web analytics

Lavabo 1


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.

image source

Similar Posts:

13 thoughts on “Lavabo 1”

  1. I find lavabo important. It’s done at the credence table, and it’s part of my preparation, not a public act — the choir is singing the offertory. It isn’t about forgiveness, but a reminder of my unworthiness to do what I am called to do. Without it, I might not stop to think that thought, pray that prayer, before going to the altar.

    The only time I felt lavabo odd was when as a concelebrant with two other priests. The choreography needed for the three of us to make our successive lavabo was awkward and distracting.

  2. As someone who leans much more low-church than high, I didn’t think I would ever be the type to use the lavabo. But as Gareth says, it’s become an important reminder to me of my unworthiness to do what I’m about to do. It also helps me to focus and clear my head of distractions much more than just taking a deep breath. There’s something uniquely centering about the tactile aspect of it. Thanks for this helpful article, Bosco. I’m definitely going to share it with my former seminary classmates.

  3. That’s an interesting turn on Psalm 26. I have never considered the application of the psalms to liturgical acts. For me Ps 26 is about walking and completeness. It is the first time that ‘walk’ appears more than once in a psalm. Completeness recalls Psalm 18 where it is first repeated in a psalm. Walk, stand, sit in Ps 26 recall Ps 1:1. Psalm 26 for me begins a new 3rd section of Book 1 ending at Ps 34 (the next acrostic).

    With the use in liturgy – did it come as a single verse allusion or are there more psalm verses that indicate liturgical actions?

  4. Right – it is not a single verse allusion. My apologies.

    What I intended was this as the final question – are there other sections from the psalms that are used to support liturgical actions? I can imagine there might be…

    I reread now and I object to the conflation of innocence with completeness. They aren’t the same word in the Hebrew and I doubt that they are just synonyms. But they are clearly the same word in the Latin – O well! Such is translation. I by the way am not ordained so I do not take these psalms as if I was part of a hierarchy. That’s an old bone – and there is not even any marrow left in it. I now ignore the hierarchy altogether and give thanks that such a hard pastoral job is not my profession.

  5. I’m wondering what “earliest times” means for the lavabo. It would seem to imply first century, but what precisely is the textual evidence for this custom in the Eucharist?

    1. As I said, Peter, this series will continue. New Advent may be correct in this case, but as a source generally I suggest great caution – as you see the information it provides is over a hundred years old. Blessings.

  6. Dear Bosco, I, as presider at the Eucharist, take the lavabo very seriously. Before proceeding with the manual acts in which the Holy Spirit is brought down upon the Gifts of bread and wine(epiclesis), I, personally, say this prayer: “Wash my hands in your innocency, O Lord, and so will I go to your altar”. This satisfies my own conscience in being privileged to present the Offertory at the Mass.

  7. Hi Bosco, Since my instalallation as Parish Priest almost two years ago, we have been gently restoring the liturgy. All improvements have been accompanied by explanations. There has been very little resistance. Last week we reinstituted Lavabo and received only positive comments.
    I hope the action of Lavabo helps the whole congegation and me in particualr to pause and think about our proper preparednes for what we are about to do.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.