Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:27–28)
We were on a family vacation and visiting a church that was new to us. The liturgy was familiar, and we were blessed by the music and the preaching. At communion time, Angela, Rachel, and I headed for the altar rail to receive the elements, and on the way back I was aware of a middle-aged couple who were looking quite intently at us. They didn’t seem unfriendly, so I nodded and smiled, but they continued to stare.
Afterwards, they approached us and said, “We are visitors here today and we also have a Down Syndrome daughter – a few years younger than yours. We noticed that your daughter took communion this morning, and we were intrigued. Our rector has told us that our daughter cannot ever take communion because she is not able to fully understand it!”
My initial reaction was silent outrage at this unnamed rector because of his ignorance and arrogance. I know that Rachel gets enormous encouragement from being a full participant in worship, and I suspect that she “gets it” better than most do. I smiled and said to the very earnest couple, “I am not sure that he or anyone else really understands it. It is a gift from God!” I encouraged them to have a further conversation with their rector and to give him my name if he wanted to discuss it further.
This is the second half of my letter describing the instructed eucharist that I held on a regular basis at Truro Church – in part to help alleviate some of the confusion about this part of our worship.
When in the service we arrived at the time for intercessory prayer, I spoke to the congregation about the enormous privilege that we have to be able to offer intercessions to Almighty God – not just for ourselves but for all sorts and conditions of humanity. I urged the congregation to fully engage in these prayers – both silently and aloud! I have also been known to point out that a vigorous “AMEN!” is always in order. The prayers usually conclude with a prayer of general confession – we dare not approach the Lord’s Table trusting in our own righteousness. To be forgiven is an astonishing gift and one that we celebrate every week. Once we know that we are at peace with God, then we have the opportunity to share that newfound peace with the rest of the family.
The “Peace” is a very ancient custom and is intended to be a time of reconciliation for the family of God. We may not agree politically, economically, or socially, but at this moment we are all united by the mercy of God. The actual mechanics have varied over the centuries. In the 900-year-old church, St. Leodegarius’s Church, Old Basford, where Angela and I were married more than 57 years ago, there is a PAX stone built into the stone fabric of the south doorway. It seems that around 1250 AD, the custom of using a PAX or a kissing stone was introduced. The stone was passed around for the devoted to kiss, as an alternative to making any physical contact with other congregants. I doubt that this practice was any more hygienic! After the peace, there is usually an opportunity for testimonies and community announcements, and then follows the offertory.
In my earlier Ad Clerum on Liturgy, I wrote about the rather exuberant way in which the offertory is conducted in other parts of the Anglican Communion, but the financial aspect is just part of our offertory. The musical offering, usually given by the choir or other musicians, is not intended to be a concert but a symbolic presentation to God of our creative skills and talents. It is an act of worship that represents all of our creative capabilities, used and mastered to the greater glory of God. The other part of the offering is the bread and wine, and afterwards we usually sing a version of the doxology, reminding us that our offering is made to God alone.
Next comes the Great Thanksgiving. Let’s step back and see what is coming. The Holy Eucharist has a very simple structure. There are four great actions paralleling the words of Christ at the Last Supper:
- Offering of bread and wine (the taking)
- Giving thanks and blessing these elements (the blessing)
- Breaking of the bread (the breaking)
- Sharing of the bread and wine with the rest of the family (the giving)
You will notice that it begins with a dialogue that is sung or said between the celebrant and the congregation. This dialogue, called the Sursum Corda, echoes the Jewish form of blessing. “Lift up your hearts” was a command to stand, the normal posture for prayers of thanksgiving. This is followed by the preface – a short prayer that prepares the way for the high point of our praise – the Sanctus – a hymn of timeless adoration to the holiness and glory of God.
The Sanctus is the song of the Seraphim in Isaiah’s account of his vision of the Lord (Isaiah 6:3) and is followed by the central portion of the Blessing called the Prayer of Consecration. This prayer recalls for us God’s creation, man’s fall, and the coming of Christ to reconcile us to God. Next, we say the words that Jesus used in instituting Holy Communion. Finally, we pray for the Holy Spirit to sanctify the gifts of bread and wine so that they may be the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace given to us in the Body and Blood of Christ. We conclude this section of the liturgy with the Lord’s Prayer, which reminds us that because of what God has done, we can now, with assurance, call Him “Our Father.”
After the distribution, we have the most dangerous prayer in the entire liturgy! In a few brief words we will sum up all that has happened during our time of worship, and then we will ask to be sent out to do the work that God has given us to do. This work will get us in trouble, because it includes loving the unlovable, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, working for justice and peace, and reflecting the life and light of Christ into a world that is filled with darkness.
And that’s it! This instructed service proved to be so helpful that we repeated it a number of times. I do hope that you will consider doing one yourself.
Your brother in Christ,