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.