On Maundy Thursday, in memory of the Last Supper, Mass is celebrated in the evening, but then not on the following day, which is Good Friday, nor on Holy Saturday until the vigil on Saturday night brings in the great feast of Easter. Among many ancient and telling details one is memorable.
It is the removal of holy water from the stoup at the church door. I suppose this is an extension of the ritual stripping of the altar.
Eamon Duffy did well to give the title The Stripping of the Altars to his celebrated revisionary religious history of the late Middle Ages in England, for the ceremony is one of intense emotion. It comes after the solemn marking of the initiation of the Eucharist, the central work of the Christian Church.
Once the priest and servers have left the area around the altar, it is decorously stripped of its furnishing: the reading stand, cloths and frontal. Meanwhile, Psalm 22 (21 in the Vulgate) is chanted without accompaniment, with the antiphon: Diviserunt sibi vestimenta mea: et super vestem meam miserunt sortem, “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.”
The significance of the psalm (which begins “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) is that Jesus is believed to be the priest, victim and the very altar in his sacrificial death on the Cross. This is what is carried out liturgically each time the Mass is said. To say that Christ is the altar is not the same as saying that the altar in the church is Christ, but it does stand for him.
So there is the altar, stripped of its clothes, an unfamiliar object, being the rest of the year decked with a coloured textile frontal and clean white cloths.
That crabby antiquary Cecil Torr (1857-1928) found himself in St Peter’s, Rome, one Maundy Thursday when the altar was ritually cleaned. “They throw oil and wine upon the altar,” he wrote, “and then begin to scrub. I was close by, and noticed how differently they all did it. Some evidently thought it symbolical, and merely waved their mops across the altar, hardly touching it. And others would scrub hard, and then put their heads down and look carefully through their spectacles to see what they had done, and then go on scrubbing again till they were satisfied that they had done their bit.”
The work of the day is not completed until the holy water stoup is emptied too. Before the latter part of the 20th century, the stripping of the altar took place in the morning of Maundy Thursday. James Joyce’s intellectually vain hero in Portrait of the Artist despises the Dublin people as they scrabble their hands in the dry stoup, ignorant that it will have been emptied.
Water is as prominent in the ceremonies at Easter as light, naturally since it commemorates the Passover and crossing of the Red Sea. Baptism is an integral part of the Easter vigil, and water blessed for that initiation is used to refill the font and the stoup at the door.
Holy water takes its meaning from baptism. It is harder to say what being blessed is. Salt or bread or people and most things can be blessed, setting them apart as holy and somehow (as a “sacramental” not as a sacrament) embodying the good presence of God, which prevails over all evil.
So people on entering a church put a finger or two in the holy water, and make the sign of the Cross, invoking God the Holy Trinity, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is a rite of passing the threshold into the house of God.
Just at the moment the stoup is dry because of coronavirus, so it is Good Friday every day until Easter comes.