The Wonderful World of Words! (Continued)
So what is an aspergil anyway? The more proper word is “aspergillum” the plural is “aspergilla” but I’ve no idea why one would use more than one at a time anyway. It is a holy water sprinkler, sometimes in the form of a brush, or a rod with a perforated metal ball at one end. It can even be made of pine or hyssop branches as in Psalm 51: “Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” Hyssop is associated with rituals of purification in a number of ancient religions, but I have absolutely no idea why. Just a cautionary note: When using a metal aspergil, the sprinkler (that is the priest or deacon) should make very sure that the little perforated ball is tightly screwed on to the handle. The round business end of the aspergil has been known to fly off and bonk the “sprinklee” (the faithful) in the head. If this happens to you, assume that it is a very special sign of divine favor and do not sue the parish.
The more interesting thing here is holy water. We Catholics use sacred or blessed water for purification as did a whole lot of ancient religions, but especially the religion of Israel. The temple mount was honeycombed with cisterns to hold the vast amount of water needed for the purification of sacrificial animals, the altar, priests, people and things. The great question is why we modern people would cling to ancient religious forms such as the use of holy water. It is quite simple. Catholicism believes that the body is sacred. We are not souls trapped in flesh. We are incarnate spirits. My body, not just my soul, really is me. It matters what I do with it, how I treat it and even how I dispose of it when I am no longer using it. We bury the dead, and even in the exceptional circumstance of cremation, the remains of the body are to be buried or stored in sacred ground that has been blessed with, you guessed it, holy water in most cases.
Why holy water? Holy water is a symbol of baptism. The Israelites passed through the Red Sea and the river Jordan, and Jews still practice a kind of self-baptism called a mikveh in which they immerse themselves to shed the dirt and pollution of this world. We do something like this in baptism. We symbolically pass from one shore of the Red Sea on which we are slaves to the other shore on which we find ourselves free. We even do this with things by means of holy water. They pass from one state to another, from a secular use to a sacred one. This baptism of things is not so much to remove a kind of uncleanness, but to dedicate them to a new purpose. This thing now belongs primarily to God. So when you have me bless your car, realize that by baptizing it with holy water, I am not just wishing it good luck. I am giving it to God. I hope that is your intention when you ask for a blessing.
HOSANNA. Now that you know what an aspergil is, shall we move on to the meaning of Hosanna? It is an Aramaic word meaning “Save us!”, or “Savior!”
It is not a Hebrew word originally. Hebrew and Aramaic are very closely related languages of the Northwest Semitic language group. I suppose the relationship between the two languages is almost same as that of Spanish and Portuguese. They are almost, but not quite, mutually intelligible. Ancient Aram was essentially what we now call Syria, just north of Israel. It was the home of the Arameans who settled there around 3500 BC, at least 1,500 years before Abraham arrived in the land of Canaan, where a variety of other Semitic dialects were spoken. Aramaic gradually became the common language of the Middle East just as English has become a world language in our times. When the Jews were exiled to Babylon, they stopped speaking Hebrew and started speaking its cousin, Aramaic the language spoken at that time in Babylon, now the country of Iraq. Thus it was when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowd shouted, “Save us!” in their native tongue which was not Hebrew, but Aramaic! Hebrew had not been the common language of the Jews for almost six centuries by the time Jesus entered Jerusalem. Aramaic had been.
The prayer “Holy, Holy, Holy” with its “Hosanna” is a direct lift from the Hebrew liturgy on the feast of Sukkot, (the Feast of Booths) The Jews to this day process in their synagogues on the mornings of the week of Sukkot saying “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Hosanna,” (or “Hoshanna” as they pronounce it.) It is a prayer to plead for the coming of the Messiah. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” is a normal way to say “Welcome” among the Jews. In fact, the seventh day of Sukkoth is called Hoshana Rabbah (the Great Hosanna).
So there you have it. We say at Mass what the citizens of Jerusalem said to Jesus when He appeared as their king on Palm Sunday, 2,000 years ago, and we say it in Aramaic, just as they did. Holy water, and Hosannas with Holy, Holy, Holy, are just more evidence that you do on Sunday morning ties us ever more fully to that big book on the coffee table, the Bible!
By the way, Aramaic is still spoken. It is spoken all over Skokie by our Assyrian and Chaldean neighbors, friends and parishioners. Any day of the week you can hear the language in which our Lord Jesus and His Blessed Mother spoke to each other.