“Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place?
The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things. . .”
Psalm 24: 3-4
The man with clean hands and pure heart. This has always been one of those verses that I trip over. I just don’t know what to do with it, it feels remote and pushes me away. I poke at my own reaction, prod it, and then shrug and walk away. I can’t figure it out. But today for the first time as I prayed it, something clicked.
My sister and I have been talking about ritual purity in the Old Testament (I started off on this path thinking about the woman with the hemorrhage who touches Jesus’ garment and I cannot for the life of me remember why I was reading that passage recently or how I became so fixated on that story and the healing of Jairus’ daughter.)
Anyway, while Googling around, I found an interesting article about ritual impurity that talks about this state—nidah- that requires purification, cleansing, before one can enter into the sacred space. The words we use in English— unclean, impure, polluted— really don’t convey the same meaning. They all have a negative connotation, suggesting sin and blame and an evaluation of worth. But really it might be better translated as ‘set apart’. It’s about being in a liminal state, standing on the threshold.
The author, Bywater points out that the things which put a person into this state are natural and unavoidable parts of human life: disease, birth, death, blood, discharge, illness, sex. They aren’t bad necessarily, we aren’t at fault for experiencing them. But they are states which set us apart from the normal course of life. And I think it’s because of that set-apart-ness, that liminality, that we need some kind of a transition to move from that kind of set-apart space into a sacred set-apart-for-God space. That transition almost always requires washing, sometimes it’s a period of time as well as washing. (All of these states of ritual impurity are temporary, most of them lasting a short, predictable duration.)
A doctor washes his hands after coming into contact with blood and disease… it’s not only natural to want to wash off possible contamination, it’s good, it’s healthy it prevents the spread of germs. There’s a natural tendency to want to wash off bodily fluids and even the possibility of contact with bodily fluids. After an illness has raged through my house, you bet I wash all the people, the bedding, the toothbrushes, the doorknobs. On a practical level the rules about purification helped to prevent the spread of germs and disease, they were a practical public health measure.
Any Catholic mom wondering if she should take the family to Mass after someone has been sick grapples with this question of bringing contamination into a sacred space. Any newly postpartum mom struggles with when she should return to her usual routine, when she should go back to church. Instead of asking tired, hormonal postpartum women to make a judgment call, doesn’t it seem kind to ask the woman and her immediate caretakers to just stay home and care for the mother and the baby?
Likewise with menstruation. While it’s true that not all women experience their menstrual period as painful or uncomfortable or a hindrance, still, many do. Even in today’s world when we have indoor plumbing and disposable pads and tampons and menstrual cups and all sort of innovations to help women manage the flow of blood, many women do still take a sick day to deal with cramping or excessive bleeding. And many who do not wish they could take a sick day to just pamper themselves while menstruating. And then in a time when sanitation was limited, when people lived in an arid environment when water for washing was at a premium… doesn’t it just seem kind to allow women to remain apart and deal with it without also having to keep clean enough to prepare food as well? Women’s work is never done, says an old proverb. But in a culture which requires women to be apart during their cycle, isn’t it also a chance for women to have a short vacation from the usual food preparation and serving? (Anita Diamant addresses this idea in her novel The Red Tent. I have major problems with the novel’s attitude toward religion, I do not believe that it was the case that worship of God was only for men and that Hebrew women were alienated from that worship and only ever worshiped pagan gods. But I did find her supposition that the time of nidah was a welcome break, was a fascinating way of rethinking the way women might have experienced those rituals.)
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Many critics (I’ve seen it among feminist critics especially) see the ritual purity laws as being anti-woman, as being punitive or shaming and degrading. And given the nature of fallen humanity, I am sure that they can be and have been misused in that way, to isolate and degrade women. But I also see a great power for them to be used to cherish and nurture and protect women when they are vulnerable.
I have read horror stories about women expected to give birth and then return to work in the field immediately afterwards without any time to recover and bond with the baby— often slaves, serfs, other women of low status. It seems to me that cultures which impose rest and seclusion on women, while it might feel somewhat isolating and oppressing to some individuals, are perhaps also creating barriers that protect women from unreasonable expectations about what they can do after birth. Ritual purity laws around childbirth might in fact be an ancient form of maternity leave.
And of course there’s also a spiritual level of meaning as well. On a very human, psychological level we understand that blood has power Blood is life. If you lose too much of it you die. Blood comes with birth, it often accompanies death. So shedding blood and being in the presence of shed blood changes us. It puts us into a heightened reality, a space where we are touched by the force of life itself. Likewise other bodily fluids, bodies that are sick and discharging various fluids… it makes sense that these experiences have a spiritual component.
And being a busy mother in a culture that does not do this well, that does not make time for women to be freed from the daily grind, I keep thinking that kind of time set apart, a time of seclusion could also be a spiritual retreat, a time for a woman to be freed from the burden of work, a time of refreshment, of communion with God. Go to your room and speak to your father who sees you in private, to paraphrase one of Jesus’ commands that we heard in today’s Gospel. Ritual seclusion could very well have a deeply spiritual component. If we only see women being denied the chance to worship communally, we miss the other side of the coin. We miss the more contemplative side of worship.
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At Mass, after communion, the chalice and paten must be cleaned and purified. The contents must be consumed and the water used for the washing must be poured into a special sink, the sacrarium, which empties not into the sewer, but into the earth itself. Why do we wash and purify the sacred vessels? Not because what they held was dirty or sinful or bad– exactly the opposite. It is because they have held the Body and Blood Soul and Divinity of God Himself that we take such care to wash them and make sure not a drop or crumb remains unconsumed or otherwise disposed of reverently.
And I think this reverence and care we show to the sacred vessels is very much a part of the way we should think of how the ritual purity laws worked. Life and Death, Birth, and Sex… these are moments when our lives touch on the divine, the numinous. Women’s bodies give life. And even the blood prepared for nurturing the potential baby has something of that power, that life-giving potential. Every month it can seem a hassle, a mess, a burden, but it is also a reminder of something sacred and holy and powerful.
Priests were supposed to refrain from sexual intercourse for a certain time before serving at the altar of God. Is this because sex is dirty and sinful? No, quite the opposite: sex is holy, sacred. Every sex act is a potential participation in co-creating new life, an immortal soul that could live forever with God. It is precisely because it is good and holy that it is fitting and proper that should somehow be set apart from other parts of life, even from the part of life that is ritual public worship.
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That was a very long digression that got a bit out of hand.
And so, finally, let’s go back to the verse from this morning’s liturgy of the hours: “the man with clean hands and pure heart shall enter into God’s holy place.” As I said before, for the first time I heard this verse in a new way. “Clean hands and pure heart” don’t mean ‘without sin’. It doesn’t mean that only saints are fit to enter into God’s house and everyone else is unworthy, too dirty and unloveable to be in the same place as God. It means that before we enter into God’s numinous presence we should perform a ritual of preparation. We should acknowledge with some kind of outward sign, a transition, a crossing of a threshold, a liminal experience.
Something like stepping into a vestibule and dipping our hands in a bowl of water and making the sign of the cross before we enter the sanctuary? Maybe something a little like that….
The ritual of purification means washing, but often also a time of waiting. A liminal time, to be between states. Between life and death, between the mundane and the sacred, between the daily and the extraordinary. It’s about being set-apart, not about achieving perfection. In the Hebrew culture there was ritual washing— and we still have baptism and the holy water font beside the door, the priest’s washing of his hands… we use ritual washing to signify a spiritual phase change.
But we also have the additional purification ritual of penance, confession and absolution. In confession we are washed in the Blood of the Lamb. Mystically, his blood purifies our sinfulness and makes us clean. Blood and grace. Blood in the old covenant makes things unclean, it sets them apart. But Christ’s blood makes us pure, it is the doorway through which we are able to enter in to the sacred space of his presence.
Blood in the old put one into a liminal space, set apart, you needed time to wash, regroup, move from that set apart space to the set apart space where God dwelt. From one kind of liminality to another kind of liminality. We can’t just jump into sacred space. We need thresholds, rituals, places to pause and consider and reframe our existence.
But Jesus is all liminal space. He is the bridge between God and Man. His alive/dead body his living blood which does not lose the power of life when it is shed, which gives life, which renders clean, which purifies… he is the space between God and man. So through him and through his blood we enter into this transitional space of Lent, set apart, cleansed, mindful about climbing the mountain into the sacred space, moving from the city, daily life, transactional life to the holy place where there are no transactions, only relations. Only the one relation which matters most of all.
The man with clean hands and pure heart. My hands are not clean. My heart is not pure. But I know that I can be cleansed. I can be purified. Just touch the hem of his garment. He is the one who will make me clean. Just get yourself to confession already! That’s what Lent is all about. Allowing him to be the one to make me whole.
“O gates, lift high your heads; grow higher, ancient doors, let him enter, the King of Glory.”