So you’ve just received Communion and are sitting down, and you look up to notice your favorite young associate pastor pouring water, and mixing, and swishing it around, and pouring again and again. You probably start to wonder, “What the heck is he doing? My breakfast reservation at First Watch is in 15 minutes!”
Well, don’t feel bad, and don’t get frustrated! Most people probably aren’t that familiar with the purification of the sacred vessels (I wasn’t, until the seminary), but it is the process of special cleaning done by the priest, deacon, or instituted acolyte (don’t worry, we don’t have any of these guys at All Saints). Because the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus, and because it is the most precious gift given to us and to the Church, we don’t want to leave particles or drops of the Eucharist just lying around in waste. Purification makes sure of this.
The last thing I want you to think is that it’s washing the dishes. In fact, I cringe when I hear that phrase referring to the sacred vessels. Purification is there to treat these vessels and the Eucharistic particles with great respect – not because they’re gold or silver, but because of what they hold, the Body and Blood of Christ. This process is actually kind of particular and involved. It begins with pouring water over the fingers to remove any crumbs left over from distributing communion, and then involves washing up any remaining particles of the hosts and excess drops of the Precious Blood, combining them in one chalice. The water and particles are then consumed by the priest or deacon, and never poured down a sink. That way, any remaining Eucharist is safe within the temple of the body, and not dumped and combined with garbage and waste.
Meanwhile, the priest prays a very beautiful prayer while purifying the vessels: “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.”
This is absolutely one of my favorite prayers of the Mass, and is a vast improvement on the previous translation. It is a prayer by the priest on behalf of everyone, asking God to open our hearts to the true power of the sacrament. It’s a reminder that what we have just consumed into our bodies is not supposed to be a chore or an intellectual concept of some kind, but is a gift. But while it is a gift of bodily food, it’s also a greater and more eternal gift – the gift of God’s grace, mercy, and nourishment – the gift of his dwelling within us! – that sustains us in our journey to eternal life.
The challenge in our receiving the Eucharist, and the goal of this prayer, is to be able to recognize that gift and to receive it with open hearts. Just as the purification of the vessels prepares them to receive the gifts of the Eucharist during Mass, so this prayer is designed to help us receive the Eucharistic grace into our hearts!