Ablution in Christianity

Christ washing the feet of the Apostles, by Giotto di Bondone (Cappella Scrovegni a Padova)

Ablution, in religion, is a prescribed washing of part or all of the body or of possessions, such as clothing or ceremonial objects, with the intent of purification or dedication.[1] In Christianity, both baptism and footwashing are forms of ablution. In liturgical churches, ablution can refer to purifying fingers or vessels related to the Eucharist.[2] In the New Testament washing also occurs in reference to rites of Judaism[3] part of the action of a healing by Jesus,[4] the preparation of a body for burial,[Acts 9:37] the washing of nets by fishermen,[Lk. 5:2] a person's personal washing of the face to appear in public,[Matt. 6:17] the cleansing of an injured person's wounds,[Acts 16:33] Pilate's washing of his hands as a symbolic claim of innocence[Matt. 27:24] and foot washing,[Jn. 13:5-14] [1 Tim. 5:10] now partly a symbolic rite within the Church.[5] According to the Gospel of Matthew, Pontius Pilate declared himself innocent of the blood of Jesus by washing his hands.[Matthew 27:24] This act of Pilate may not, however, have been borrowed from the custom of the Jews. The same practice was common among the Greeks and Romans.

According to Christian tradition, the Pharisees carried the practice of ablution to great excess.[Matt. 23:25] The Gospel of Mark refers to their ceremonial ablutions: "For the Pharisees…wash their hands 'oft'"[Mark 7:1-5] or, more accurately, "with the fist" (R.V., "diligently"); or, as Theophylact of Bulgaria explains it, "up to the elbow," referring to the actual word used in the Greek New Testament, πυγμή pygmē, which refers to the arm from the elbow to the tips of the fingers.[6][7] In the Book of Acts, Paul and other men performed ablution before entering the Temple in Jerusalem: "Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them."[Acts 21:26]

In the Old Testament, ablution was considered a prerequisite to approaching God, whether by means of sacrifice, prayer or merely by entering a holy place.[8] The Bible has many rituals of purification relating to menstruation, childbirth, sexual relations, nocturnal emission, unusual bodily fluids, skin disease, death, and animal sacrifices. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church prescribes several kinds of hand washing for example after leaving the latrine, lavatory or bathhouse, or before prayer, or after eating a meal.[9] The women in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church are prohibited from entering the church temple during menses; and the men do not enter a church the day after they have had intercourse with their wives.[10]

Contrary to popular belief[11] bathing and sanitation were not lost in Europe with the collapse of the Roman Empire.[12][13] Soapmaking first became an established trade during the so-called "Dark Ages". The Romans used scented oils (mostly from Egypt), among other alternatives. By the mid-19th century, the English urbanised middle classes had formed an ideology of cleanliness that ranked alongside typical Victorian concepts, such as Christianity, respectability and social progress.[14] The Salvation Army has adopted movement of the deployment of the personal hygiene,[15] and by providing personal hygiene products.[16][17]

Ablution in the Bible

A 14th-century lavabo as a niche recessed into the side wall of a sanctuary in Amblie, Normandy

The Bible has many rituals of purification relating to menstruation, childbirth, sexual relations, nocturnal emission, unusual bodily fluids, skin disease, death, and animal sacrifices.

The Bible includes various regulations about bathing:

And whoever he that hath issue (a zav, ejaculant with an unusual discharge) touches without having rinsed his hands in water, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.(Leviticus 15:11)

A subsequent seven clean days are then required, culminating in a ritual and temple offering before the zav is clean of his malady:

Now in case the one having a running discharge would become clean from his running discharge, he must then count for himself seven days for his purification, and he must wash his garments and bathe his flesh in running water; and he must be clean. And on the eighth day he should take for himself two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and he must come to the entrance of the tent of meeting and give them to the priest.(Leviticus 15:13-14)

And also references to hand-washing:

I will wash my hands in innocence; so will I compass Thine altar, O LORD (Psalms 26:6)

The Mikveh in the Bible is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion. The word is employed in its broader sense but generally means a collection of water.[18] Several biblical regulations specify that full immersion in water is required to regain ritual purity after ritually impure incidents have occurred.[19] A person was required to be ritually pure in order to enter the Temple. In this context, "purity" and "impurity" are imperfect translations of the Hebrew "tahara" and "tumah", respectively, in that the negative connotation of the word impurity is not intended; rather being "impure" is indicative of being in a state in which certain things are prohibited until one has become "pure" again by immersion in a mikveh.

After the destruction of the Temple, the mikveh's main uses remained as follows:

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church prescribes several kinds of hand washing for example after leaving the latrine, lavatory or bathhouse, or before prayer, or after eating a meal.[20] The women in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church are prohibited from entering the church temple during menses; and the men do not enter a church the day after they have had intercourse with their wives.[21]

Eucharistic Ablutions

Western Christian

In the Tridentine Mass and in the similar Anglo-Catholic Mass, the term "ablutions" refers to when the priest rinses his hands first in wine and then in water following the Communion. It is to be distinguished from the lavabo, when the celebrant washes his hands with water only, reciting the words of Psalm 26:6-12 (KJV—in the Septuagint it is Psalm 25) at the offertory.

In the Mass of Paul VI and the Anglican Eucharist the priest does not normally use wine to wash his hands at the ablution, although this is permitted, but only water.

See also: Tarping

Eastern and Oriental Christian

In the Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches, the term "ablution" refers to consuming the remainder of the Gifts (the Body and Blood of Christ) at the end of the Divine Liturgy. Holy Communion is always received in both Species (the Body and the Blood of Christ) not only by the clergy but also by the faithful. This is accomplished by placing the particles of the consecrated Lamb (bread) into the chalice, and distributing Communion to the faithful with a spoon. The portion which remains in the chalice afterwards must be consumed.

The ablutions will normally be performed by the deacon, but if no deacon is serving the priest will do them. After the Litany of Thanksgiving that follows Communion, the deacon will come into the sanctuary and kneel, placing his forehead on the Holy Table (Altar) and the priest will bless him to consume the Gifts, which is done at the Prothesis (Table of Oblation). First, using the liturgical spoon he will consume all of the Body and Blood of Christ which remain in the chalice. Then he will pour hot water on the diskos (paten), which is then poured into the chalice and consumed (this is to consume any particles that may remain on the diskos). Next the liturgical spear, spoon and chalice will be rinsed first with wine and then with hot water, which are then consumed. All of the sacred vessels are then wiped dry with a towel, wrapped in their cloth coverings and put away.

Because the ablutions necessarily require consuming the Holy Mysteries (the Body and Blood of Christ), a priest or deacon may only perform them after having fully prepared himself through fasting and the lengthy Preparation for Holy Communion.

When a priest must take Holy Communion to the sick or homebound, if he has not prepared himself to receive the Holy Mysteries, he may ablute the chalice by pouring water into it and asking the one to whom he brought the Sacrament (or a Baptized child who because of their youth is not obliged to prepare for Communion) to consume the ablution.

If the Reserved Mysteries should become moldy, they must still be consumed in the same manner as the ablutions after Liturgy (normally, a fair amount of wine would be poured over them before consuming them, in order to soften and disinfect them). They should not be burned or buried. To prevent this, when the Mysteries are to be reserved for the sick, they should be thoroughly dried before being placed in the Tabernacle.

Baptismal Ablutions

In Orthodox Christianity, there is also an ablution performed on the eighth day after Baptism. Immediately after being Baptized, every person, including an infant, is confirmed using the Mystery (Sacrament) of Chrismation. In the early church, the places where the person was anointed with Chrism were carefully bandaged, and were kept covered for eight days. During this period, the newly illumined (newly baptized person) would also wear his baptismal robe every day. At the end of the eight days, the priest would remove the bandages and baptismal garment and perform ablutions over him. While the bandaging no longer takes place, the ritual ablutions are still performed.[22]

The newly illumined (newly baptized person) is brought back to the church by his Godparents for the ablutions. The priest stands him in the center of the church, in front of the Holy Doors, facing east. He loosens the belt of the baptismal robe and prays for him, that God may preserve the newly illumined in purity and illumine him by grace. He then dips a sponge in water and sprinkles him in the sign of the cross saying: "Thou art justified. Thou art illumined. Thou art sanctified. Thou art washed: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." Then, as he says the next prayer, he washes each of the places where he had been anointed with Chrism. Next he performs the Tonsure, symbolic of the life of self-sacrifice a Christian must lead.

Washing of Feet

Main article: Foot washing

Many Christian churches practice a ceremony of the Washing of Feet,[23] following the example of Jesus in the Gospel.[John 13:1-17] Some interpret this as an ordinance which the church is obliged to keep as a commandment, see also Biblical law in Christianity.[23] Others interpret it as an example that all should follow. Most denominations that practice the rite will perform it on Maundy Thursday. Often in these services, the bishop will wash the feet of the clergy, and in monasteries the Abbot will wash the feet of the brethren.

St. Benedict of Nursia lays out in his Rule that the feet of visitors to the monastery should be washed, and also that those who are assigned to serve in the kitchen that week should wash the feet of all the brethren.

Ablutions for the Dead

When an Orthodox Christian dies, his body is washed and dressed before burial. Although this custom is not considered to impose any sort of ritual purity, it is an important aspect of charitable care for the departed. Ideally, this should not be deferred to an undertaker, but should be performed by family members or friends of the deceased.

When an Orthodox priest or bishop dies, these ablutions and vesting are performed by the clergy, saying the same prayers for each vestment that are said when the departed bishop or priest vested for the Divine Liturgy. After the body of a Bishop is washed and vested, he is seated in a chair and the Dikirion and Trikirion are placed in his hands for the final time.[24]

When an Orthodox monk dies, his body is washed and clothed in his monastic habit by brethren of his monastery. Two significant differences are that when his mantle is placed on him, its hem is torn to form bands, with which his body is bound (like Lazarus in the tomb), and his klobuk is placed on his head backwards, so that the monastic veil covers his face (to show that he had already died to the world, even before his physical death). When an Orthodox nun dies, the sisterhood of her convent performs the same ministrations for her as are done for monks.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Absoute (or absolution of the dead) is a symbolic ablution of the deceased's body following the Requiem Mass. While specific prayers are said, the coffin is incensed and sprinkled with holy water. The absolution of the dead is only performed in context of the Tridentine Mass. Following the Second Vatican Council, the absolution of the dead was removed from the funeral liturgy of the Mass of Paul VI.

Washing and anointing

One of ten washing and anointing rooms of the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints circa 1911.

Washing and anointing (also called the initiatory) is a temple ordinance practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and Mormon fundamentalists as part of the faith's endowment ceremony. It is a purification ritual for adults, usually performed at least a year after baptism. The ordinance is performed by the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood by an officiator of the same sex as the participant.[25]

In the ritual, a person is sprinkled with water to symbolically wash away the "blood and sins of this generation." After the washing, the person is then anointed to become a "king and priest" or a "queen and priestess" in the afterlife.

Once washed and anointed, the participant is dressed in the temple garment, a religious undergarment which the participant is instructed to wear throughout his or her life. (Since 2005, participants in the LDS Church version of the ritual already come clothed in this garment prior to the washing and anointing.) Finally, the participant is given a "new name" which he or she is instructed never to reveal except under certain conditions in the temple.

Mormons link the ritual to biblical washings and anointings. The temple garment symbolizes the skins of clothing given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the "new name" is linked to Revelation 2:17, which states that God will give those who overcome "a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it."


  1. "ablution." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 28 Jun. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1398/ablution>
  2. "ablution." ReligionWriters.com (Stylebook A) 2009. 28 Jun. 2009 <"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-06-05. Retrieved 2009-06-28.>
  3. (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:3-4, cf. "unwashed" Mt. 15:20, Mk. 7:2, Lk. 11:38
  4. Jn. 9:7, Jn. 9:11, Jn. 9:15
  5. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Revised edition (July 1979). ISBN 0-8028-3781-6
  6. Theophylact of Bulgaria, Blessed, The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, House Springs, MO: Chrysostomos Press, 1993, p. 58, ISBN 0-9635183-3-X
  7. Compare also Mark 7:4; Leviticus 6:28; Leviticus 11:32-36; Leviticus 15:22
  8. Exodus 19:10, Exodus 30:19-21, Leviticus 8:6,Numbers 8:21, etc.
  10. The Liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  11. The Bad Old Days — Weddings & Hygiene
  12. The Great Famine (1315-1317) and the Black Death (1346-1351)
  13. Middle Ages Hygiene
  14. Eveleigh, Bogs (2002). Baths and Basins: The Story of Domestic Sanitation. Stroud, England: Sutton.
  15. History of The Salvation Army – Social Services of Greater New York, retrieved 30 January 2007. Archived 7 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. Hallelujah Lads and Lasses: Remaking the Salvation Army in America, 1880-1930
  17. Christianity in Action: The History of the International Salvation Army p.16
  18.  Adler, Cyrus; Greenstone, Julius H. (1904). "MIḲWEH". In Singer, Isidore; et al. Jewish Encyclopedia. 8. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. p. 588. Retrieved Feb 23, 2016.
  19. "Concerning Ritual Purity and Cleanliness".
  21. The Liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  22. Pomazansky, Protopresbyter Michael (1948). Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. Platina, CA: Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. p. 270. LOC # 84-051294.
  23. 1 2 Peter C. Bower. The Companion to the Book of Common Worship. Geneva Press. Retrieved 2009-04-11. Maundy Thursday (or le mandé; Thursday of the Mandatum, Latin, commandment). The name is taken from the first few words sung at the ceremony of the washing of the feet, "I give you a new commandment" (John 13:34); also from the commandment of Christ that we should imitate His loving humility in the washing of the feet (John 13:14–17). The term mandatum (maundy), therefore, was applied to the rite of foot-washing on this day.
  24. Sokolof, Archpriest D. (2001), A Manual of the Orthodox Church's Divine Services (3rd ed.), Jordanville, NY: Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, Holy Trinity Monastery, p. 172
  25. Buerger (1987, p. 35).
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