October 5, 2014 | An Instructed Eucharist

An Instructed Eucharist

 [First instruction, after any opening remarks of the celebrant and just before the service begins:] 

Typically, when Episcopalians gather for public worship on a Sunday, we have a service of Communion, also known as the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.  We do this because this is the way Christians have worshiped since the earliest days of the Church.  When Jesus instituted the first eucharist at the Last Supper, he commanded all of his followers to continue the practice.  It is the clearest, strongest way we know to tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and to maintain our bond with him and with one another. 

Episcopal worship is structured, and it uses The Book of Common Prayer as its source.  The texts and patterns of worship in the prayer book are derived from the earliest surviving texts of ancient Christian worship, updated and expanded as times and circumstances have changed.  The common words of the prayer book express our most deeply held beliefs, keep us connected to the timeless elements of Christian tradition, and allow us to participate as more than just listeners. 

A eucharistic service has two main parts.  The first part is known as the “Service of the Word” or the “Liturgy of the Word.”  The word liturgy means the work of the people.  In the Liturgy of the Word we gather in the Lord’s name, proclaim and respond to the Word of God, and pray for the world and the church.  We do this, not as a group of spectators watching a group of performers, but as the people of God acting together, each with their appointed part to play. 

We begin with the gathering rite.  Now that we are assembled in one place, those people who have designated roles in the service enter in procession while we all sing praise to God.  The procession allows everyone to take their appointed places, while at the same time helping the service begin on a note of dignity and reverence.  When all are ready, the minister in charge of the celebration, known as the celebrant or presider, begins a dialogue of praise with the congregation.  This is known as the Opening Acclamation.  After an optional prayer to prepare us for worship, we commonly sing a second hymn of praise which has been used for centuries in the gathering rite.  It is known by its opening words “Glory to God.”  The gathering rite concludes with a prayer, or collect, that reflects the themes of this particular Sunday.

[Second instruction, between the Collect (Prayer) of the Day and the reading of the first lesson:] 

In this part of the Liturgy of the Word we sit in order to listen to readings from the Bible.  It is our custom to stand, sit, or kneel at different parts of the service.  Most of these postures are optional, but we find them useful in helping to worship with our bodies and not just our minds.  Typically, we follow the biblical Jewish and Christian traditions of standing to praise God and to pray, sitting in order to listen, and kneeling in order to express penitence or devotion.  If you have a physical condition which makes any of these difficult, you are always welcome to adopt a more comfortable position.  You may also notice that some people engage in various acts of personal devotion, such as bowing or making the sign of the cross.  These also are optional, used by some in order to enhance their individual experience of worship. 

We use a fixed pattern of scripture readings, called a lectionary, that allows us to hear most of the Bible within a three-year period.  This makes sure that nothing important is left out, and that preachers don’t overlook some passages in favor of others. 

It has long been a tradition among Christians that lay people read the first lessons.  We all participate in singing or saying the psalm together.  The Psalms are the ancient hymnal of the Jews, and Christians have always continued to use them. 

The final reading at a eucharistic service is always from one of the four gospels.  Christians have long given special importance to the gospels because that is where we hear directly the words and actions of Jesus.  We express this importance by having an ordained minister do this reading, and by standing when we listen to it.  If there is a deacon present, it is always the deacon’s prerogative to do the gospel reading.

 After the sermon, which is always based on at least one of the scripture readings, we conclude our response to God’s Word by standing and saying together the Nicene Creed.  This summary statement of Christian belief was adopted by the undivided church in the fourth century and is one of the oldest texts of Christian worship.

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 [Third instruction, after the Nicene Creed:] 

In the last portion of the Liturgy of the Word, we pray for the church and for the world, and make our final preparation for the Communion part of the service.  Our prayers always include the entire universal Church, the nation, the welfare of the world, the concerns of the local community, those who suffer or are in trouble, and those who have died.  We usually use a pattern of prayer that allows everyone in the congregation to make responses.  When the prayers are concluded, we say together a general confession of our sins and listen as the celebrant pronounces God’s forgiveness.  Then we are prepared to exchange God’s Peace, in which we briefly greet those nearby in the name of the Lord.  The ancient custom of passing the Peace expresses our unity in Christ and our readiness to receive Communion.  It marks the end of the Liturgy of the Word. 

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[Fourth instruction, after the exchange of the Peace and after any announcements, but before the Offertory:] 

We begin the Liturgy of the Table, or Holy Communion, by accepting the people’s offerings of bread, wine, money, and other gifts.  Since there are no words being spoken at this time, it is also a good time for an offering of music, such as an anthem from the choir.  The preparation of the bread and wine on the altar is one of the traditional roles of the deacon, if there is one present.  Either leavened or unleavened bread may be used.  We use actual wine just as Jesus did and as he commanded us to do.  A little water is generally added to reduce the strength of the wine and to symbolize the water that poured out of Jesus’ side after his crucifixion.  We typically use vessels made from precious metals as a way of honoring the importance of communion.  We use linen cloths on the altar or holy table in ways which are very similar to the way in which you might use linen or other special napkins and tablecloths at a fancy dinner party.  In fact, both scripture and Christian tradition often compare communion to a great heavenly banquet or feast of all the saints. 

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[Fifth instruction, after the altar is completely ready and just before the celebrant begins:] 

The word eucharist means to give thanks.  In every communion service Christians tell the story of God’s creation and God’s saving act of redemption by the sending of Jesus.  We focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus which is the heart of the Christian faith.  We listen to his oldest recorded words at the Last Supper with his disciples, in which he commanded us to continue the tradition he was beginning.  You will find the clearest expression of the meaning of communion by listening carefully to the words of the service. 

The one who presides over eucharist is always an ordained person known as a presbyter or priest.  In the earliest centuries of the church, the bishop, or chief pastor, would always preside, but soon the church grew too large for one person to do this.  So the bishop ordains and delegates priests to celebrate the eucharist in each local congregation.  The three-fold order of the ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons goes back to the beginnings of the church; that is why Episcopalians and others retain these orders to this day. 

As the words and action at the altar unfold, they do so according to a four-fold pattern first used by Jesus when he miraculously fed the multitudes with bread and fish, and also used again at the Last Supper.  First he took the bread.  Then he gave thanks over the bread.  He broke the bread, and finally he gave it to the people.  As we involve ourselves in the drama of communion, together we remember what happened in such a vivid way that this memory is brought right back into the present moment. 

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[Sixth instruction, after the celebrant has broken the bread and the fraction anthem has been sung, but before the words of invitation:] 

Through all of our prayers, we believe that God has now transformed the bread and wine so that Christ is truly present in them.  Together they are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – the traditional definition of a sacrament.  Every baptized Christian is encouraged and invited to receive communion by coming forward near the altar.  The ushers will guide you.  You may either stand or kneel.  The celebrant will first bring a wafer of bread to you, placing it on your outstretched hands for you to eat.  Then the deacon or a lay eucharistic minister will bring round the chalice of wine.  It has always been Christian practice to drink communion wine from this common cup, and you may do so by grasping the chalice at the bottom and tipping it slowly.  Though there are no recorded cases of any illness ever being spread through the common cup, we recognize that some may prefer not to drink from it for various reasons.  You are welcome to receive the bread only (and not the wine), or to have the minister dip your bread in the chalice and then place it on your tongue, or to take your piece of bread and dip it yourself into the chalice.  After you have received communion, you may return to your seat. 

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 [Final instruction, after any communion anthem or music is finished, while the last of the altar is being cleared:] 

The deacon (or priest) clears the altar in much the same way as you might clear your own table after dinner, removing the dishes and cloths and eating or storing any leftovers.  In church, we generally consume any leftover bread and wine immediately.  Occasionally some is reverently put aside to carry to those who have not been able to attend the service. 

The celebrant then leads everyone in saying a post-communion prayer, followed by a hymn and a closing procession.  The final act of our common worship is the dismissal, which formally closes the worship with a call for us to go as Christ’s servants out into the world.  It reminds us that the purpose of worship is not simply to encourage and build ourselves up, but for all of us to be empowered and sent forth as ministers of Christ.

Copyright © 1997 & 2009, David Bateman.