Rev. Heather Blais
Again this week we are having an Instructed Eucharist, which simply means we will be pausing at a few different times in the service to talk about why we do what we do. Our tradition is rich with symbolism and meaning, and my hope is that this will enhance our worship experience. Let’s start with the beginning of the service.
Our service usually begins with a hymn, and when we are in the main sanctuary with a Processional. The processional gets the altar party to their designated places. The procession is formal, featuring a verger, crucifer, torchbearers, and the Gospel book held high. They process while the congregation sings a hymn. The processional stems from when Christianity was first legalized under Constantine in the fourth century. At that time, services became more formalized, which increased participation in the liturgy, and worship began to take place in larger buildings.
The Opening Acclamation is a greeting which marks the beginning of the liturgy, and serves as a reminder that the purpose of this gathering is to worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
You may have noticed, that in the season of Lent we begin our worship with a Penitential Order, moving the Confession and Absolution to the beginning of the service. In Lent we are preparing ourselves for the Passion, Jesus’ suffering and death, and so the opening acclamation fits the theme of beginning worship by acknowledging our need for God’s grace and forgiveness and by confessing our sins and hearing God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ, pronounced by the priest.
When we are not in Lent, the opening acclamation is followed by the Collect for Purity – “Unto you all hearts are open and no secrets are hid…” It asks for God’s grace as part of our preparation for worship, and has been part of our liturgy since 1549.
We then move immediately into a hymn of praise to the Trinity. For most of the year we use the Gloria in Excelsis, which means, “Glory to God in the highest”, and begins with the song the angels sang to shepherds in Luke’s nativity story. Its use in worship dates from the fourth century. During Lent (and often in Advent as well,) we substitute another hymn such as the Kyrie, “Lord, have mercy”.
The central aspect in the first half of the service is the Liturgy of the Word, where we hear scripture lessons, listen to a reflection on God’s word, and respond with prayer.
Ordinarily there are four Lessons. They are assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary, which helps us get through most of the Bible in a three-year cycle, known as Years A, B, and C. Most mainline Churches use the lectionary. The first and third lesson are read by a reader from the congregation at a lectern. Lecterns are often in the shape of an eagle, to remind the congregation of John the Evangelist, who proclaimed Christ as ‘the Word of God’ at the beginning of his Gospel. The hope being the Word of God will reach the ends of the earth, when read from the eagle lectern.
The first lesson is usually from the Hebrew Scriptures, sometimes referred to as the Old Testament. These were the Scriptures that Jesus knew.
The second lesson is a Psalm from the Psalter, (which are really hymns intended to be sung, which is why we sometimes chant the psalm.) The Psalms are attributed to King David, but in reality they come from many different authors, during many different periods of Israel’s history.
The third lesson is from the New Testament, which consists of twenty-seven early Christian writings that the early Church agreed should be considered Holy Scripture. We typically hear a passage from one of the early church letters, many of which came from the Apostle Paul, Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, or The Revelation of John.
The fourth lesson is an excerpt from one of the four New Testament gospels and it is the climax of the liturgy of the word. The word gospel means “good news”, and the writings tell the good news of God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. By tradition, the Gospel is read from the center of the congregation, so the word of God will be proclaimed with the people, not at them. Worshippers customarily stand and face the Gospel book to signify our heightened attention to this most important reading. If you have ever been to Jewish worship, you may have observed how closely our Gospel procession resembles the Jewish tradition of bearing the Torah scroll into the midst of the congregation.
After the readings we hear the Sermon. The point of a sermon is to “break open” the Word of God. The preacher will give thoughtful prayer and consideration to the lessons, in particular the gospel, any theme that might be present, the liturgical occasion, the congregation gathered, and the pastoral needs of the situation. Sermons have been a part of worship since the early church.
Following the sermon is the Creed, which is a basic statement about our belief in God. We have used the Nicene Creed in its current form since the 4th century, when it was developed by early Church leaders to help articulate and ensure consistency within the Christian movement.
We then express our concerns to God in the Prayers of the People. There are many different versions approved by the Church for use. The prayers usually cover six categories: the church, the world, the nation, the community, the suffering, and the dead. General intercessions in worship are an ancient practice of the early church.
The Prayers are usually followed by the Confession and Absolution, moved, during Lent, to the opening of the service.
This part of the service concludes with the exchange of the Peace, an ancient Christian practice where we share a sign of reconciliation, love, and renewed relationships in the Christian community by greeting one another “with a Holy Kiss” as it says in scripture—or just a handshake and a smile. As Christians, we believe making peace with one another is necessary before receiving the Holy Eucharist.
The second half of the worship, known as the liturgy of the table, opens with the Offertory, in which we offer ourselves as well as our material gifts to God. After an invitation from the celebrant, representatives of the congregation carry forward the bread, wine, and water used in the Communion. We also offer our monetary gifts that will be used to glorify God through our mission and ministry, and, often, food that will be used to help those in need. During the offertory, the deacon or a priest prepare the table with the elements to be used in communion
The service then continues to the heart and center of liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving or Eucharistic Prayer. Our Prayer Book includes five different Eucharistic prayers, and many others are authorized for our use, some of which we use once a month at our 10AM service. While each of the prayers has a particular emphasis or style, they all share the same purpose to give thanks to God for the creation, redemption, and sanctification of the world.
Immediately following the Great Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer is the Lord’s Prayer and Fraction. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer Jesus offered to the disciples, and we use it in every service. The Fraction is the moment when the bread is broken: it serves as both a reminder of when Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper, and, metaphorically, of his sacrifice of his life for the redemption of the world.
Next is the Invitation, “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” Traditionally, and officially, this is the moment when all baptized members are invited to come forward and receive the bread and cup. Saints James and Andrew is part of a movement within the Episcopal Church that believes that radical hospitality matters more than whether one is a baptized member. The belief being that if all are welcomed at God’s table, and experience being spiritually fed by Christ, they will in turn want to commit their lives to Christ in baptism. Here at James and Andrew, all are welcome to partake in Holy Communion. When you consume the bread given at communion, you have received communion in full. Those who may not want to receive communion are invited to come forward for a blessing from the priest.
After the altar party finishes communion and the Table is cleared, we share in the Post Communion Prayer. This is a prayer of thanksgiving that dates back to the fourth century and seeks God’s help for a life in Christ. After experiencing the mystery of the sacrament, the community is transitioning to going forth to participate in mission and ministry to the world.
Next is the Blessing, said by a priest or bishop, pronouncing God’s love and favor upon the community. There are literally thousands of blessings!
The very last part of the service is the Dismissal. The Latin phrase that describes this portion of the service translates to, “Go, it is the sending.” At this point, the worship service has ended, but our service as ministers of Christ is just beginning. We are to go into the world in the name of Christ.
Rev. Molly Scherm
This week and next, Heather and I decided to do something we’ve talked about several times – offering an Instructed Eucharist: we will pause several times during the service to share information about the origins and meanings of what we do in our worship. Next week Heather will offer a sequential explanation of the service, and this morning I’ll offer information about some of the things that we most frequently get asked about.
The Holy Eucharist (also called the Mass, the Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper,) has been the central act of Christian worship since New Testament times. In it we give thanks — the Greek word eucharistia, means thanksgiving — as we celebrate God’s saving acts in our world, particularly God’s revelation of God’s self in the life of Jesus, the Christ.
One of the things people notice about worship in the Episcopal tradition is the frequency with which we move around and utilize physical gestures. The late Robin Williams included in his list of the top ten reasons to be an Episcopalian “Pew Aerobics” – our tendency to stand up, sit down, and kneel at various times. As a general rule, we stand to praise God or focus particular attention, we sit to listen and/or reflect, and we kneel to express humility and penitence.
Many people also use personal gestures of devotion such as bowing, crossing themselves, raising their hands, or genuflecting – briefly touching one knee to the ground. These gestures are ways of praying with our bodies. They have a variety of symbolic meanings to those who practice them, and if you ask two people what a particular gesture signifies, you may hear two different explanations; what is important is that they are all ways of making worship more meaningful for the worshipper by acknowledging that in this place we are remembering and coming close to the Sacred.
There’s no “right” way to use our bodies in worship and using or not using particular gestures doesn’t indicate anything more than individual preference.
Another practice in our worship is our use of vestments. The white robe worn by clergy and, in our services in the main sanctuary, other members of the altar party, is a cassock-alb. Believe it or not, the word “alb” comes from a latin word meaning “white thing”: the alb is derived from the basic tunics worn during the years of the early church, and have been preserved.
Over the alb, ordained clergy wear a stole – priests wear it around the neck, and deacons over one shoulder. A similar garment, a scarf or “tippet” is not a Eucharistic vestment – clergy may wear a black tippet for non-sacramental prayer services, and lay preachers wear a blue “preaching scarf”.
The celebrant – the priest who presides at the Eucharist – may also wear a Chasuble – the poncho-like garment worn on top of the alb and stole. Again, the chasuble is derived from the clothing of the early church – it evolved from the common outer traveling garment worn the late Roman Empire.
Back to Robin Williams – he noted that Episcopal worship is color-coded: our vestments (and altar hangings) change according to the liturgical season. Purple in Lent and blue in Advent reflect those more somber and reflective seasons. White is the color of celebration and rejoicing: we use it at Easter, for feast days, and for funerals. Red is for the Holy Spirit: we wear it at Pentecost and at ordinations. Green is for “ordinary time”.
The Eucharistic has two parts – the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, or of the Table.
The Liturgy of the Word – everything that happens before the offertory - is based on the Jewish service of listening to the words of scripture, hearing reflection on the meaning of the lessons, and offering praise and intercessions to God in prayer.
An element of the service that many visitors, seekers, and even faithful Christians find challenging, and which we are asked about rather frequently, is the Creed that we say together following the sermon. It’s a truly ancient statement of belief that comes from a particular moment in the life of the evolving church.
In the fourth century the Christian Movement had grown exponentially and there was significant variation in the religious ideas being taught in different regions and among different congregations: in effect, my gospel could be your heresy, and vise-versa. There was deep and growing division over what constituted authentic Christian belief and practice. The Bishops of the Church “took counsel together” in a series of meetings aimed identifying and agreeing to what elements of the faith would constitute authorized Christianity. In addition to finalizing which texts would be included in the canonical New Testament, at the Council of Nicea in 325 the bishops agreed to a statement of Christian beliefs that we repeat in our Eucharist today.
It is no wonder that this 4th century statement poses a challenge or an obstacle to many in the 21st century. Former Bishop John Spong has said that when he recites the Creed, he always finds objections, but when he sings it, he believes it with his whole heart. What is remarkable about the Creed is its historic and geographic universality: when we say (or sing) it, we are affirming our shared experience with Christians across centuries and across the world who are awed by, grateful for, and who find deep meaning in the Mysteries of God’s loving presence in human history in the persons of the Trinity and through the reality of the Church. For me, it is more important to experience and affirm this connection to the faith experience of generations than it is to focus on the literal assertions that the Creed’s language make.
After the offertory, the service continues with the Liturgy of the Table, the Eucharist. Before the priest begins the Eucharistic prayer, one of the servers will pour a little water over the priest’s hands. In the early church, offerings included farm produce and animals, so it was important , in a practical sense, to wash the priest’s hands after handling the offerings. The gesture also reminds us that we should all come to God’s altar with clean hands and pure hearts. It has long been the custom for the head of the Jewish household to wash his or her hands in a similar way before the prayers at the Passover meal. Jesus probably did this at the Last Supper.
The words and actions during the Eucharist follow a four-fold pattern first used by Jesus when he fed the multitudes with bread and fish, and then 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.
During the eucharistic prayer, the bread and wine are consecrated--meaning they are made hly. Over the centuries, particularly during the Protestant Reformation, there has been a lot of debate about what happens at the moment of consecration. While there are some Episcopalians that feel the Eucharist is the literal body and blood of Christ, and others who think it is simply a memorial meal, the vast majority believe in the idea of real presence. This is the idea that Christ’s body and blood become really present and are really given and received in the elements of bread and wine. We are united in communion with Christ through receiving the bread and/or wine. We do not know how Christ is present in the bread and wine, rather, we know that it is a mystery, and that somehow God is present in the bread and wine, and when we receive that bread and wine, we are spiritually fed.
Over the years there have also been differing points of view about when consecration of the elements takes place. It has been thought that the bread and wine become Body and Blood during the words of institution, the remembering of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Others argued that consecration takes place when the Holy Spirit is asked to enter into and transform the bread and wine. Probably the most helpful idea is that the entire eucharistic prayer followed by the Great Amen are together the moment of consecration. It is important to remember that, although a priest or bishop alone presides, the prayer is offered on behalf of the entire congregation, and it is the assent of the whole congregation that makes the elements sacred.
At the conclusion of the Great Thanksgiving, the people of God finish the Prayer together. We say the Great Amen—that final “So say we all,” “and so it is” as the priest holds up the bread and wine. This AMEN, printed in all capital letters in The Book of Common Prayer, is where we all make this prayer our own. It is not some magic in the priest’s hands that make the bread and wine holy; it is our coming together with a resounding AMEN that makes our bread and wine, and us too, something more than before.
After everyone has received Communion, the vessels are cleansed, and any remaining consecrated Bread and Wine are either consumed or put aside as reserve sacrament. Unused wine that has been consecrated is poured into the ground outside or, in churches like ours that have such a thing, poured into a special basin in the sacristy called a “piscina,” which allows the consecrated wine to go directly to the ground.
Some of the consecrated Bread and Wine is reserved for the sick and homebound, or for emergencies. It is kept in the Aumbry, and its presence there is signified by the burning Sanctuary Lamp.
We conclude our worship with prayer of thanksgiving, and we prepare to transition to our lives as ministers of the Gospel in the world. The final word of dismissal by the Deacon, and our affirmation of “Thanks be to God, Alleluia”, remind us that the purpose of worship is not simply to encourage and renew ourselves, but for all of us to be empowered and sent forth as the Body of Christ in the world.