Monday 24 November 2014

A Week of Beauty

To counteract my tendency towards writing about sad things, these days, I've decided to publish only happy things on my blog this week. And as I have already written a column this morning, I will reprint for your enjoyment a column I submitted to the Prairie Messenger in 2009. It is about the Asperges. My working title was "Hyssop, Snow and Water."

The very funny thing about my column in the Prairie Messenger is that the PM was so left-wing it was almost a cartoon, but the editor thought it would be cool to have Something Completely Different in it. I suppose it helped that I offered to name the column "Mad Trad Corner." 

To the editor's surprise and horror, my Trad Corner made an awful lot of people, including her old priest-mentor, really Mad.  

Well, enough advertising! Here 's my beloved "Hyssop, Snow and Water."

 s it takes over an hour to reach my beloved Extraordinary Form of the Mass on Sunday mornings, I am glad that it does not begin at once. Breathless, I need time to calm down and inwardly prepare. 

Most Sundays our Mass is preceded by the Asperges, the solemn sprinkling with holy water. This is a beautiful ritual recalling our baptism, Jewish purification rituals and Moses sprinkling the Israelites with the blood of sacrifice.  Dating from the ninth century at latest, the Asperges was performed before principal Masses on Sundays until 1970.

In the Asperges ceremony, our priest comes into the nave dressed in a cope, but not his chasuble or maniple, as the Asperges is not part of Mass. He follows a thurifer to the altar; the thurifer carries a vessel of holy water and the sprinkler, called an aspergillum. The sanctuary party genuflects while the priest bows low. Then all kneel. The MC takes the aspergillum from the thurifer, dips it in the holy water and gives it to our priest. The priest takes it and, in 13th century plainchant, sings Asperges me (“You will sprinkle me…”).

As he begins to sprinkle the altar and the sanctuary party, the choir and congregation burst into the rest of the verse: … Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor; lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor  (“…Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be clean; you will wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”) This is Psalm 51:7; the organist alone sings Psalm 51:1:  Miserere mei Deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam (“Have mercy on me, God, according to your great mercy”). The choir and people then sing a doxology and, as the priest starts down the aisle to sprinkle them, repeat Psalm 51:7. When the priest has finished sprinkling, he returns to the altar.

Ostende nobis, Domine, misericordiam tuam. (“Show us, O Lord, thy mercy”), he prays.

Et salutare tuum da nobis (“And grant us thy salvation”), add the people.

The priest sings, Domine, exaudi orationem meam (“O Lord, hear our prayer”).

We sing, Et clamor meus ad te veniat (“And let my cry come until Thee”).

Dominus vobiscum (“The Lord be with you”), sings the priest.

Et cum spiritu (“And with thy spirit”), we reply.

Oremus (“Let us pray”), directs the priest, and then in Latin sings, “Graciously hear us, O Holy Lord, Father Almighty, Eternal God; and vouchsafe to send down from heaven thy holy angel, that he may watch over, foster, safeguard, abide with and defend all who dwell in this house. Through Christ Our Lord.”

“Amen,” we sing, and then sit as the priest puts on his chasuble and maniple for Mass.

In Eastertide we sing the Vidi Aquam (“I saw water”) instead of the Psalm 51 verses. It derives from Ezekiel 17:1 and alludes both to the water that poured from the wound in the side of our crucified Lord and to our baptism.  The music dates from the 10th century. 

As we have both Latin and English nicely typed out in the red missals available at the back of the church, the ritual is easy to follow.  And I love it for many reasons. It is a way of cleansing the mind and heart before approaching the mystery and awe of Mass.  The holy water cleans off the dust, as it were, and the distractions of the world outside. The hyssop of Psalm 51, a forerunner of the aspergillum, was used to sprinkle water in ancient Jewish purification rituals, and so I think of the ancient Hebrew faith.  The prayers to be cleaned of and protected from sin remind me both of my failings and of God’s mercy.  Finally, as I sing and feel the water on my forehead, I feel a deep connection to all those Catholics who, for over a thousand years, sang and felt the same things.

The Ordinary Form of the Mass contains a Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Water. Although I have never seen this done, the Sacramentary of 1975 allows for its use in lieu of the Penitential Rite.  What I have seen in the Ordinary Form is the Easter Sunday sprinkling after we renew our baptismal vows. The priest often uses a pine branch, which strikes me as a fitting, Canadian substitute for hyssop; for us the smell of pine, like the sight of new snow and running water, suggests refreshing cleanliness.

If you would like to see and hear the traditional Asperges, you can find it easily on   

I believe my final, tempting, line was cut from the column before it was published. 

Our red softcover missals have been since replaced by hardcover blue missals, a bequest from a late parishioner. And we didn't have Asperges yesterday, for we had Benediction at the end of Mass instead.


  1. I remember having the Asperges at our Novus Ordo Mass at the Cathedral in Adelaide during the 90's. As kids we were disappointed if no water landed on us :-)
    Good memories.

    Aussie Girl in NZ

  2. WHAT exactly is so shocking and offensive about that??? I really have never gotten it.

  3. I will have to paw through old emails. But I strongly suspect it was the strong hint that Mass is not an inclusive table event but a holy sacrifice. And there is the Latin, too. Some people hate Latin because they can't understand it, and couldn't understand it when they were little, and assumed they would never have understood it if their diocese hadn't dropped it altogether. I also think that Canadian Catholics, especially out West, have been steeped in anti-TLM propaganda since 1962. In 2009 that meant almost 50 years of being told--sometimes from the pulpit itself-- everything between the 2nd century (as the "archaeologists" imagined it) and 1962 was worse than useless: it was a Constantinian imposition! Bargle, bargle, bargle.

  4. Heather in Toronto27 November 2014 at 11:46

    We get the sprinkling rite in lieu of the penitential rite every few months or so at my parish here in Toronto, as one of our priests (ordained within the last five years) is partial to it. So it does happen at least in some places in the Ordinary Form.

    So weird that a nice column like that would offend people.


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