Over the past few months I have been fortunate enough to assist at two parishes that retain the rite of sprinkling before the principal Sunday Mass. One of these is a parish that celebrates an Extraordinary Form Missa Cantata, the other is a church of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter.
Whilst the Rite for the Blessing and Sprinkling of Water appears in the Missale Romanum of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, it forms part of the celebration of the Mass in a way that is different from the older form and the new Ordo Missae for use in the Personal Ordinariates. The English translation of the rubrics in the Ordinary Form reads, “From time to time on Sundays, especially in Easter Time, instead of the customary Penitential Act, the blessing and sprinkling of water may take place”.
Here, then, there is certainly a clear sense that this act is a ‘memorial of baptism’, but it seems that some of the wider symbolism of the ceremony is missed by this relocation. For example, whilst the penitential nature of the rite is elevated – no bad thing – this happens at the risk of reducing the richness of the sprinkling’s baptismal symbolism, because we move from an act of communal renewal to one that is explicitly penitential. We cannot confess the sins of another, and so the communitarian nature of the action is diminished. The explicit link between the Lord’s Day and the renewal of the memory of baptism is also surely important, and this is somewhat lost if the ceremony is only to take place ‘from time to time’, or only during the paschal season.
Furthermore, the inclusion of this ceremony during the Mass itself seems to see baptism merely in terms of purification, rather than as the gateway of Christian initiation, which then moves us to the fullness of union with Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The emphasis on the penitential nature of the rite, together with the resulting diminution (albeit slight) of the communal nature of baptism, leads me to ask if there is a way to recover this ceremony, not simply for the sake of tradition but as a rich element of our liturgical life that can lead the faithful to a more profound participatio actuosa.
How might this be done? First, we can see that this already exists in both the Anglican Use and the Extraordinary Form, but the reality is that most parishes do not have exposure to these liturgical books. The Ordinary Form, as found in the 2002 Missale Romanum, states that “If this rite is celebrated during Mass, it takes the place of the usual Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass”. I would argue this rubric suggests that such a ceremony may legitimately take place distinct from the Mass, and it would seem reasonable to suggest a use in the manner which we have discussed. This, it seems, would allow the action to accentuate the communitarian and ecclesial nature of the baptismal covenant, and to present it in a rather fuller sacramental sign. It would also provide a useful opportunity for the public blessing of water: to be used in the ceremony, in holy water stoups, and for the faithful to take for their homes. This is a further opportunity for the liturgy to be a moment in which the Christian faithful are more profoundly formed in the devotional life of the Church, and by which the liturgical life of the Eucharistic community can inform the life of the family home.
Finally, the music that accompanies this action is, properly, the Vidi Aquam or the Asperges me (outside Eastertide). These biblical texts not only provide a wonderful opportunity for further exposure to Sacred Scripture – as envisaged by the Fathers of the second Vatican Council – but they also offer the chance for a relatively simply chant to be learned and sung by the whole congregation. Worthy versions of these texts are available in the vernacular, as well as the Graduale Romanum. The communal singing of these texts would further reinforce the liturgical and theological principles which the rite accentuates.
If these beautiful and highly symbolic elements of our Latin liturgical patrimony find a new home in our parishes, as an outward sign of the Church’s renewed emphasis on the importance of the common baptismal vocation and the intrinsic link between that baptismal character and the Eucharistic sacrifice offered on the Lord’s Day, it might just be that the ideas take a deeper root in the lives of the faithful as we continue the renewal of the Church.