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Musical Musings: Liturgy


by Gary D. Penkala

Asperges is the older name for the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water which is now an option at the beginning of Sunday Mass, replacing the Penitential Rite. The rite has its origins at least as early as the ninth century with Pope Leo IV. In the Tridentine Mass, the form was:

  • Celebrant sprinkles the altar, himself, and assisting ministers with holy water.
  • He sprinkles the people, either from the sanctuary or passing through the aisles.
  • During this, the chanting includes:
    The proper antiphon: Asperges me, Domine during the year, or Vidi aquam during the Paschaltide
    Psalm 51:1 during the year, or Psalm 118:1 during Paschaltide
    Gloria Patri (omitted during Passiontide)
    The antiphon is repeated
  • Celebrant sings versicles and prayer.
John J. Wynne, in an article in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) suggests
Its object [the Asperges rite] is to prepare the congregation for the celebration of the Mass by moving them to sentiments of penance and reverence suggested by the words of Psalm [51], or by impressing on them that they are about to assist at the sacrifice of our redemption as suggested in the psalm at Easter time.
In the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI, the Asperges Rite, now called "The Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water," may replace the Penitential Rite at any Sunday Mass. It takes on the character of a baptismal remembrance, as seen in the Invitation that precedes any of the three options:
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.
After this invitation and a brief silent pause, the celebrant may chose any of three prayers of blessing. They begin:
  1. "God our Father, your gift of water brings life and freshness to the earth..."
  2. "Lord God almighty, creator of all life, of body and soul..."
  3. "Lord God almighty, hear the prayers of your people: we celebrate our creation and redemption..."
Prayer number 3 above is reserved for the Easter season, and goes on to recount the events in our salvation history linked to water (e.g. the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses calling forth water from the rock, the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan). Optionally, the celebrant may mix salt with the holy water, where this is customary. The prayer of blessing over the salt recalls the prophet Elisha throwing salt into a spring to purify it (II King 2:19-22).

The rubric then says:

Taking the sprinkler, the priest sprinkles himself and his ministers, then the rest of the clergy and people. He may move through the church for the sprinkling of the people. Meanwhile, an antiphon or another appropriate song is sung.
The "antiphon" mentioned may certainly be the traditional chants, Asperges me or Vidi aquam [which can be found in the Liber usualis or CNP's Booklet of Chant, Volume 3]. An adaptation of the chant may be used, like CNP's I Saw Water Flowing, which uses the melody for the traditional Vidi aquam in an English version with congregational refrain. A baptismal hymn may also be sung, although one must remember that the Entrance Song has occurred just before the Sprinkling Rite, and the Gloria (except in Advent and Lent) will immediately follow. After the sprinkling, the celebrant returns to the altar and says the final prayer of the rite:
May almighty God cleanse us of our sins, and through the eucharist we celebrate make us worthy to sit at his table in his heavenly kingdom.
The reference to "cleansing us of our sins" is very important, as this rite replaces the normal Penitential Rite when it is used. Priests who omit this prayer, through ignorance or laziness, are depriving the congregation of this necessary reference.

While in the East the priest uses a sort of brush for the sprinkling, and the pope uses a large sprig of hyssop (referencing Psalm 51), the usual implement for the sprinkling is the aspergillum, whose name comes from the Latin aspergere ("to sprinkle"). This has a long metal or wooden handle with a hollow metal sphere pierced with many holes. The aspergillum is dipped in the aspersorium, sometimes called aspersory, which is a metal bucket holding the holy water.

The Sprinkling Rite has particular significance at any Mass with baptismal themes, and is certainly called for during the post-baptismal, mystogogical season of Easter, where it should be used every Sunday.

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