Doing the dishes
This is the fourth in a series of short reflections on our communion liturgy, in which the insights of several writers will be shared. This series will help us to lay a firmer hold on what it is we do together on Sunday night.
In our communion liturgies, after everyone has shared in the bread and wine, and before we offer our closing doxology, there is one important piece of work to which I need to attend. In the lingo of the tradition, it is what is known as “the ablutions,” which means nothing more than the washing-up, the doing of the dishes.
The communion table is cleared and the remaining wine is consumed, bringing to completion the meal we have just shared. If I am aware that there is someone in the community in hospital or housebound, I will set some of the bread and wine aside so that I can take it to them during the week, but otherwise everything will be consumed before we leave the church that night.
Now believe it or not, there is some controversy as to when this is best done. Traditionally, the ablutions were done right there at the communion table, but some liturgists have suggested that this is better done off to the side after the liturgy is finished.
The argument is that if you were to have guests for dinner you wouldn’t do the dishes right there at the table while they waited for their coffee, so why would you do that in the context of the communion meal? I’ve always felt that the ablutions were best done the way that we do them, but it was only recently that I came across something by the writer Kathleen Norris that gave me the words to explain my intuitions on this.
This paragraph is from her book, The Quotidian Mysteries, and as this excerpt begins she has just explained that this was her very first visit to a liturgical church, the occasion being a wedding:
I found it remarkable – and still find it remarkable – that in that big, fancy church, after all of the dress-up and the formalities of the wedding mass, homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink. The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception. And I found it enormously comforting to see the priest as a kind of daft housewife, overdressed for the kitchen, in bulky robes, puttering about the altar, washing up after having served so great a meal to so many people. It brought the mass home to me and gave it meaning. It welcomed me, a stranger, someone who did not know the responses of the mass, or even the words of the sanctus. After the experience of a liturgy that had left me feeling disoriented, eating and drinking were something I could understand. That and the housework. This was my first image of the mass, my door in, as it were, and it served me well for years.
Well, that puts things in a nice, earthy and quite theologically astute way. The term “quotidian” means “daily,” “commonplace,” and “ordinary,” and frankly it is in the midst of such things that we need to work out our faith. “Puttering about the altar,” and doing the dishes while the community patiently waits is maybe one very nice symbol of the ordinariness of much of how we practice our faith.