The Lavabo refers to the washing of hands normally prior to leading the Eucharistic Prayer.

This is the first post in a short series looking at this practice.

I decided to write this post after a priest told me of criticism from some people when the priest had taken up the practice after reading my book Celebrating Eucharist. The criticism appears, in summary, to be of the form, “We have had the confession and absolution, and all that penitential stuff is behind us now, and we shouldn’t keep revisiting penitence once forgiven…”

I think this is all I wrote in Celebrating Eucharist:

Ritual hand washings were customary at Jewish meals and from earliest times the presider washed the hands immediately before proclaiming the eucharistic prayer.

The criticism is based on an allegorising of the action (turning an action into words), and then criticising the action on the basis that the allegorical meaning constructed is the only possible meaning of the action. Firstly, this highlights one of the dangers of allegorising an action.

Secondly, [and let’s not even get distracted by the whole confession/absolution discussion, which, if you’ve been around here for a while, you know I have some things to say about this], so, secondly, if the absolution is to be the last reference to sin, and penitence, and our need for forgiveness… then don’t bring it up in the Gloria, don’t mention it in readings, the sermon, intercessions, the Eucharistic Prayer, don’t share Christ’s blood for the forgiveness of sins, certainly don’t use the ancient prayer “Lamb of God”, and omit the Lord’s Prayer!!!

Yes, for Roman Catholics in the contemporary rite, the priest, at the lavabo says quietly (ie. essentially inaudibly): “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” But that’s a relatively new (allegorical) text.

The Western text, until very recently actually was:

LAVABO inter innocentes manus meas: et circumdabo altare tuum, Domine. Ut audiam vocem laudis: et enarrem universa mirabila tua. Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae: et locum habitationis gloriae tuae. Ne perdas cum impiis, Deus animam meam: et cum viris sanguinum vitam meam. In quorum manibus iniquitates sunt: dextera eorum repleta est muneribus. Ego autem in innocentia mea ingressus sum: redime me, et miserere mei. Pes meus stetit in directo: in ecclesiis benedicam te, Domine. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper: et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

ie. Psalm 26 (25):

I will wash my hands in innocency, O LORD; and so will I go to thine altar;
That I may show the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.
LORD, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth.
O shut not up my soul with the sinners, nor my life with the blood-thirsty;
In whose hands is wickedness, and their right hand is full of gifts.
But as for me, I will walk innocently: O deliver me, and be merciful unto me.
My foot standeth right: I will praise the LORD in the congregations.

Oh – and it is this psalm text that Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics use. Hint: If East and West both use something – it’s old.

So, those of you who wash hands before significant prayer – keep it up. And those of you who don’t – consider starting.

To be continued…


I have written about hand sanitizer lavabo previously.

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