Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Now wash your hands

Finally, I got around to buying a transparent plastic mixing bowl from Poundstretcher for use at the altar. Yes, at the altar - something big enough to contain a few litres of water to use for proper hand-washing before the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In common with other churches retaining a tradition of liturgical ritual, custom at St John's has been for the celebrant to wash hands (fingers, in effect) as the last action of the Offertory - the placing of the Gifts on the Holy Table before the recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer. The prayer recited during ablution is : 'Lord, wash me from my iniquity and cleanse me from all my sins'. Washing becomes an act to remind the celebrant of his limitations and God's grace, when remembering and re-enacting the last supper during the Eucharistic Prayer.

Contending with a cold on Sunday after my Bilbao visit, as the news about swine 'flu broke, I was struck by advice from the head of WHO, to curb infection by hand-washing. If you have 'flu or are in contact with someone with 'flu, wash your hands. Nothing spiritual about that. Just practical prudence. When I reflected about it, I realised our ritual act belongs to the world as it was before anyone had any idea about how disease was transmitted. Today every food hygiene programm teaches people to wash their hands before preparing food, not after. Amazing to think that the church hasn't yet universally reflected this in what it trains its clergy to do at the altar.

It's a small change to make, but I decided that in future I'd wash my hands every time, before beginning to prepare the bread and wine for Communion and not after as is customary. So last week, after all the potentially cross infecting hand shaking at the Peace during the Sunday service, I slipped into the sacristy and washed my hands properly before the Offertory. Now I have a proper bowl which can be filled with soapy water, to perform a ritual which is both practical and devotional, before preparing the table for Communion.

It's ages since the ridiculousness of the gap between ritual and reality first insinuated itself into my consciousness. Shame on me that I didn't do something about it before now.

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