One reason I became a chalice bearer was to see things up close. There are things that happen at the altar that the church members don’t ever see. You can remove the “gate” at the communion rail all you want to make the church seem more open and inclusive, but there is always going to be a sense of “us” and “them” when the altar is twenty feet away from the nearest person, and at least a hundred feet from the furthest one.
One part that nobody knows about unless you are up there is the hand washing bit. Even the acolytes usually don’t even notice it. It is a ritual hand washing, and only the priest does it. This is done right before the elements of communion (the wafers and the wine) are handled.
Another member of the altar party, sometimes the crucifer (the person who carries the main cross), sometimes just another chalice bearer, will bring over a cruet of water, a small metal basin, and a linen cloth. The priest puts out his/her hands and the other person pours a little bit of water over the fingers, catching the water in the basin. The priest dries his/her hands with the linen cloth. The priest says some words quietly during this time – quietly enough that other person cannot hear them.
None of this is in the prayer book. The congregation has no idea this is going on from the “script”. I asked once, and the priest wouldn’t tell me what the words were. Like it is a secret.
It isn’t a real hand washing. There is no soap. There is no scrubbing. It is ritual.
So what is it?
It is straight from Passover, and thus straight from Shabbat.
At the beginning of Shabbat, you are to wash your hands and say the Netilat Yadayim prayer. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, who has sanctified us with thy commandments and commanded us about washing the hands.” Everybody does this – not the “leader”. All are equal.
The more I read about Judaism, the more I realize what a cheap thing the Christian Communion ritual is. The two candles on the altar? They are the two candles on the Sabbath table. The communion wafers? On the regular Sabbath table it is challah, which is nice fluffy egg bread. At Passover, when the Last Supper took place, it would have been matzo, which is unleavened bread. Why are the pieces so small for communion? Because an “olive sized piece of bread is the smallest piece you can make a blessing over.” There is always wine at the Sabbath table if it can be afforded, and always enough for everyone to have at least a glass. Not a sip.
These things are mandatory for a Sabbath meal – bread, wine, and two candles. There are different blessings for each. The candles are always lit first at Sabbath and at the beginning of the church service. At Sabbath there is always a nice meal, using the best linens and plates. The meal is always a real meal – homemade. No leftovers.
We’ve mass produced the Sabbath. We’ve reduced it to a snack, not a meal. We’ve packaged that snack with so much pomp and puffery that we think it is really awesome.
It is the difference between Mama’s fried chicken and chicken McNuggets.
It is the difference between Granny’s pecan pie and a Tom’s mini pecan pie you bought in a gas station.
Me? I want the real thing. I’m not able to settle for the replica, the ritual any more.