We start with the Sign of Peace. This really is the pivotal point of the whole service, the hinge if you like, by which we swing from listening to doing, from Word to Sacrament. We know from ancient documents that something like it too place in the Early Church, but it dropped out of fashion later on, as it was thought to distract people from their focus on God.
And there were reports also of people getting too friendly with some of their fellow-worshippers! If you're 60 or over, you probably remember there not being a Sign of Peace in your childhood as it came back after a long absence with the liturgical changes of the 1960s.
What is exchanged among us is the peace of Christ. It's not my peace or your peace, but Christ's peace which embraces us all. So it's not the same thing as a handshake when you meet someone or say goodbye; it is a joyful celebration of the peace of Christ among us.
It is an important part of the service, but we have to remember not to let it get out of hand and hold up the momentum of the service.
We must take care not to celebrate it in a way that seems excluding to visitors or newcomers. If you've ever been a visitor to another church, you may have experienced that sense of exclusion if the Peace has been too inward-looking.
And so we move on to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The way of understanding this has changed dramatically over the centuries. From medieval times until the first half of the 20th century, it was seen as something so special, that it had to be done at a distance, and surrounded by mystery. True, the reformers of the 16th and 18th centuries tried to bring it back into the domain of the congregation, but in doing so lost the other important dimensions of the service. Now the most widely accepted view of the Eucharist, across most Western denominations at any rate, is to remember that the sacrament is based on a meal.
Therefore it has to have as many of the characteristics of the Last Supper of Jesus as possible, as well as being rather like the meals we ourselves share in today. For a sacrament is God's way of bridging the gap between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between the common and the holy.
Some of life's most significant moments occur at mealtimes; saying sorry, making up, saying thank you, sharing news and concerns, celebrating. How appropriate then, that the central act of Christian worship should be, underneath all the ceremony, a meal.
The reason for being here at all, is because of Jesus' words at the Last Supper, "do this in memory of me".And what we do is directly based on one sentence in the apostles' description of the Last Supper.
"On the night he was betrayed (Maundy Thursday), Jesus took bread, and after he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying "this is my body which is given for you."
So he took, he gave thanks, he broke, he gave.
The section of the service puts that into action, ie we repeat those four actions of Jesus.
The point of the service where that happens is the Offertory. A small procession representing the congregation brings forward the gifts - bread and wine. These represent our gifts to God. They are the fruits of human labour using God's original gifts to us of vine and wheat. They will be given back to us as God's gift of Jesus' body and blood. At the same time, our gifts of money are collected and also offered to God. The deacon (when there is one) lays the table and prepares the bread and wine in their respective containers.
Ideally, of course, there would be only one chalice and one bread, so we are literally all sharing one cup and one loaf; this does happen at smaller services. Because of numbers, we need three chalices, and several breads. Finally the president comes to the altar and, in the name of us all, takes the bread and wine and says an appropriate prayer.
The vehicle for this is the Eucharistic Prayer. The Greek word Eucharist means thanksgiving. The president says most of the words, but with many responses from the congregation to remind us that is is our prayer, together. Some writers on liturgy suggest that more of this could be sung, for instance, the opening responses and the Great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. We have a choice of eight Eucharistic prayers in the modern rite, from different sources and traditions, but all doing the same job.
The prayer has a Preface, which is related to the time of the Church year. Somewhere will be an invocation of the Holy Spirit. At the centre are the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. The part where what we do today is explicitly tied in to the death and resurrection of Jesus ("anamnesis"). And the prayer ends with a doxology, an offering of praise to God.
Often the president will use particular gestures to focus attention on what is going on. These are not necessary for consecration to happen; they are devotional, rather than theological. For instance, we might raise our eyes upwards where it says Jesus "gave thanks", as was his own custom. We will hold out hands over the elements when calling down the power of the Holy Spirit. And we will raise the bread and the chalice at certain points as an act of devotion.
After the Lord's Prayer, we carry out the third of Our Lord's actions at the Last Supper, breaking the bread.
This is more than just the necessary breaking of the brad into bite-sized pieces; it is an act that symbolises the brokenness of Christ's body. The bread Jesus gives us in the Eucharist is his body, broken for us. That's why you get jagged, broken fragments here, rather than those neat, rounded hosts. And, like most Anglican churches, we use unleavened bread, not a domestic baked loaf or roll (although we do use those on certain occasions). This is partly because the Last Supper was a Passover celebration, which used unleavened bread; and partly because it cuts down on the crumbs.
The fourth of the Lord's actions is "He gave it to them".
The clergy and other ministers distribute the bread and wine as the communicants rather around the altar. We are nourished in body and soul by this sacred food and drink. This is the part of the service properly called 'holy communion'. It means we are communing both with our Lord and with each other. By having carried out our Lord's words: take, give thanks, break and give, we believe that the bread and wine have become in a sacramental sense the body and blood of Christ. We receive them and eat them with appropriate reverence.
We say "amen" before we receive, meaning: "so be it", "yes, I believe" "come into my heart, Lord".
Here, we have the custom of the ministers of communion receiving last. This is again keeping the celebration close to a real-life meal. You would not serve yourself before the guests. That's not to say that the president is the host of this feats; Jesus himself is the host, of course. We are, effectively, the waiters, and we receive last.
Finally, just in normal life, the washing up. The Deacon, or President, clears away and with the servers cleans the vessels.
These four-fold actions also represent the life of Christ:
It's a sacred meal, which brings heaven closer.|
It's a thanksgiving; and we all do more of that.
It's about sacrifice, not such a fashionable idea these days.
And it's about life, the abundant life Jesus shares with us as we eat and drink with him.
But the poets can always put it better. Just one verse from among the many in the 'Holy Communion' section of the hymnbook reads:
Hail sacred feast which Jesus makes,|
Rich banquet of his flesh and blood!
There happy he who here partakes
That sacred stream, that heavenly food.
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Call the Rev Michael Kingston on 020 8778 5290