Cleansing more than hands

By | February 8, 2012

What phrase do mothers say most often? Most likely it is “wash your hands.” If you want to avoid illness, “wash your hands.” When we do not want to be held accountable for a certain outcome we “wash our hands” of the situation. The washing of hands holds a place in our daily actions.

During the celebration of liturgy, we see the priest wash his hands. This ritual has a long history of both practical and prayerful application. At one time in history people brought offerings to Mass: bread, wine and other produce that could sustain the clergy and the poor. There might have been candles, oil, a live chicken or a sack of potatoes being handed to the priest, who needed to wash the accumulated grime from his hands.

Today that hand washing is symbolic of the priest’s desire, as the one who is presiding over the liturgy, to have his soul cleansed that he may undertake a holy task. The words of the priest state that intent quite clearly, “Lord wash away my iniquity and cleanse me of my sins.”

This ritual hand washing might serve another purpose as well. Perhaps the action can also encourage him to “wash away” the comments of the person who told him, as Mass was beginning, to hurry things along because the Packers are playing. Perhaps the presider can “wash away” his concerns about the baptism at 2 p.m. or the shoes pinching his feet. The hand washing can serve as one more reminder to him to become unburdened as he leads us into this great mystery of faith

After Communion, we also witness the simple washing of vessels. This is one more gesture of reverence to the Eucharist, indicating that even small remaining particles will be treated with respect. During this time, the priest says a beautiful silent prayer: “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time, may be our healing for eternity.”

Maybe it would be a good idea if all of us washed our hands at liturgy. Like the priest, we each come with our own faults, failings, sense of unworthiness, distractions and concerns. Maybe we, too, should have the opportunity to wash ourselves in holiness and leave behind all that burdens us. Something like … a holy water font! So this weekend at church, remember to stop and wash your hands!

Zahorik is director of worship at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Oshkosh.

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