ABLUTION, cleansing by water
In pre-Christian times, ablution was a common practice. Pharaoh’s daughter was washing in the river when she saw Moses in the basket among the reeds (Ex. 2). Ablution was also part of ritual purification in Jewish religious ceremonials. Washing of the hands and feet was prescribed by the Mosaic law on entering the sanctuary and when approaching the altar. Likewise, the seventy-two elders of the Septuagint had to wash their hands and purify themselves every morning before starting their work on the Bible.
In the Coptic church, ablution is an integral part of the eucharistic rite. The celebrating priest performs the service with clean hands and in clean clothes. Just as it is important to approach the Body and Blood of Christ with a heart cleansed and purified by penitence and a mind stripped of all worldly considerations, it is equally necessary to be physically and externally clean. The emphasis on washing the hands before communion arose from the fact that in the early centuries of Christianity a communicant had to spread his right hand over the left hand in the form of a cross, and the priest would place the Body in the middle of the palm.
The ewer and basin (see Liturgical Instruments) are kept in the northern corner of the altar, that is, to the right side, and the officiating priest has to wash his hands twice during the celebration of the liturgy.
The first is after the prayer of the Psalms, and before the prayer of the preparation of the altar. A deacon pours some water three times onto the priest’s hands, who recites, at the first pouring, Psalm 51:7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”; at the second pouring, Psalm 51:8, “Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice”; and at the third pouring, Psalm 26:6, “I wash my hands in innocence, and go about thy altar, O Lord, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving.” Then he wipes his hands with a clean towel.
The second occurs while the congregation recites the Creed in the same manner as the first. The priest washes his hands as a prelude to handling the Sacraments with his own hands. Then he faces the congregation and shakes the water gently off his hands as a gesture of admonition to those members of the congregation who are thinking of partaking of Holy Communion unworthily, and also acquitting himself personally from the responsibility for any unworthiness. It is as if the priest reminds them of the words of Saint Paul, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). He then wipes his hands in a clean cloth.
If the patriarch is celebrating the liturgy, he is given precedence in washing his hands first, and is followed by the clergy according to rank.
When he has finished administering Holy Communion, the priest washes all the vessels—the chalice, paten, asterisk, and spoon—and drinks the water. He washes the patena a second and a third time and gives the deacons to drink. Then he washes his hands in the paten and drinks the water. If a second priest has assisted in the liturgy, he too washes his hands in the paten and drinks the water. A deacon then wipes the vessels and wraps them in the veils and mats, to be ready for use in the following liturgy.
Unlike other churches that use wine in ablution, only water is used in the Coptic church. The above procedure of ablution is similar to that followed in the Syrian Antioch liturgy and the Armenian liturgy. CYRIL OF JERUSALEM writes, “Ye saw the deacon who gave to the priest and to the elders surrounding the altar of God, water to wash their hands. . . . The washing of hands is a symbol of guiltlessness of sins” (Catechetical Lectures 8.11, 1838). It is a practice underlined by Saint JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, who says “Tell me, wouldst thou choose to draw near to the sacrifice with unwashed hands? I think not, but thou wouldst rather not draw near at all than with filthy hands. Wouldst thou, then, while thus careful in the little matter, draw near having a filthy soul?” (Homily 3 in Epistolam ad Ephesios 1.20-23). Likewise, Caesarius of Arles (470-542) says in one of his sermons, “If we are ashamed and afraid to touch the Eucharist with filthy hands, much more ought we to be afraid to receive the same Eucharist in a polluted soul” (Sermon 292.6, in PL 39, col. 2300).
- Caesarius of Arles. Sermon 292. In PL 39, cols. 2297-2301. Paris, 1841.
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- Yuhanna Salamah. Kitab al-La‘ali‘ al-Nafisah fi Sharh Tuqus wa- Mu‘taqadat al-Kanisah, 2 vols. Cairo, 1909.