In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today we come to the last of four sermons on the ritual of the offertory. Previously, we considered the ritual of bringing the bread and wine, along with money, to the altar, and the meaning of the prayers that accompany this action. And we considered, last week, the ritual of the incense, about how it symbolizes our prayers ascending to God, the offering of what is precious and beautiful to God as the essence of authentic worship, and about how, as Fr. Homer Rogers said, we use incense, as the ancients did, to prepare to receive an important guest – namely the Son of God himself, who will arrive on our altar, under the species of bread and wine, and who arrives in our hearts by means of our hearing his Word and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. Today I would like to talk about what happens immediately after the ritual of the incense, namely the washing of the celebrant’s hands.
After the gifts are brought forward and offered to God with prayer; and after they, along with the altar and all the people present have been “censed,” the priest goes to the epistle side of the altar (that is, the right side, as you are looking at it), and an acolyte brings a cruet with water in it, a small basin, and a towel, and he pours a little of the water over the celebrant’s fingers, into the bowl. This ritual is referred to as “The Lavabo,” from the first word, in Latin, of Psalm 26, which the missal directs the celebrant to recite as the water is being poured over his fingers: “I will wash my hands in innocency, O Lord: and so will I go to thine altar: That I may shew the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.”
Washing oneself ritually before prayer is a very ancient practice – the Old Testament attests to its being a central element in the liturgy of the Jewish temple, from whence Christians inherited it. But it is something done seemingly universally – among the practitioners of Eastern religions, like Buddhists, Hindus, and the like; as well as among pagans the world over, and down through the centuries. Among Christian, our documentary heritage attests to ritual washing before prayer being practiced right from the get-go. St. Hippolytus mentions it, for example, in the late 100’s AD; and it is prescribed in the most ancient orders of mass that have come down to us, and in all the rest of them since – both in the Christian East, as well as in the West.
In the liturgy of the ancient indigenous Church of Ethiopia, for example, the celebrant washes his hands, just as we do in the West, at a place corresponding to our offertory; but instead of drying them on a towel, he is directed to turn and shake the water off of his fingers in the direction of the congregation while uttering the following admonition:
“If there be any who is pure let him receive of the host, and whoso is not pure let him not receive, that he be not consumed in the fire of the Godhead, whoso hath revenge in his heart and hath an alien mind by reason of unchastity. I am pure from the blood of you and from your sacrilege against the body and blood of Christ: I have nought to do with your reception thereof: I am pure of your error, and your sin will return upon your own head if ye receive not in purity.”
These words sound harsh in our ears, but they express a sentiment that is found in Scripture, as well as in our own Prayer Book (p. 316), where the Celebrant points out that with respect to receiving communion, “For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body.”
Thus the most basic and obvious meaning of the ritual washing of oneself with water comes into focus. It is connected with purity. We should be pure when we approach God, because God himself is pure. Psalm 24, for example, poses the question: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? * or who shall rise up in his holy place?” And immediately the Psalmist answers his own question: “Even he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; * and that hath not lift up his mind unto vanity,” (Psalm 24.3-4). The celebrant, at this point in the mass, is about not just to “ascend into the hill of the LORD,” but to hold the Lord’s body and blood in his hands. Some kind of purification is naturally called-for.
And the principle applies not just to the offertory at mass. The Lavabo is actually the second time the celebrant at mass is supposed to wash his hands. The first washing occurs in the sacristy, before mass even starts, and immediately before the priest puts on the vestments. He is directed to wash his hands as he says, “Give virtue to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain, I may be enabled to serve thee without defilement of mind or body.” Similarly holy water stoups are placed at the entrances of churches, so that the faithful, as they enter, may dip their fingers in the water, and sprinkle a little on themselves as they make the sign of the cross. The importance of purity is thus connoted: we are coming into a holy place, into God’s presence, and so we aspire to purity, and we express this aspiration by prayer and a ritual washing. Likewise, on Sundays, the mass begins with a ritual called “the asperges,” as the celebrant takes water that has been blessed, and he goes through the congregation, sprinkling the people with it, as also he sprinkles himself and the altar, as the choir sings the words of Psalm 51: “Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; * thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” We are about to celebrate the mass. We must wash.
It is hard to think these thoughts without thinking about Baptism, the universal Christian ritual commended to us by the Lord himself, wherein we pour water on the head of a non-Christian while invoking the Holy Trinity, thereby turning the non-Christian into a Christian. This is how new Christians are made, how they are “born again of water.” It is what Jesus commanded us to do – to begin the Christian life by a ritual washing, which symbolizes and effects our being cleansed of everything that made us dirty. And it is necessary because we must be pure if we wish to serve the Lord. “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? * or who shall rise up in his holy place? Even he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart…”
And just as Baptism cleanses us of the sins we committed before we were baptized, so we have a ritual that ministers God’s forgiveness to us for the sins that we have committed subsequently – the sacrament of Confession, although it doesn’t usually involve water.
Lastly, I would like to point out that this emphasis on purity is not just the residue of a puritanical moralism. In Matthew 22 Jesus told a parable:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son…. And [his] servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22.2,10-14)
The book of Revelation speaks of the Eucharist as the “marriage supper of the Lamb.” It is a feast, a party, in celebration of the Son of God’s marriage to human nature. And what do you do before you go to a wedding reception? You take a shower, and you put on clean clothes.
So the ritual washing of hands before the principle action of the Eucharist is not merely a reminder that we need to be purified of our sins or “in a state of grace,” before we present ourselves at the feast. It is that, but it is more than that. It is a reminder of the festal character of what we are doing – that this is a celebration, and that not only is sinfulness inappropriate, but worldliness of any sort is inappropriate. We should wash off the dust of the world, the dust of living in the “region of dissimilitude.” We should purify our minds and become still inside of ourselves, and ask God for a right disposition, an attitude of thankfulness, serenity, and joy, over what we are about to do and, when you shuck it all down to the cob, what HE HAS DONE FOR US, by sending his Son to assume our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.