I don’t know about you, but there are a few people that I’ve encountered in my life that are terrified of germs – you might call them “germaphobes”. These people always have their little bottle of hand sanitizer in their pockets, cleaning their hands every half hour, on the dot. They wash before anything important: a job interview, a date with a significant other, driving through the McDonald’s drive-through… Sometimes their hands are already clean, but they want to use the sanitizer to make their hands smell clean too!
Today’s society has a big emphasis on cleanliness, which is a wonderful thing, but in the ancient world, during the time of Jesus and the early Church, washing wasn’t just to get rid of dust and dirt, but it was a symbol of purification. Sure, when the priest was receiving the gifts of the community – bread, wine, goats, vegetables, breakfast cereals, etc. – his hands would probably get pretty nasty, and he’d have to wash them. But when we read the prayer at the washing of the hands, it’s obvious that there’s a lot more going on.
Washing his hands over the lavabo bowl (a Latin word meaning, “I shall wash” just in case Father forgets what he’s supposed to do), the priest prays secretly, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquities and cleans me from my sins.”
Clearly, the priest wants to be physically clean before offering the Mass, but there is a desire for interior cleanliness and purity as well, so that he can make himself a good instrument through which Christ can bestow his grace. Think of a surgical tool – if it’s going to be used well as an instrument of healing, it’s going to need to be sanitized, or it will cause infection.
This prayer and the washing that goes with it are specifically geared toward the priest, but each of us can take away something from this silent prayer as well. As with some earlier prayers, it reminds us that what God desires most in us is humility and purity. This isn’t simply having purity and humility for the sake of having them, but so that we can open our hearts to receive fully the Lord’s grace that he desires to give us in the Eucharist.
So be sure to wash your hands (or use your hand sanitizer) before going to Communion, but more importantly, be sure to cleanse your heart, in order to open it to whatever God wishes to give you!