Within the context of Holy Week, we have a slight twist on the significance of washing. In the story of the Passion read on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the most obvious description of washing of hands is the action of Pilate washing his hands of guilt after handing Jesus over to be crucified. In fact, in the old Tridentine rite, where every action of the priest was described as symbolic of the story of the Passion, the washing of hands was described as symbolic of the washing of Pilate’s hands. Modern church historians and liturgists have disputed this analogy since the priest as ‘alter Christus’ cannot at the same time be ‘alter’ Pilate. Historians will add that the washing of hands came about in the early Church because, at the time of the preparation of the gifts, the priests would bless things, accept gifts (food, livestock, etc.) for the Church, etc. and so needed to wash up afterwards.
The continued practice during the preparation of the gifts, however, is not just a vestige of a practical liturgical action that was done in the early Church. The Church maintains the practice of the washing of hands as a sign of the ritual purity of the priest, and by extension, the priestly people who are celebrating the Eucharist, the sacrifice
of Thanksgiving and can be a reminder of the cleansing of sin at baptism. This meaning of the washing of hands is demonstrated by the words of the priest during the washing, “Lord, wash me of my iniquity, cleanse me of my sins.” It is actually a practice that goes back to the rituals of the Temple of Jerusalem where Jesus would have
witnessed the exposition of the ‘showbread’ every Passover of his life. The washing of the priests’ hands during Mass at the preparation of the gifts is the symbolic washing of everyone's hands, a symbolic washing of the iniquity and sins of all of God’s priestly people. This action is always connected with the preparation of the gifts.