May 17, 2022

The People’s Ablutions

As churches emerge from pandemic practices and take a fresh look at the way we used to do things, many are pondering what aspects of the past two years might carry over or influence our liturgies ahead. Some are committed to continuing worship online one way or another, some are challenged by the thought of returning to the common use of a common chalice. Some are wondering how they will exchange the Peace. The hand sanitizers that appeared in abundance in 2021 are sliding into the shadows. In all these things, the church is being given an invitation to enrich and expand its liturgical practices and understanding. Will we accept the invitation?

Ablutions, ceremonial washing of the priest and people, have been part of worship, or preparation for worship, for centuries. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all have traditions of washing hands, face, and even feet, before prayer. Many Episcopal Churches maintain the ancient custom of keeping a bowl of baptismal water by the entrance to the church for people who want dip their fingers and sign themselves with the cross upon entering the nave. In addition to reminding worshippers of their baptism, this practice is a remnant of the medieval hand-washing before the Eucharist. Another tradition is the use of a lavabo bowl, held by an acolyte who then pours water over the celebrant’s fingers after the altar has been prepared and before the Eucharistic Prayer. Often, while engaging in this symbolic washing, the priest recites a verse from the psalms, “I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord” (Psalm 26) or “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51).

These ablutions by the celebrant were augmented in Covidtide with hand sanitizer, often applied in full view of the congregation, setting their minds at ease about transmission of the virus, and indeed, to protecting them from the same. In so doing, the ablutions emerged from private devotions to include caring for others. What if this practice were extended to the congregation as well?

I recently visited the Chapel of the Cross, an Episcopal parish in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where alongside the prayer books and hymnals in each pew rack, were hand sanitizers, a bottle for each row. After exchanging the Peace, I witnessed parishioners sanitizing their own hands, and some squirting a bit of sanitizer into the hands of the person next to them in the pew before passing the bottle along. It may have been about self-protection – “I just shook hands with someone, I better use some hand sanitizer now”. But I suddenly saw it as a way for the congregation to spiritually prepare to receive the Eucharist.

The people’s ablutions!

Rather than self-defense after shaking hands with someone else, this “washing” could intentionally relate to the Offertory that follows the Peace. As such, it could help the congregation to realize that in the Offertory, we not only offer gifts from the many resources God has given us, but also offer our very selves, our souls, bodies, minds and hearts, to God. As we wash, we could pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10). Or we could realize that part of offering ourselves to God is to serve one another. People in the pew could be encouraged to squirt sanitizer into the hand of the person next to them, making the practice symbolic of care for the stranger. They could recite, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) or "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14). Or, harkening to the greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind … and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

In these ablutions, participants prepare themselves and one another to receive the sacrament of bread and wine together, they enter more deeply into the Tradition, and practically, they mitigate the prospect of one or the other getting sick. Could certainly be a faithful and rational liturgical action for the 21st-century church!