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Out of the question: The lavabo before the offertory?

03 August 2011

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Why do most priests wash their fingers after handling the elements at the offertory? This has appeared to me odd and unhygienic for some years, and now I go to the credence table for personal ablutions before touching the wafers — to the as­tonish­ment of some servers. Do any others do the same? If not, why not? I can’t see any point in ritual for its own sake, and don’t believe that those who “invented” the ablutions did so, either.

Hand-washing at the offertory has a long history, and is not a ritual done simply for its own sake.

While it may have more practical, hygienic origins, Cyril of Jerusalem (Mystagogic Catecheses 5.2) first mentions the rite, interpreting it in the light of Psalm 26.6: “I will wash my hands in innocency, O Lord”, from which its name, lavabo, is derived. From then on, the use of this text and action by celebrants suggests that greater importance has been given to symbolism than to a practical function.

The lavabo rite also appears in the fourth century Syrian and later Mozarabic liturgies, and in the Roman Rite, which had two wash­ings, one before and one after the offertory. The first was later drop­ped, affording the second greater symbolic significance.

For the same reasons, many Anglican priests today recite either Psalm 26.6 or “Lord, wash away my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” as a humble prayer for priestly purity in preparation for the hand-l­ing of holy things, significantly after the offertory.

In any case, it is highly doubtful whether a simple rinsing with cold water is actually effective hygieni­c-ally: current clinical practice recom­mends hot water and soap or alco­hol gel. If hygiene is a concern, gel may be used discreetly at the cre­dence table before handling the bread and wine, and the liturgical lavabo rite is then performed after the offertory.

(The Revd) Kevin Goss
Hockerill, Herts

Why is the pulpit is some churches on the north side of the chancel, in others on the south? [Answers, 29 July]

Canon Terry Palmer rightly says that the more normal pulpit position is outside the chancel on the north side. During the greater part of the day, sunlight enters the church through clerestory windows on the south side, thus falling on a pulpit in the north. In the days of small windows, the preacher would be more clearly visible and thus command greater attention.

I disagree with Canon Palmer’s statement that the Gospel reading from the north side “was inherited from larger basilican-style churches that were originally oriented with the altar in a western apse”. In J. G. Davies’s Origin and Development of Early Christian Church Architec­ture, the western orientation of Constan­tinian basilicas is ac­knowledged, but only as an excep­tion. He quotes Tertullian (fl. 197-222) as saying that Christians were “known to turn to the east in prayer”, and Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215), that “prayers are made looking towards the sunrise in the east.”

The oldest known church is a converted house at Dura-Europos, dating from c.240. Two rooms were made into one for worship, entered from a courtyard on the north side. The room could have been made to face east or west, but the platform, pre­sumed to be for the presbyter, is at the east end.

The Constantinian exception can only have been brief, and was hardly likely to affect smaller churches. From the mid-fourth century, prac­tically every church had its apse at the east end. There was not enough time for a layout related to a western apse to take hold when the eastern apse was already a well-established tradition.

Christopher Haffner (Reader)
East Molesey, Surrey

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