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.
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