The washing up is an interesting part of the Christian Liturgy, and I remember as a young person there being discussions as to how it was all a bit silly and a waste of time, how it would be far more practical just to whisk everything off to the vestry and attend to these matter out of sight.
For the simple approach I guess the argument runs along the lines of ‘the jobs not done till the paperwork is complete, and the meal is not finished till the washing up is done’. Of course when you go to a restaurant everything is whisked off the table and the meal is finished, and you have no idea if the washing up has been done, or if it is all stack in a dishwasher that will run sometime late into the night when the power is cheaper. The Eucharist of course is not a restaurant meal, it is the meal of the family of faith, and in families, whilst for some teenagers the washing up may seem a mystery, washing up is part of the process.
Of course the is more to it, and the liturgy is rich in symbolism and the washing up is part of the whole package.
The Lavabo happens immediately following the acceptance of the gifts. The gifts will always include Bread and Wine, and most commonly at a Sunday Service Money, and sometimes something else as well. This means it happens before the Sursum Corda.
The Latin word lavabo means ‘I will wash’ and the point of the rite here is that the celebrant washes their hands that they may not introduce any contamination to the sacrament.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord,
singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
After the communicants have had communion, the ablutions (washing up) takes place. If the practice of the Parish is to reserve the sacrament so that the sick of the parish who receive communion away from the Sunday liturgy, may share the the offering of the whole Church (rather than a separate and private liturgy) then the host may be reserved. In some places the practice of intincture happens where a drop of the chalice is applied to the host before reservation.
The remaining Eucharist wine and Bread is then consumed. The vessels are the washed with water and the dried using the purificators that have been part of the liturgy.
The Altar is set with a ‘fair linen’ normally a plain white cloth the width of the Altar that runs over both ends. On top of this at the point where the Eucharist is celebrated is the corporal. Typically this will be a square maybe 50 cm on each side.
Once cleaned the paten (small plate) is placed on top of the chalice (usually with the purificator in between. The corporal is then carefully folded in in nine, left and right, back and front to ensure that nothing is lost. It is then placed in the burse and the veil is placed over the chalice and paten.
The act of folding and carefully ensuring that nothing is lost is a strong sign of the churches ministry, to the broken and the easily lost. This echoes the priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17, that not one is lost. Tempting as it may be to give the corporal a good shake, this is not a picnic, and the broken pieces of humanity are not simply flicked airborne and lost forever.
As if this matters
Well of course it does not matter unless it matters to you. It does matter to me though, for these signs remind me of the importance of every soul, every person matters, not just the nice ones, not just the pretty ones, and not just the ones that are not broken.
No longer a young person, I now see the ablutions seen as an important part of the liturgy, teaching, showing, making sure we do not take our eye off the ball. Very much part of the churches task is to gather up the crumbs of a broken humanity ensuring that nothing is lost.
I hope this matter to you too.