Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Tradition of the Washing of the Altar

While going through The Ceremonies of Holy Week in the Papal Chapel at the Vatican by Francesco Cancellieri, I noticed an interesting liturgical ceremony at the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica, which pertains to the ceremonies of Holy Thursday and the canons of that basilica.

But the most remarkable ceremony is the washing of the altar.

While Matins and Lauds are singing in the Choir, a table is prepared near the high altar on which are placed seven crystal vases, and one of gilt copper containing wine. In one are seven towels, in another seven sponges: when the choir sings the Benedictus of Lauds, small brushes of box or yew but generally of bloodwort, arranged in the form of a diadem, are distributed to the canons.

The sacristan of the choir prepares a cope and seven black stoles for the seven senior canons, who repair to the high altar, preceded by two acolytes bearing the Cross which is veiled in black, with the candles extinguished, in sign of mourning.

The Cross bearer and Acolytes are placed on the eastern side of the Altar, the whole chapter is disposed in a circle, when all kneel and pray. The antiphon Diversunt sibi, they divided my garments, is followed by the psalm, Deus, Deus meus.

The Altar is uncovered, and washed with wine and then with water by the six first Canons who are followed by the rest of the chapter. This ceremony being finished, the seven sponges are brought to wipe, and the seven towels to dry the Altar. The clergy repeat the antiphon, Diviserunt sibi, the Christus factus est; the Pater noster is said in a low tone, the prayer Respice quaesumus Domine is recited. All then kneeling venerate the three principle relics, the Cross, the Holy face, and the Lance, preserved in the gallery over the status of St. Veronica.

Interestingly, this same type of ceremony is also performed within the context of the Dominican rite. Fr. Augustine Thompson posted upon this (in its Dominican context) last year when he wrote upon Lent and Holy Week in the Dominican rite:

"Priests then went, each accompanied by two acolytes carrying cruets of water and wine, for the stripping of all the altars in the monastery. The priests then washed of the altars (or altar stones) with water and wine. Symbolically, this recalled Christ's stripping and the preparation of his body for burial."

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