Why does the priest wash his hands?

Is there a symbolic meaning by the washing of the hands by the priest prior to consecrating the bread and wine during mass?

There are various practical reasons that are offered for its historic origins. Some claim that the origins are the priest having to wash the “dust” of the bread off his hands. Others say that all sorts of things were sometimes brought up at the offertory, including livestock, and that the priest was literally washing his hands to clean them. However, these can’t be the only explanations because there are cases in the ancient church where the washing of the priest’s hands took place *before *the offertory.

The spiritual significance is pretty straightforward: the priest is calling to mind that he is unworthy to offer the sacrifice of Jesus. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:

  1. The priest then washes his hands at the side of the altar, a rite that is an expression of his desire for interior purification.

Symbolic washing for cleansing of sin is rooted in Sacred Scripture (Exodus 30:19-21; Exodus 40:32). The prayer is for the benefit of the priest celebrant, that is why it is said quietly and refers only to the sins of the priest. It is a reminder of the awesome responsibility the priest has and how it is only by the gracious call of God that he is able to fulfill it.

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