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hand sanitizer lavabo

I find it irritating when being at a Eucharist and suddenly there is an ostentatious ritual being made of cleaning hands with hand sanitizer. I had considered writing a post about it. When teenagers spoke to me about how unnecessarily distracting it was at services they had been to, I knew that I should carry through my resolve to write about this.

In a beautiful worship space, with the best and most beautiful that humans can craft, a large green or pink plastic squirty-bottle of hand sanitizer stands alongside crystal cruets on the credence table. At the offertory the presider squirts or is squirted with the sanitizer and pronouncedly works up the forearms. At communion time others come up to assist with distributing communion and the community pauses reverently as the squirty-bottle ritual is repeated with each of them.

Let’s not talk about the dangers of hand sanitizers; the need to ensure that children are never able to get access to them; the care that needs to be taken that it is totally dry prior to distributing communion; the falsehoods that this can somehow substitute for washing with soap; the high flammability (some churches still use candles!); the studies that indicate sanitizers may disrupt the body’s endocrine system and whether it helps to create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics; the falsehood that it kills 99.9% of all germs; the truth that it is not effective after touching dirt or body fluids;…

Let’s not talk about the abhorrent odour; the particularly penitential effect of receiving on the tongue with this scent right under one’s nose…

Let’s talk about the liturgical tendencies to put the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle. Some communities have complex rituals of processions, passing from unrobed to robed to presider, and elevations with money that they would baulk at doing with consecrated bread and wine! Similarly, communities that haven’t even heard of, let alone practise, using a lavabo, now use squirty-bottles as if it is a primary symbol that Jesus has bequeathed to us!

The Abrahamic faiths all have a tradition of washing prior to prayer. Possibly the Muslim practice of this tradition is the best-known, most visible, and certainly most-frequently observed. There is evidence in the early church of washing the hands (lavabo) as a preparation for prayer on the part of all Christians. From the fourth century onwards we have evidence that it is usual for the priest or bishop to wash hands prior to the great prayer led on behalf of all, the Eucharistic Prayer. In most liturgical traditions, the priest washes hands after vesting, before the beginning of the liturgy.

This may be an invitation to a renewal of the lavabo as a real washing of hands, not merely a touching of a few finger tips with water. This may also be a reminder that all of us as we enter the sacred space of prayer we dip a hand in baptismal holy water and mark our bodies with the water, a washing that stands in such a long tradition that we cannot find its source; a washing prior to prayer that is shared not merely across denominations but across world religions.

For those communities where there are particular health issues or phobias, I have provided assistance here and here.

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33 thoughts on “hand sanitizer lavabo”

  1. I think the sanitiser thing is like the story of the ashram cat! What happened by accident one day suddenly becomes theologically important.

    And I reckon that after all these thousands of years of Eucharist, many of them likely to have been with scurrilously dirty hands that we’re probably ok without obsessive cleaning.

  2. Interesting. The water that Jesus turned into wine was for priestly ritual cleansing.
    Not aware that sanitizer is used at Ripon Cathedral, but gave up distributing wine during threat of flu virus.
    I think it very brave of the priests to drink up the residue after 500 communicants can have a go. Spittle and all.
    As a health professional hand sanitizer will not kill clostridium deficille. So anybody with a dodgy tummy should stay away.
    I am naturally susceptible to cold virus, as shift work immunosuppresses, so taken to ‘dunking’ said wafer into wine. Especially if the Dean hauls out the special silver gilt stuff used for centuries.
    My Methodist roots we had those lovely individual glasses, nightmare to wash up afterwards.
    I think Swine flu made us all rethink and one priest of my acquaintance was grateful not to consume the residuals of a 500 communion chalet, complete with spittle for a while.
    The alcohol content of the wine should give some protection, so go for the higher proof (hic) with good conscience.


  3. This is done in quite a few churches I’ve frequented. It is an utterly loathsome practice, spawned by the culture of 24-hour news, which makes money only if it can persuade us that there must be something to worry about or be angry about at all times. In one church, on one of the pillars there was a permanent bracket affixed to hold a bottle of sanitizer. People would have a squirt on their way up to receive communion. What might be a suitable mediation to accompany that action? “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…”

    Am I right in recalling that a typical ancient church would have a fountain in its forecourt (atrium) for the people to wash their hands before the celebration of the liturgy?

    If people are really worried about germs, perhaps it’s time to return to the ancient practice (attested at the 578 Council of Auxerre) of requiring that the people have their hands covered when they receive the sacrament — it originally applied only to women, of course… 🙂

    1. The bracketed bottle-holder would make a wonderful photo! Not having it all dried off prior to receiving would be a health hazard! Here one can get automated dispensers, where the machine senses the movement of a hand underneath it and dispenses some sanitizer. Just a thought!

      I spent time on Mount Athos. There only one monastery I remember did not have such a fountain as you describe. It was the norm.

  4. And while we are at it. Somewhere along the line the ritual liturgical gesture of the kiss of peace has turned into a ten minute circus where everybody has to catch up with everybody. We have forgotten that’s why we have a cup of tea afterwards.

  5. Hunks of bread and used wine… funny, even as a new priest I thought I was protected. The sacrament is no divine protection from germs, though we are (or were) taught such things. It may be liturgically offensive to make rounds with a sanitiser – it does look odd from the pew. Why not wash up (with olive or lavender soap) in the sacristy before the service? The ceremony of water, bowl & cloth is ritualistic (if not also reminding us of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus); it may not be as reassuring but it looks & smells better than what’s in the pump bottle. Symbolic gestures and a concern for health can be aesthetically beautiful.

    1. You are right to remind us, Nancy, that we are talking about a sacrament – not about magic! Anyone that teaches magic … (complete the sentence yourself). As I mention, the tradition is to wash well before the service and to use a lavabo before the great prayer. I do not like allegorising symbols – so I am not in favour of connecting the lavabo with Pilate – are you suggesting the priest at the Eucharist acts in persona Pilato? Blessings.

        1. It’s not that confusing if you know (or hear, during the lavabo) the words of Psalm 26:6-7:

          I will wash my hands in innocence, Lord,
          that I may go about your altar,
          to make heard the voice of thanksgiving
          and tell of all your wonderful deeds.

          (All the more reason not to skip those psalms during the Eucharist, a la Bosco’s previous post on the matter!)

  6. Sheesh™.

    Let’s not forget the screen and use of incense originated to keep the raucous foul-smelling peasants away from the clergy.

    Give it a thousand years; maybe the vestries / PCCs of the day will be arguing how the squirter-pump has to be made of recyclable plastic not silver…

    1. Actually, incense goes way back to the Old Testament animal sacrifices. Burning whole carcasses doesn’t smell like barbeque. Incense helped mask the odor. But there, the “functionality” of a primary symbol had a spiritual significance as well — prayer rising heavenward — while stimulating one of our strongest senses — the olfactory — to get us in a worshipful mood.

  7. I recently visited a parish church in another country. Where I might have expected a stoup there was a hand sanitiser gel dispenser fastened to the wall. I had to restrain myself from asking the parish administrator if I was supposed to make the sign of the cross after squirting my hands.

  8. I don’t know if hand sanitizer has more of an appearance of guilt than innocence, Nancy — I think it’s more a sign of “germophobia.”

    Hopefully nobody presiding at the Eucharist would use hand sanitizer for the lavabo before beginning the Great Thanksgiving prayer. Sure, the lavabo may be somewhat functional, but it is also a ritual gesture with spiritual significance — one of preparation in approaching God — so due attention must be paid to primary symbols, water being one major one in Christianity. No substitutions allowed.

    Jesse hit the nail on the head: the current fixation on hand sanitizer is a symptom of our 24/7 news culture of panic and fear, in which one must be constantly worried or angry about something, and has gotten worse since 9/11. We never used to hear Wagner tunes during TV weather updates on storms, but now everything must be heightened with an extra serving of drama and impending doom.

    The dreaded bottle of hand sanitizer stands on a stand before the chancel steps of our church, and I see some use it before approaching communion, which I find disconcerting. I have to wonder: what have these people been doing with their hands since they got to church? Ducking out to clean toilets or dig for truffles? On Sundays I get up, shower, shave, get dressed and go to church. Once there, I hold a prayer book. Seriously — how dirty could they get to pose an epidemic health risk in that hour, hour-and-a-half?

    Ironically, I’ve never seen people avail themselves of hand sanitizer as some do before receiving communion when it comes to receiving cash in hand from a cashier or at a bank — and that’s certainly been through more unknown hands and uncontrolled environments than a piece of bread on a paten in church. But in that fiscal context, the paranoia that manifests itself in liturgy land simply disappears…

    Hmmm… Something about “where your treasure is, there your heart is…”?

    1. “Hopefully nobody presiding at the Eucharist would use hand sanitizer for the lavabo before beginning the Great Thanksgiving prayer” – sorry to disillusion you, Gregory. I love your point about money! You noticed my mention in the post of what we will do in church with money ritually that we wouldn’t do with what we say are our treasured symbols. Blessings.

  9. As well as the hand-sanitizer is a symptom of our culture of fear of the ordinary things of life, it is also a demonstration of our gullibility, in that at least some amongst us believe that the wash eliminates germs.

    As for what people do with their hands in church, best not go there. One Sunday, the young man sitting in front of me was picking his nose. I admit that day the passing of the peace to him was a bit of a challenge. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes….

    1. it is also a demonstration of our gullibility, in that at least some amongst us believe that the wash eliminates germs.

      Waterless hand sanitizer does eliminate the effectiveness of bacteria and viruses if used properly. The active ingredient is alcohol, which damages the cell walls of both bacteria and viruses and renders them inactive, meaning that they are harmless and can no longer invade the body and cause illness.

      To properly use the hand cleaners requires that the level of alcohol in the gel be 60% or greater, that the user completely covers their hands with the gel and that they use a sufficient amount of gel to wet the hands for a minimum of 15 seconds before the gel evaporates.

      That said, I find that the odor of most waterless hand sanitizers is offensive and would definitely detract from the sacredness/solemnity of the sacrament for me.

      1. I personally use a hand sanitizer which I keep in the pew I sit in. It is an aloe version and has an incense-like aroma that doesn’t invade my concentration of the sacredness of the moment. I use it because I am susceptible to colds/flues because of medications I am on. There are many in our congregation that use it, too (their own) and they stink of alcohol for a few moments. Some do it now, I think, for show, while others of us do it discreetly for added health reasons. I fully trust that God would protect me, but He also gave me common sense, too, and I honour Him by using it (the common sense, not the sanitizer).

  10. Hand sanitizer. It was introduced in my diocese (in Australia) during the pandemic ‘flu hysteria a couple of years ago. Being a nurse, I always had my doubts about why, and what it was supposed to be doing. It is completely unrelated to the lavabo, and shouldn’t be related to it in time or place.

    To my mind, it needs to be de-linked from the offertory and from any liturgical action. In Australia, the greeting of peace is generally immediately prior to the offertory. At that point, the priest (and people) will have been rubbing hands together, and potentially cross-infecting one another with all sorts of flora. My fears for cross contamination are very low, but people seem vexed by it.

    It seems to me that:
    (1) The opportune time to use the sanitizer is at the end of the greeting of peace (so that you don’t transfer the flora you’ve just received). This should be done discreetly and non-liturgically.
    (2) For those who are concerned about giving their flora to others, also before the greeting of peace. Again, discreetly.
    (3) Those who have an active infection should not participate in the physical symbol of the greeting of peace at all, and probably should not distribute communion.
    (4) Those who are immuno-compromised should also not participate in the physical symbol of the greeting of peace.

    I see all sorts of weirdness around this, with very little understanding of what it is all about, and why.

  11. In the Episcopal Church in Haiti, since the cholera epidemic began, clergy first wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water and then do hand sanitizer. It’s off to the side, and people are singing, so frankly I’m not sure just how much anyone notices. The Peace is prior to that, so that is not an issue here. They did do lavabo before this health crisis, but just the usual water and linen towel, if I remember correctly.

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