How to Understand Purification

Author: Father Edward McNamara


How to Understand Purification

ROME, 31 JAN. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Our question is on the proper sense given, by the liturgy, to the word "purification" in the rite of "purifying" the sacred vessels after Communion. Why it is called "purification" since those vessels never been more "pure" than when they contained the sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ? — V.M., Mexico City

A: This is one of those moments when the tyranny of language can reduce us to desperation.

The dictionary suggests three possible meanings of the word "purification" which derives from the late Latin "purificare," to cleanse, from "purus" (pure) + "facere" (to make).

The three possible meanings are:

1) to free (something) of extraneous, contaminating, or debasing matter.

2) to free (a person, etc.) from sin or guilt.

3) to make clean, as in a ritual, esp. the churching of women after childbirth.

The rite of purification is most closely associated with the third acceptation of ritual cleansing, which does not necessarily imply a state of moral impurity. Thus on Feb. 2 we also recall the ritual purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary without implying any state of impurity on her part.

The function of the rite is to assure that all fragments and traces of Christ's Body and Blood are reverently consumed and the sacred vessels are duly prepared for further use. This rite is also sometimes referred to as the ablutions or ritual washing.

The linguistic difficulty that arises with the word "purification" would probably end up being associated with any alternative. Even a common expression such as the cleansing of the vessels (which is basically synonymous to purification) raises the objection that the vessels were somehow rendered unclean by the presence of the sacred species.

If we were to refer to the washing of the vessels the expression would be inaccurate as some vessels, such as the paten, are not washed at all.

In the end we are probably better off retaining the venerable word "purification" as any alternative will end up equally intractable. ZE06013122

* * *

Follow-up: How to Understand Purification [02-14-2006]

We received some very enlightening comments and questions after our remarks on the rite of purification (Jan. 31).

Before embarking on this theme I wish to mark an oversight on my part which a reader from Melbourne, Australia, kindly pointed out to me and which obliges me to revise my former reply.

The reader wrote: "Regarding the question on First Communion from an Extraordinary Minister you made no mention of the 2004 instruction 'Redemptionis Sacramentum,' which has: '[87.] ... Moreover First Communion should always be administered by a Priest and never outside the celebration of Mass.' Does this change your answer of Jan. 31, that it is OK for an extraordinary minister to administer the chalice at a first Communion?"

Well, it certainly strengthens my overall argument against the practice which inspired the original column.

It is not totally clear if this text would specifically forbid an extraordinary minister from administering the chalice after the child has received the Body of Christ. I would opine that it does, because, although Christ is received whole and entire under either species, if Communion is given under both kinds then it is the whole rite that encompasses the act of first Communion and not just the reception under the species of bread.

An extraordinary minister could hold the chalice for the priest if Communion under both kinds is given by intinction (by dipping the Host into the Precious Blood).

Returning to purification, a Marquette, Michigan, reader asked: "Could you describe the correct way vessels should be purified." We addressed this topic in some detail in a follow-up on Feb. 8, 2005.

A priest from San Francisco commented: "Is it true that pouring an equal amount, or more, of water into the chalice renders the consecrated wine in the chalice unconsecrated? If this is so — and I would say that it must be because the sign of the sacrament is wine, and not totally diluted wine — does this change the rules for purification? In other words, can what is in the chalice, if it is no longer consecrated, be poured down an ordinary sink, or does it need to be poured into the ground if not consumed?"

It is true that Christ's sacramental presence would cease should excess water (or even unconsecrated wine) be added to the Precious Blood. This is in conformity with the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas as we mentioned in another follow-up last July 5.

However, this is not a respectful way of treating the sacred species and could even be considered as a sacrilegious act.

In conformity with liturgical norms, the Precious Blood must be consumed in its proper state at the altar before the purification rites begin. If the quantity is too much for the priest and deacon to consume personally, the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion may assist in doing so immediately after finishing their ministry.

As "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 107, says: "Furthermore all will remember that once the distribution of Holy Communion during the celebration of Mass has been completed, the prescriptions of the Roman Missal are to be observed, and in particular, whatever may remain of the Blood of Christ must be entirely and immediately consumed by the Priest or by another minister, according to the norms."

Finally, another priest from Bishopton, Scotland, offered some interesting observations on the word "purification" which I will share with our readers. He wrote:

"On purification perhaps I can shed a little light as the answer given is, I think, inadequate! The word is a challenging one at first but perhaps this will help. In the ancient world the great division recognized in culture (even pre-Christian) is the gap between the sacred and the profane.

"This gap cannot be bridged easily or casually — the crossing of it is always marked and a special caste (e.g. priests) was necessary for this. Objects too, if they were used in both spheres, have to go through a process too — it's called purification.

"If your chalice (simply a word for cup in its original Latin form — 'calix') is used for both sacred (Mass) and profane (drinking at a meal) uses (and this was not uncommon in the earliest days of the church — our understanding of the Real Presence and associated devotions and careful cleansing being a later part of our history) we must mark this. Chalices were thereafter purified before their use in Mass (hence 'purus-facere') but to mark their return to profane use they were also subject to a process — the same one.

"This helps us understand why women were purified after childbirth. It was not that they needed to be cleansed, but that they had been involved in a sacred process — bearing children (the result of procreation — participating in God's work of creation); their moving back into the mundane or secular ('profane,' if you like) had to be marked, hence their 'churching.' This reminds us of the very positive and profoundly spiritual nature of this process and rite. I hope this helps!" ZE06021422

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