Note: This text follows a eucharistic rite that has been adapted from the rite in the Canadian Book of Common Prayer (1962). The text of the rite is also available on a separate page.
O God, your Son Jesus Christ has left to us this meal of bread and wine in which we share his body and his blood; help us now, by your Holy Spirit, so to grasp the meaning and purpose of this great sacrament, that we may deepen our feeding upon him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Amen.
A few years ago, I was visiting one of the great Gothic English cathedrals and was standing looking at the nave altar when a Japanese tourist approached me and said, "What is this for?" I then proceeded to explain the communion service as simply as I could: "Here, as the family of God, we eat a morsel of bread and taste a sip of wine to proclaim the death of the Lord Jesus Christ until he comes again and feed upon him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving." I realized how strange it must sound to one who had never experienced it.
But how about those of us who engage it in regularly, even week-by-week - do we fully understand what it is all about? As we go through our service today, I want to give you an opportunity do grow in your understanding and appreciation of the Holy Communion. I will be explaining the service, section by section - what it is, what it means, and how we engage with the living Jesus who makes himself known to us through it, just as he did when he broke bread with the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus the first evening after his resurrection. Luke describes the scene: "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him." (Luke 24:30f)
We have called this "an instructed Eucharist." We also use other terms to describe this service such as Holy Communion and the Lord's Supper. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and in this service, we thank God for what he has done for us in Christ, especially for what he achieved on the cross. Communion speaks about our relationship with God and others. The Lord's Supper emphasizes that we are here to eat and drink with him - a foretaste of the Great Banquet in heaven which awaits us. The term Mass is derived from the final words of the service in Latin, "Ite missa est" - "Go, you are sent" reminding us that Communion equips us for serving the Lord in the world.
The service is divided into two clear parts, the Proclamation of the Word and the Celebration of the Eucharist. They each involve a different method of God communicating with us. We are people with minds and we are people with bodies. In the Proclamation of the Word, God speaks to us through words; in the Celebration of the Eucharist, God speaks to us through actions. The diagram at the left explains it more fully.
The origin of God's communication is Jesus, the living Word of God (cf. John 1). He is mediated to us through his written word, the Bible. This written word is then explained through the sermon and enacted through the sacrament. A sacrament is a visible or enacted word which I shall expand on later. Through all of this, Jesus makes himself real to us and we feed upon him.
In the first half of the service, the Word is proclaimed through the reading of Scripture which is then explained through the sermon. Prior to this, there is a section which we call "Our Approach." We begin with a sentence of Scripture which relates to the theme of the day and calls us to worship.
This is followed by the Collect for Purity where we acknowledge that God knows our hearts and we ask him to prepare them so that we may worship him aright.
We then hear Christ's summary of the law (or the full Ten Commandments in Lent or Advent) which reminds us why we need this service. We have all fallen short of his standards and so need his forgiveness, renewal, and strength to try again.
This is why we sing "Lord, have mercy," etc. which is an ancient cry to God for help and is often known by the original language they were in, the kyries, from the Greek word, "Lord".
Following this, we hear the collect, or prayer of the week which "collects" together the theme of the day or season to be described in the readings which follow.
The lessons, usually one from the Old Testament, one from the Epistles and one from the Gospels, are designed to take us through the Scriptures systematically. In the first half of the year, the Gospel is related to the theme of the season, supported by the other readings, but sometimes they are more independent. For today, all were especially chosen, as were the hymns, to elaborate on the nature of the communion service. In between the first and second reading, a psalm can be sung, often related to the first reading, but we usually have a choir anthem, often related to the theme of the day.
Suggested scripture readings:
1 Corinthians 11:17-34;
Matthew 26: 17-29
We have now come to the sermon, the "explained word". A communion service is always supposed to have a sermon, because the enacted word needs the explained word to ensure it is perceived correctly. At this point, let us examine briefly a key question people have about this service: How literally are we to take the words, "This is my body, this is my blood"? Do we actually physically eat Jesus or are the words merely symbolic?
There has been a lot of confusion down through the years caused by well-meaning people coming up with different emphases to ensure the purpose of the Lord's Supper is not lost. Some have said that the elements are literally Jesus' body and blood and that if you drop the wafer you have actually dropped Jesus. Others have said that the elements are merely symbolic, helping you to remember Jesus and what he did for us. Which is right? Both positions are well-intentioned, but prevent us from getting at the heart of the matter. I hope to show you a better way.
To begin to answer this question we need to look at the Biblical use of the physical in worship. In the Old Testament we see God taking meticulous care over the details of the temple and the organisation of worship. Why? Because we are physical beings. What we do in our bodies has an impact on our spiritual lives and vice-versa. The physical is a means through which we express and experience spiritual reality. It is not the reality itself, but points to it and is a means whereby we encounter it. As an example, take the concept of offering an animal sacrifice to pay for sin. Although the Bible tells us (Hebrews 10:4) that the death of animals can not really atone for our sin, these sacrifices had a purpose. First, a living thing had to give up its life. This showed that sin is serious and causes death. Secondly, it cost the worshipper. You had to pay for that animal. This showed that you were serious about recognizing and dealing with sin. In this way the physical aspects of worship pointed to a deeper reality and helped bring it home to you. We no longer have sacrifices, because Jesus has died once and for all. But a sacrament fulfils the same function, only, unlike sacrifices which pointed forward to Jesus, they point us back to him and what he did.
But there is more. Jesus is alive today. He is here to communicate with us and be intimately united with us. He tells us in John 6 that we are to feed upon him as the Bread of Life. How do we do this? One way is through his words, as he told us, "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life" (John 6: 63). Another is through the sacraments he insitituted for us. To more fully understand this, it helps to look at the origins of the communion service. As we read in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 26), Jesus celebrated the first Eucharist in the setting of the Passover meal whose origins we read about in Exodus 12. Today's equivalent is the Seder Supper. In the Seder, we hear the leader say, "This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt." Now obviously this is not meant literally, but to symbolise the bread of the original Passover meal. But this is not merely a symbol, either. It is meant to draw you into the same freedom and experience with God that the early Israelites had escaping from slavery. This is the context for Jesus saying, "This is my Body." In the same way, as we share in the bread and the wine, we are to be drawn into the reality of what he has done for us on the cross. We do not literally eat his body, but as we eat the bread and the wine, they become a means of encounter with God's action in Jesus. They are vehicles to draw us into spiritual reality, communion with Jesus. In this way a sacrament is a visible or enacted word, or as the Prayer Book defines it, "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." 1
The following analogy may help. A handshake or a hug is a physical action; it is a sign of friendship - but it is more than a sign; it actually conveys the friendship it represents; the physical action conveys the emotional truth of friendship and affection. In the same way, in the action of eating the bread and drinking the wine, God conveys his love and his very self to us. It is like God's hug to us. It is not the properties of the elements themselves, but God using the action of eating and drinking. Yes, the bread and the wine are set apart for this holy purpose; they are consecrated, just as a church building is, but they do not change their nature. But neither are they just symbols; God uses them to make a true and living encounter with us and further convey the benefits of Jesus' death for us. This is what is meant by the phrase describing a sacrament as a "means of grace." 2 It is a wonderful invention of God to convey his love and blessings to us.
As we continue with the service, we now respond to what we have heard read and explained from God's Word. We begin by affirming our belief in the words of the Nicene Creed, the summary of Biblical faith complied in the fourth century by the majority of Christians, linking us with believers down through the ages and around the world.
Our second response is to intercede for the world as instructed by the Apostle Paul, "that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Timothy 2:1f). The Intercessions are part of our work as the people of God, his "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). As priests, we intercede for the needs of the church, the world, the parish, and specific individuals as well as to give thanks for those who have gone before us. This is our job as a whole church, and that is why the Intercessions are called in some places "The Prayers of the People" even though they are usually led by only one person on our behalf. To better symbolise this, they are usually led from the litany desk which is set in the midst of the congregation.
As the prayers are being said, make them your own (which is why we use a response such as "hear our prayer" to the petition, "Lord in your mercy"). "In intercession, we are asking God to extend his kingly rule beyond the confines of his table into our lives, families, communities and across the world. There is a direct connection between our intercessions and our participation in the Lord's supper, put with startling clarity by one writer: 'Feasting at the king's banquet, without interceding for those who are absent, is as obscene as eating dinner without concern for the starving.'3
Our third response has to do with owning up to our sins and receiving God's forgiveness. It begins with an exhortation and invitation to receive communion in a right manner. We are reminded of Paul's words in the second lesson "A person ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself" (1 Corinthians 11:28-29). These are pretty strong words and while we might immediately apply them to the state of our inner selves, it is interesting that, in the context of that passage, when Paul speaks about "recognizing the body of the Lord" he is referring to the church community and the prejudice and discrimination that was so much in evidence when they came together to celebrate the Lord's Supper. This is why we are exhorted not only to repentance but to be "in love and charity with our neighbours." How can we say we love God whom we have not seen if we do not love our neighbour whom we do see? (cf. 1 John 4: 20) We will hear more of this in a few moments when we look at the peace.
The confession which follows obeys the command of Jesus to repent. We acknowledge our sin. There is no way we can benefit from Christ's healing if we do not acknowledge we are in need of it. We move out of denial to admit we have sinned and that sin is above all an affront to God and his will for us and the universe. We also confess, not just to get off the hook, but so that we may live a renewed life - free to do right - "to serve and please thee in newness of life."
The absolution and comfortable words which follow both have the same purpose. They each proclaim God's sure promise to forgive us if we repent and turn in faith to him. The absolution casts that in the form of a declaration from one representing the full authority of the Church, that these conditions being met, God has taken away our sins completely. The comfortable words, being verses straight from Scripture, give us firm ground for the assurance that we have been forgiven.
Having been assured of our peace with God, we now share that peace with our neighbours. Here we respond to Jesus' command first to be reconciled with one another before coming to offer our gift at the altar (Matthew 5:23-24). "We need to be at peace in our horizontal relationships as well as the vertical, and we cannot break bread together if relationships are fractured." It is not a time to give a friendly "hello" nor at a main service to go all over the church greeting absolutely everyone. It is a time of deepest meaning where we express our desire for others to have the peace of Christ in their hearts and to be at peace with the rest of the church. If there is someone you just can not share the peace with (whether by a handshake or a friendly nod), then you need to ask whether you can take communion until you can offer reconciliation. Your offer may not be accepted, but if you have offered it in good faith and not kept unforgivness in your own heart, then you are free to proceed to communion with God.
The offering of our financial resources for God's work is the final part of our response to hearing His Word. Here comes a further test and demonstration of our trust in God as we give back to him a portion of what he has entrusted to us. The Scripture sentence tells us why we should respond in this way.
We are now ready to move into the great prayer of thanksgiving and consecration. At its simplest, we are saying grace before a meal. Just as in a regular family at a principal meal, one of the pastoral leaders speaks on behalf of the assembled body of believers, giving thanks to God for his greatest gift, his own Son, and his death for our sins.
We begin, as did formal Jewish meals, with an introductory dialogue, the salutation, and are exhorted to "lift up our hearts." This is a great and joyous occasion; we are coming into the nearer presence of King of Kings. We do not approach God with sullen, downcast faces but look up to him in joyful expectation. The prayer proper begins with "It is very meet, right, and our joy and bounden duty..." which is why we begin kneeling at that point. Many churches now stand out of respect for the whole of the prayer, but the traditional Anglican practice has been to kneel out of humility. The Celebrant continues with what is called the "preface" and then sometimes with a special or "proper" preface - an extra reason to give thanks according to the season of the church year we are in. In this first part of the prayer, we are brought face to face with the majesty of the God whom we worship and His being throughout eternity. All we can do is respond with the Angels and Archangels around the throne of God and sing the chorus sung by the seraphim seen by Isaiah in his great vision of God in the temple (Isaiah 6) - "Holy, Holy, Holy," the Sanctus. We also sing what the crowd sang as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord..." The God adored in the heavenlies is the same God who entered our world in Jesus Christ, and it is for this that we now give thanks.
So in the second section of the Thanksgiving, we focus on the heart of God's gift of himself in Jesus in his death for us upon the cross. This is indeed the significance of the bread and the wine - his body broken and his blood shed in death. He is the true Lamb of God prefigured by the Passover Lamb we read about in Exodus, who has delivered us, not from physical slavery in Egypt, but from spiritual bondage to sin and death. We affirm that Jesus, in his death, has paid for our sins completely. There is no need to fear God's wrath. In Jesus he has taken it upon himself. There is nothing we can add to the sacrifice - it happened once and for all, full, perfect and sufficient.
In this prayer, as we hear the words, "This is my body, this is my blood" I invite you to look up, because as we see the bread broken, we receive a fresh appreciation of the cost of our forgiveness, a fresh assurance of the fact of our forgiveness, and a fresh anticipation of the return of our forgiver. Paul tells us that "whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). In looking back in remembrance, we look forward in anticipation. Our elements of bread and wine are mere morsels, "iron rations," to tide us over until the great banquet in Heaven ahead. At this point, the whole congregation breaks in with another acclamation of affirming praise, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."
In the final section of the Thanksgiving, we open ourselves up to what he wants to do in us today through the work of the Holy Spirit. In return for God's great gift to us we offer to him what we can - our praise and thanksgiving. We then pray to be made whole through the forgiveness and healing power of the cross and to be filled with the Holy Spirit which is the only way we can live for Christ. Our response to all this is a loud, joyful, and thankful, "Amen."
As we approach the greatest moment of the service, the receiving of the bread and wine, we return to the family prayer Jesus taught us where we ask for all that is essential in the universe. We pray that our Father might feed us with our daily "spiritual bread" so that we, cleansed and protected, may be able to carry out his will.
The bread is now broken and made ready for distribution but there is one final prayer, the "Prayer of Humble Access" where we remember our own unworthiness and God's love for us in spite of it. Just as Isaiah cried out "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips" after he had seen God's glory, so do we. We are reminded that it is not by our own righteousness or self-effort that we come to be at our Lord's table, but because of his mercy and grace as Paul says in Ephesians, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Then, as we speak of our unworthiness to eat even the crumbs that fall from God's table, we are reminded of the pagan woman of Matthew 15 who came in great humility for healing for her daughter. She was rewarded, not because of her goodness, but for her complete and utter trust in Jesus and his power and love. We then express the greatest desire of our hearts which is to dwell in him and he in us, just as he promised when he said that if we open the door of our hearts he will come in and eat with us and we with him (Revelation 3: 20). Then, as we sing for Jesus to have mercy upon us we echo the prodigal Son returning home in great humility, only to be rewarded with the Father's open arms and a great banquet in his honour.
We have now come to the climax of the service where we take the bread and the wine. It is at this very moment that you come expecting to receive, to be filled afresh with the presence of Jesus and to benefit anew from his death for us. Expect to be renewed, cleansed, strengthened. Expect to be encouraged by Jesus to begin again. Expect to made strong to love and work. As you approach, you could think of a saying such as "Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling" or "I am not worthy to have you come under my roof...But say the word, and your servant will be healed" (cf. Luke 7:6-7). Others find it helpful to look at the cross or at the stained glass window above our altar where Jesus is shown as the Good Shepherd or at the carved roundel on the altar where Jesus is shown making himself known in the breaking of the bread to the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus. Expect to meet Jesus and to be fed by him.
As you receive, hold your hands out flat, one upon to other to receive, remembering that you have nothing to offer but yourself to be filled. You may then eat it our hold it to dip in the cup. If you are not dipping, it is much better, if possible, to take the cup in your own hands and then to return it to the ministrant, especially if you are receiving standing as we will do today. To receive, come down the centre aisle and return by the side aisles.
The closing section of the service is very straightforward. Having concentrated on receiving what God wishes to give us, we now dedicate ourselves to his service. First, though, we note the great theme of assurance. Sometimes we do not "feel" very holy or that we have encountered Jesus in a meaningful way in the Eucharist. The prayer after communion reminds us that we depend upon God's promises for our well-being, not our feelings. We affirm that we have been fed on Jesus himself, that God is for us, not against us, that we are a valued part of his body the church, and that we possess eternal life.
With all this assurance, we are confident to offer ourselves afresh for God's work as we go out into the week ahead. We do not engage in communion just to be elated but so that, strengthened, we may go out to serve in the world.
With this assurance and commission we respond with the great praise song, Gloria in Excelsis, giving thanks to God for who he is and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ having experienced it all afresh in this communion service. We then have all that God has done for us in the service reaffirmed and sealed through the blessing.
The last thing we hear is God's command to go out as his servants to do his will in the world.
1. the Canadian Book of Common Prayer, pg. 550. (back)
2. the Canadian Book of Common Prayer, pg. 550. (back)
3. Geoffrey Howard, Dare to Break Bread: Eucharist in Desert and City. (London: DLT, 1992) pg. 32. (back)
4. Elizabeth Culling, Making the Most of Communion, Grove Spirituality Series #66. (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1998) pg. 6. (back)
Contents of this page prepared by the Revd Brett Cane — © 1999, Brett Cane
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