October 25 2020
At first I found it strange that the government had made a short public information video showing us how to wash our hands, because I assumed we all knew how. Then of course I realised that our usual practice was not thorough enough, but it was still good to be assured that soap and water could remove the virus.
When the pandemic was first confirmed, my daughter Jenny bought me (amongst other precautionary measures) a bar of Dettol disinfectant soap (because I prefer a bar of soap to a dispenser), and I thought to myself, by the time I have finished this bar, the pandemic will be over. Sadly not, of course. The bar is long over, and has had to be replaced.
Again and again I have been struck by how closely some of the practices of virus protection, have been mirrored by some of the religious observances we are familiar with.
Many observances are based on good hygiene anyway. Sadly social distancing is not one of them, neither the prohibition on hand-shaking. But I cannot escape the irony of our earlier condemnation of Islamic face-coverings, with the present need for scarves or masks.
In order to reopen places of worship it was clear that sanitising or washing facilities at the door would be required for a time. The ritual washing for many will have had to become de rigueur, and at a thorough standard. No more dipping a finger in, in order to genuflect!
Religious purification has a long history. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is one of those adages fit for a Victorian sampler, embroidered in a frame, and hung above a washstand in a corner of the bedroom. The great public health reformers of that period might have used it as one of their mottos.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is one of those self-evident truths which we accept almost without thinking: health being linked to holiness.
Ritual bathing and baptismal immersion is an extremely ancient practice. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus came to the River Jordan to be baptised by John the Baptist. John was a prophet whose mission had been to urge people to amend their ways, in preparation for the advent of a Jewish messiah. The method he used to signify this change of heart, was immersion or purification in the waters of the River Jordan.
The Jewish notion of “impurity” did not have all the weighty moral connotations we associate with it now. It was thought impurity could be washed away. Purification would be sought, for example, before entering the Temple for prayers, or for any other similar religious enterprise. (Again, how strange that our current practice is exactly along these lines. Of course it would be even more marvellous if our obsession with hygiene included the inner person as well as the outer). And it would be along those lines that Jesus came to John to be baptised, before he embarked upon his mission.
For thousands of years water has been used as a symbol for the washing away of a person’s sins, a physical cleansing which mirrors a spiritual purification.
When we name a child in our own denomination, the family may refer to the ceremony as baptism, and with the parents’ agreement water may be used in the ceremony. The emphasis in an occasional service such as baptism, (or indeed to some extent at a wedding or funeral), is very much on the physical enactment of the sacrament. It is as important for the congregation to see as well as to hear the minister perform the ceremony: taking the child in his or her arms and using water. This is certainly true should the child be screaming in protest! Afterwards, when everyone has relaxed, the minister might joke that the child was crying because we were driving the devil out! However, as you know, Unitarians do not believe in Original Sin, or that it might be washed away at baptism.
As we have indicated, a ritual use of water may involve total immersion, or any other means, including a mere sprinkling! The subject may be fully clothed or naked, and the ceremony may be held by a river, in the sea, in a church building, or at a pond.
Preparation for a visit to a shrine may include a symbolic bathing, as found in many faiths. Images of Hindus on a pilgrimage to immerse themselves in the River Ganges, for example, will be familiar to us all. The washing of feet was originally an act of hospitality in Palestinian homes. We read about this in scripture when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. It signified an act of humility, and had long been perpetuated as a ritual prelude to the celebration of Easter.
In several European countries the monarch or members of the royal families would wash the feet of a group of poor people, and give them gifts on Maundy Thursday before Good Friday. In 1754 the practice ended here, and a gift of Maundy Money substituted, which continues to the present.
While churches no longer practice feet bathing in this country, I believe Pentecostal and other fundamental groups still carry it out.
In a spiritual sense, we make ourselves worthy when we wash and bathe ourselves, and of course, in the contemporary climate, we reduce the transmission of infections.
There will be many things to take forward into the “new normal” from this experience of dealing with covid19, and religiously “clean hands and a pure heart” will surely be one of them.
Instead of a closing prayer today, we have a reading adapted from Psalm 51, a Psalm of David:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness, according to the multitude of thy tender mercies…Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions … Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part thou shalt make me know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy spirit from me… Amen.