"Purell, Chrism and the Things We Hold": Sermon by Bishop Alan M. Gates for Holy Tuesday Renewal of Clergy Vows Service

Following is the text of the sermon delivered by Bishop Alan M. Gates at the annual Holy Tuesday Service for Renewal of Ordination Vows and Blessing of Chrism on March 26, 2024, at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston.

Bishop Alan Gates preaching at Holy Tuesday service Amy McCreath Bishop Alan M. Gates

In the first few years of my time as bishop it was my practice at clergy conference to share a few liturgical Picks and Pans from my observations around the diocese. There were such seemingly self-evident reminders as: “Don’t put your coffee mug on the altar” and “Don’t chew gum at the altar” and “Don’t process and proclaim the Gospel carrying a flimsy Morehouse-Barlow half-sheet scripture insert.” There was the perennial admonition for priests not to usurp the liturgical roles of the deacon if you have a deacon in the house. And then there was the Purell.

I enjoined you not to make a liturgical act out of cleansing with Purell as though it were a substitute for the Lavabo. One year, Deacon Daphne even enacted a high-church version for us, ceremonially pumping the cleanser onto the celebrant’s hands, complete with multiple jars of colored Purell appropriate to each liturgical season. I am forced to confess that my critique of Purell ritualism bordered on the derisive. And thus, I am forced to wonder whether the pandemic was my fault. Probably not. But certainly Purell got the last laugh on me.

Now, in my defense, I want to say that I was never opposed to using Purell at the altar. My point was that it should not be conducted in the fashion of the Lavabo. An unobtrusive rinse with Purell is an epidemiological precaution. The visible ceremony of Lavabo is a liturgical act. It has antecedents in both Eastern and Western rites. And while it quite possibly originated with practical considerations in mind, it very early came to represent a prayer of humility, asking God to provide worthiness of soul for the celebrant.  

The Donatist heresy said that the efficacy of the sacrament depended upon the faultless moral purity of the priest. The Lavabo rite, by contrast, acknowledges that every one of us approaches the altar in all our flawed imperfection. God alone grants the grace to enact and administer those sacred mysteries with these altogether human hands of ours. “Wash me, and I shall be clean indeed,” we say with the psalmist [51:8]. And by tradition at the Lavabo, “I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, that I may go in procession round your altar.” [26:6]  

Scrolling through social media not long ago, I ran across an excerpt from a TED Talk by the artist Maira Kalman. Here's what she said:

“One day at a farmer’s market, I saw a woman carrying an absolutely gigantic cabbage. When I asked to photograph her, she looked really annoyed. And for some reason, I was so delighted by her crankiness – it seemed so authentic, and true. (Let’s just say what we feel!) It made me think of all the things women hold, literally and metaphorically. Balloons, and grudges, and heavy loads, and cabbages. And stupendous love, and courage, and a pink ukulele under a cherry tree. And from this a book was formed: Women Holding Things.” [i]

I went to the bookstore last week and bought the book. It is a visual love song to all the things that women hold, full of paintings of women: holding a book; holding a red swimming cap; holding a pomegranate; holding a man, holding a woman, holding a child; holding our gaze. All of these point, of course, to other things women hold: the home, the family, the friendships, the work – as Maira Kalman says – “the work of being human.” [ii]

Touched by, and not lessening I hope, the beauty of Kalman’s tribute to women, I want to say that her visual love song spoke to me of all the things that clergy hold. You, my friends. All the things that are held by priests and deacons in the daily exercise of the vocation which is yours.

You hold those sacred mysteries – yes. The plate, the cup; the bread, the wine; the Body and Blood of Christ. You hold all that others bring to that meal when you extend it. The yearnings and hopes; the sorrow and tears.

You hold in your hands the waters of baptism, bestowing incorporation, promise, rebirth.

You hold the hands of two persons pledging their lives to one another. You hold the hands of the pre-op anxious, of the post-op weary. You hold the hand of an old man dying; you hold the hand of his faithful and courageous spouse, and find yourself uncertain whether it is she or you who is being comforted.

You hold things to bless: rings, and crosses, and vessels, and vestments; and dogs and cats and hamsters, maybe an iguana or a parrot or a snake. Or a child’s favorite doll or Transformer.

You hold in your hand a fistful of dirt to cast upon the grave: earth to earth, dust to dust.

Is that enough? No.

You hold in your hands the Gospel Book which proclaims life. You hold the baptismal register, the confirmation register, the marriage register, the burial register – heralding the cycle of life in God. You hold the service register – heralding the headache you will get completing the annual parochial report.

You hold the budget spreadsheets; the vestry minutes; the combination to the sacristy safe you can never manage to open. You hold the folding chair, the roll of paper towels. You hold the Hoover to vacuum up angel spangles between the Christmas pageant and the Festal Eucharist.

And because so many of you are deacons, you hold the sign-up clipboard, the soup ladle, the advocacy placard, the warm blanket, the referendum petition, the Hobart faucet, the correctional institute visiting permit.

Is that enough? No.

Four years ago you were called upon to hold all that the pandemic brought. You held the fear, the grief, the confusion, the “pivots.” You held the directives of a bishop with whom you agreed, or disagreed. You held the caution of those who would not, could not gather; you held the anger and scorn of those of those who found that caution preposterous. You held the fatigue, and a good bit of it was your own. And it still is.

You hold confidences. You hold vigils.

You hold the disappointment of those who wish you were more prophetic. You hold the fury of those who don’t like your “politics in the pulpit.”

Some days you hold the weight of the world. And some days you manage to hold your own.

And oh, you hold the love of your people who entrust themselves to your care. And by the way, dear friends, you hold the gratitude and affection of your bishops.

There is more, of course. But this is enough for now. As Maira Kalman puts it:

“Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly happy or content, I think I can … hold the entire world in my arms. Other times, I can barely cross the room. And I drop my arms. Frozen. There is never an end to holding.” [iii] 

Some 15 years ago at a Holy Week service like this one, the retired bishop suffragan of Ohio, Arthur Williams, made reference in his sermon to the anointing of hands at ordination. Most of us not ordained in a Roman or Anglo-Catholic context had not experienced it. I recall Bishop Williams linking such anointing to the verse attributed to St. Theresa of Avila: Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours. … Yours are the hands, with which he blesses the world.

I was moved by the image of this anointing. A few years later, on the 25th anniversary of my ordination – at a Vow Renewal service in Cleveland on this day in 2013 – I asked Bishop Williams if he would anoint my hands. He did. Following our service today, if any of you would like such an anointing, it will be my honor to offer it. Priest or deacon alike, may it be a sign of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to fulfill our various callings to bless, to forgive, to shepherd, to serve, to equip the saints of God; to hold all that you hold.

Dear friends, here is what I want you to know deeply. That Donatist heresy has no place in your heart or mind. Your service in the world does not depend upon flawlessness. Your priestly vocation, your diaconal vocation, depends only upon that which is already well established: your desire to serve; your love of your people; your calling affirmed and commissioned; and the abundant and never-ending grace of the God who loves you. We heard in the Gospel a moment ago how Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, [our loving Abba] will honor.” [John 12:26]

In this week of weeks, with all that you are holding – liturgically, homiletically, prophetically, organizationally, pastorally – know that you are enough. It will be enough. It will be more than enough. For all that is entrusted into your hands is, finally, in the hands of God, where it belongs. In the story of this week, at its crucial moment, Jesus commits all that he has been holding into the hands of the One who holds him. “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” [Luke 23:46] So must we.

It is no accident that Compline is one of our most deeply cherished services. We lay down the burdens of the day. And there, nestled between the Scripture readings and the prayers, is that familiar Versicle and Response. [BCP, p. 132] From the cry of the Psalmist [31:5], to the lips of Jesus on the Cross [Luke 23:46], to our own deepest prayer:

V. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit;
R. For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.

[i] Maira Kalman TED Talk https://www.tiktok.com/@tedtoks/video/7311486744233282847?lang=en

[ii] Maira Kalman, Women Holding Things (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2022), p. 1.

[iii] Ibid., TED Talk