At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest prays silent prayers to prepare himself and the faithful to offer the sacrifice. After entering into the fiery furnace with the prayer of Daniel (“With humble spirit and contrite heart…”) and optionally wielding the fiery coals in the rite of incensation, the hand-washing ritual signifies another intentional step into the holy of holies. In this ritual, the priest steps away from the center of the altar and makes one final preparation before returning to the center, summoning the prayers of the people and entering into the most sacred center of the Mass. The silent prayer that accompanies the hand-washing ritual acknowledges the priest’s need for grace and spiritual purification as he prepares to undertake this momentous consummation of the liturgy.
For this hand-washing ritual, the instruction in the missal of Paul VI states: “Then the Priest, standing at the side of the altar, washes his hands, saying quietly: Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” He is then instructed to return to the middle of the altar, to face the people, and to invite them to pray.
The liturgical use of water always draws the mind back to Baptism, which is the most important use of water for the foundational sacrament of regeneration. The practice of hand-washing as a preparation for prayer was already found in Christian antiquity for domestic as well as liturgical use as witnessed in the Apostolic Tradition and other sources. In fact, some form of washing with water takes place several times in the Mass. Ordinarily the priest starts with hand-washing in the sacristy before vesting and prays: “Give virtue, O Lord, unto my hands, that every stain may be wiped away: that I may be enabled to serve Thee without defilement of mind or body.” The next time he purifies himself with water is upon entering the Church when he dips his finger into holy water at the entrance and crosses himself. Optionally, he may then also purify himself along with the faithful in a sprinkling rite. At each of these steps, the priest enters more deeply into the concentric circles of the sacred rites until he arrives at the very center in the Canon itself. The hand-washing at the offertory is thus one final step of purification before crossing into the heart of the sacred mysteries.
Although the ritual has been adjusted slightly in various places for practical reasons, from the outset the primary emphasis was on spiritual purification as Josef Jungmann observes in his two-volume history of the Roman Rite: “from the very start the symbolic meaning of the act was stressed.” Jungmann also provides a helpful explanation for this ritual action: “It is natural that we handle precious things only with hands that are clean. Or to put it more generally, a person approaches a festive or sacred activity only after he has cleansed himself from the grime of the workday and besides has donned festive attire. Thus we find in the liturgy, besides the vesting in liturgical garments, also a washing of hands.”
Throughout the history of the Mass, this ritual action was almost always accompanied by prayer.The prayer in ancient sacramentaries was often from Psalm 26. The particular text referring to handwashing is in Psalm 26:6 with Psalm 26:7 sometimes appended: “I wash my hands in innocence and take my place around your altar / singing a song of thanksgiving, recounting all your wonders.” In the Vetus Ordo the rest of Psalm 26 was included as well. While the rest of the text is not directly related to the hand-washing, it orients the priest to the praise and thanksgiving he is about to undertake in the Lord’s house, along with an appeal to receive mercy and redemption. Interestingly, the verse on hand-washing in Psalm 26 is not asking for purification but is rather insisting on the innocence of the one praying as he praises the Lord and asks not to be treated as one of the sinners. Only one line in the psalm, occurring several verses later, beseeches the Lord for mercy and redemption (Psalm 26:11). The sense of the prayer in the Vetus Ordo then is not asking for another purification so much as it is a specifically priestly act. The priest stands here in persona Christi capitis, asserting his innocence as he stands in the house of the Lord, makes thanksgiving, and asks for mercy on behalf of the people.
In contrast, the prayer provided by the new rite of Mass focuses explicitly on asking for spiritual washing and cleansing from sin and iniquity for the priest himself. It is much more like a repetition of the hand-washing prayer in the sacristy or the sprinkling rite at the beginning of Mass. This prayer invites the priest to acknowledge his sinfulness again and ask for God’s cleansing mercy before he enters into the most sacred center of the Mass. Seen another way, since the other three usages of water for purification are all optional, this particular ritual action ensures that the priest will seek spiritual cleansing at least once before praying the Canon of the Mass.
Because this prayer is offered in private, it also invites the priest to have a quiet, intimate moment with the Lord, acknowledging his sins and asking for mercy before his final entrance into the Eucharistic prayer. This can be a time of real humility and gratitude as the priest prepares to take the last, crucial steps in the most important thing he does during the Mass. The Roman Rite envisions that the priest takes actual steps with his feet in carrying out this final preparation. There is a movement that takes place between the hand-washing at the side of the altar and the return to the middle of the altar before facing the people and inviting them to pray. This movement provides an opportunity for a movement of the heart as well. Strengthened by his act of humility and the grace of cleansing he receives from the Lord, the priest can move with a determined heart into the center of the altar. Now he is ready. With a strong heart he now faces the people and confidently summons them to pray with him and for him: “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”
For previous installments of Father Hicks’s The Quiet that Speaks series, see:
- Introduction to the series and the examination of the prayer Munda cor meum (“Cleanse my heart”)
- Per evangelica dicta (“Through the words of the Gospel”)
- Per huius aquae et vini mysterium (“By the mystery of this water and wine”)
- In spiritu humilitatis (“With humble spirit”)