to balance it the rest of the year would, I think, depend on the congregation.

  13. Derek,

    Well, my point was admittedly made with some hyperbole. But then you make my argument for me. You envision a protracted rite, and then decide that it would be too much to have on weekly basis. In some ways, that reminds me of what happened to the Eucharist in Anglicanism, where quarterly celebrations of the Holy Communion became the standard in most places.

    For my part, I’m happy with a weekly reminder of baptism attached to the principal Sunday Eucharist, and don’t see a compelling reason to depart from that pattern. Nor do I see that anyone has offered one. It was normative for 500 years, and perhaps for much longer.

  14. Paul,

    My goal wasn’t to proscribe it—I was bringing up the form of the rite as printed in the Roman Missal for discussion—and I think we’ve had some good discussion.

    Your situation is not the situation for 99% of US Episcopalians. I truly envy your environment and the liturgical awareness that comes with it—but outside of notably unusual places like Scott’s Ascension or Smokey Mary, few are familiar with it.
    If it comes to real, practical, on-the-ground change, Vicki adaption is the kind of thing I suspect would catch on.

  15. Derek,

    So much of your commentary on this blog is about Christian formation. But one thing that has not been raised is the frequency of attendance at Sunday worship, and the role of that in formation. One of the measurements for congregational vitality is Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), reported on parochial reports and other analyses. (Yes, I know that CS Lewis once commented that Jesus said ‘Feed my sheep’, not ‘Count my sheep’; nevertheless….) But more and more the pattern of Sunday worship attendance among people who consider themselves faithful, committed Christians engaged fully in the life of their parish has changed. That standard used to be 3 out of 4 Sundays a month. Now it is more like once a month or even once every six weeks. This is not just my own observation, nor just about the Episcopal Church. I’m hearing it from many different quarters (of course there are always local exceptions).

    So, the question becomes: how does Christian formation work in such a climate where the chance for repeated exposure becomes far less? At what point do we lose the corporate sense of the Body coming together to be fed and formed and sent out in mission? What as Christians is our duty and responsibility, not only to God and to ourselves, but also to each other as part of each others’ formation? The phrase from the BOS bidding prayer for Advent Lessons and Carols keeps ringing in my ears: “Let it be our duty and delight…”

    Anyway, do you have any thoughts about this?

    Vicki+

  16. We use the Asperges every Sunday outside Lent or when we don’t start with a procession. However, we do it as part of the penitential rite, so we bless the water, say the confession, then the absolution, then go and through the church sprinkling wildly. this way we still can use the confession, which the congregation are rather attached to.

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