As Christians, we recognize that “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands” (Acts 17:24). But at the same time, we usually gather in buildings other than our own homes to worship God by hearing His Word read and preached, to praise and pray, and especially to receive the Lord’s Supper. The buildings in which such sacred activity happens naturally come to take on a sense of “sacred space,” so much so that we might refer to them as “God’s house.” They remind us somewhat of the ancient temple in Jerusalem where God dwelt with His people prior to the time when Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament temple and replaced it through the death and resurrection of “the temple of His body” (see John 2:21). And so we can relate with King David when he exclaims: “Lord, I love the house where You live, the place where Your glory dwells” (Psalm 26:8).
In these days of pandemic, we especially have a strong affection and appreciation for “God’s house” as the earlier “stay-at-home” orders prevented us from entering into the church sanctuary for worship. For nearly three months we were forced to watch worship on our computers from the safety of our own homes. But now that these restrictions have begun to be lifted by our governor, we are finally able to return to restaurants and retail stores (even those not deemed essential) and to return to the pews of our local church for worship. As much as our homes are a sacred space too (and a kind of sanctuary in which we worship God with our daily lives), returning to worship in the sanctuary (as we did at St. Michael, Portage) certainly moves us to join with the psalmist in “proclaiming aloud” (Psalm 26:7) God’s praise (at least as much as we can do through a face mask). I know that behind those masks were some big smiles, and several of us were moved with emotion at finally being able to see each other again, in many cases through teary eyes.
An Ancient Practice
As much as we were delighted to gather together again, we also did it with special precaution and consideration for each other’s safety (and we will continue to do so into the future). While we are not requiring face masks, we do encourage them and provide them at the door for those who need one. We also have hand sanitizer at the entrance as well as at the exit. By the way, washing up before worshiping is actually an ancient practice. Just outside the door to the ancient Israelite tabernacle and temple was a laver of water for ceremonial washing. Likewise, in medieval monasteries there was a large lavabo where the monks would wash their hands before entering into the church. In fact, St. John Chrysostom (the 4th century Church Father who gave us our Kyrie in Divine Service 1 and 2) mentioned the custom in his day of all Christians washing their hands before entering the church for worship.
This hand washing before worship no doubt traces back to the biblical practice of Old Testament Israel and to Psalm 26 where David declares: “I wash my hands in innocence and go around Your altar, O LORD” (v. 6). In most liturgical traditions in our New Testament era, the clergy wash their hands after vesting in preparation for conducting the liturgy, perhaps saying a prayer like this: “Grant to our understandings, we beseech You, O Lord, almighty Father; that as the defilements of the hands are washed away outwardly, so the filth of our minds may mercifully be cleansed by You; and may the growth of holy virtues increase within us, through Christ our Lord” (The Mozarabic Rite). Likewise, many Christian rites also have the clergy wash their hands before beginning the consecration and distribution of the Lord’s Supper. In the newer Roman Catholic mass, in addition to Psalm 26 the celebrant says a prayer based on David’s famous psalm of confession: “Lord, wash away my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2).
Without knowing all this historical precedent and practice, hand washing in church might have seemed like an unusual innovation just to accommodate Coronavirus concerns. But now you know that it has ancient precedent, and that it continues to be a spiritual practice among Christians around the world. While we have always had those who will be serving Communion wash up first in the sacristy, now we have a dispenser of hand sanitizer gel on the credence table, where the offering plates usually go, for the handwashing to be on public display. We plan to continue to make this our custom so that communicants might be assured that the Lord’s Supper is not only salutary but also sanitary. While you watch us wash up a bit in the chancel, join us in praying that all of us who stand before the Lord might do so with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3b-4a) through the cleansing blood of Jesus.
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