Where does the term “spring cleaning” come from? If you grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, you might know that our pioneer ancestors spent days every spring beating soot and dust out of their carpets and scrubbing everything thoroughly. This was necessary for homes heated by fireplace; as soon as the days grew warm enough, the windows and doors had to be opened, and everything taken outside for a good wash.
But there are also spiritual reasons for the spring cleaning tradition. In Exodus 12, God commands the Israelites to prepare for Passover by removing every bit of leaven from their houses. Observant Jews (or at least some of them) take this very seriously and practice a thorough cleaning of the house, or at least the parts of the house that might come in contact with food or contain crumbs of chametz or leaven. This removal of every crumb of leaven is sometimes called the “search for chametz.”
Christians do not have a mandate to clean their homes leading up to the celebration of the feast of feasts, the Solemnity of Easter. But many a housewife finds herself wanting to “deep clean” for the holiday anyway. There’s something fitting and admirable about having a clean, decluttered home in which to celebrate, of course, but it also fits with the spiritual realities of the Catholic liturgical cycle. Recall that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. I think he fulfills even the “search for chametz,” in a way.
Think back to the beginning of Lent. The day before Ash Wednesday is often called Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French), because traditionally, it was the last day on which meat, eggs, butter, and other fatty or animal-derived foods could be eaten before the great fast of Lent began. While having whatever was the twelfth-century equivalent of Slim Jims stored away in your pantry was probably not an issue, anything that wouldn’t last forty days had to be consumed. Instead of the “search for chametz,” our Christian forebears had a sort of inquisitio carnis.
But the spiritual preparation for Lent is even more important, especially in our day of refrigerators and preservatives (and relaxed fasting laws). The day before Ash Wednesday is also called Shrove Tuesday in the English tradition. “Shrove” refers to being “shriven”: that is, confessed and absolved, or cleansed. This year, my pastor set up a special confession time on that Tuesday and encouraged us to begin Lent with a “spring cleaning” of the soul. St. Paul tells us to cast out the old leaven of malice and eat the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:8). Lent is the perfect time to search our consciences for any sign of the leaven of sin and make a sincere, truthful confession—a new beginning, as the earth comes back to life.
Recall, also, that many catechumens prepare for their Baptism throughout Lent. In the traditional Latin liturgy, references to Baptism are sprinkled throughout Holy Week and become a major focus of the Octave of Easter. Public penitents were also absolved on Holy Thursday, thereby being made clean to receive Easter Communion. According to Rev. Francis X. Weiser’s Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, the faithful as far back as the time of St. Augustine also made Holy Thursday a great day of bathing and shaving to prepare for Easter (one did not typically haul a tubful of icy water from the village well to take a bath every day, especially during the winter).
Whether or not we were baptized this year—and whether or not it takes a great feast to make us shower—we can recall that the Passover Sacrifice of Jesus made our Baptism possible and that we have been thoroughly cleansed in his Blood. What better way to spend the spring than in reflecting on how deeply dirty we have been, but how completely we are restored by God’s grace?
Lastly, I want to take the fulfillment of the leaven-purge one step further. During this year’s Triduum, I was struck more than ever by the gradual removal of Jesus himself, under the form of bread, from the chapels at my parish. In the traditional Latin Mass, the priest consecrates one extra host on Holy Thursday, which he places on the Altar of Repose for adoration during the night. The following day, at the “Mass of the Presanctified”, he receives the one host and a little unconsecrated wine before processing rapidly out of the church.
The tabernacle gapes open, the sanctuary lamp has been extinguished, the congregation is left hungering for the Bread of Life. No trace of the Jewish Passover lamb could be kept over until the morning; no trace of Jesus the Lamb remains. Throughout Saturday, we fast from him, bereaved. But on Saturday night at the Easter Vigil Mass, he comes again in glory and is restored to his rightful place.
Catholicism is always a gift to both body and soul. The fasts and the feasts, the kneeling and standing, mental prayer and physical liturgical gestures—all are for our complete human good. We pour water on the body that it might cleanse the soul. And perhaps we clean our homes in order to clean our consciences. Donating excess belongings could be part of our almsgiving, and throwing out useless keepsakes might help us detach us from habits of sin.
This year, going through a box, I found old notes and cards from friends and family telling me how much they loved me, and was reminded of how inadequately I love them, how much I need to grow in appreciation of their love. Although my article is a little late for a proper Lenten purge, it’s never too late for a little spring cleaning, and certainly never too late to be washed in the Blood of the Lamb.
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