Anatomy of the Eucharist: Part 1

Ok—here begins the drive-by of the Eucharistic rites in the Book of Common Prayer…

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The Shape of the Eucharist

Despite the variety of options available, any prayer book Eucharist still has a fundamental shape and character that defines it. Every Eucharist has two complementary halves, each of which celebrates the mystery of the presence of Christ. First, there is a celebration of Christ as the living Word of God who has been breathed by the Father and communicated through the Spirit. Second, there is the celebration of Christ as Incarnate Savior who offers himself in love to the Father through the Spirit. The highlight of the first half is the manifestation of Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel; the highlight of the second half is the manifestation of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharistic meal. These two highlights should be seen as parallel with one another.

It’s easy for Episcopalians (and others) to see the Eucharistic meal as the Main Event of the morning and to regard everything else as prelude to it. To do this, though, is to misunderstand the fullness of the revelation that we are receiving. We say that we are a people of the book and in a sense that’s true. However, Jesus is not a book—he’s a person. Like all people we are able to learn him by encountering in a variety of ways. Scripture gives us one angle of access into who Jesus is. But it’s incomplete if we don’t flesh that knowledge out with the Christ whom we meet in the sacraments. By the same token, we are in danger of misunderstanding the Living Jesus of our sacramental experience if our grasp of his identity and character is not deeply grounded in the words of Scripture. The two major parts of the service both show us Christ—but it helps quite a lot if we’re actively looking!

The Services

The Eucharistic liturgies are collected together towards the middle of the prayer book.

  • [Traditional Language Preliminary Material]
      • An Exhortation
      • The Decalogue: Traditional
    • A Penitential Order: Rite One
  •  [The Traditional Language Service]
      • Concerning the Celebration
    • The Holy Eucharist: Rite One
      • The Word of God
      • The Holy Communion
        • Eucharistic Prayer I
        • Alternative Form of the Great Thanksgiving
          • Eucharistic Prayer II
      • Offertory Sentences
      • Proper Prefaces
  • [Contemporary Language Preliminary Material]
      • The Decalogue: Contemporary
    • A Penitential Order: Rite Two
  • [The Contemporary Language Service]
      • Concerning the Celebration
    • The Holy Eucharist: Rite Two
      • Word of God
      • The Holy Communion
        • Eucharistic Prayer A
        • Alternative Forms of the Great Thanksgiving
          • Eucharistic Prayer B
          • Eucharistic Prayer C
          • Eucharistic Prayer D
      • Offertory Sentences
      • Proper Prefaces
      • Prayers of the People
        • Forms I-VI
      • The Collect at the Prayers
  • Communion under Special Circumstances
  • An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist
    • The People and Priest
    • At the Great Thanksgiving
      • Form 1
      • Form 2
  • Additional Directions

First, there are—broadly speaking—four different ways of doing the Eucharist within this section. The first two (Rites One and Two) are the normal means provided for Sundays and Holy Days. The third is reserved for those persons who cannot attend regular services, usually due to hospitalization, sickness or some other infirmity. The fourth is for explicitly irregular situations; the prayer book notes that it is not intended to serve as a principal service for a worshiping community.

Second, note that the organization of the Rite One and Two Eucharists are not strictly linear—especially the Rite Two version. The Rite Two Eucharist provides an outline of the service giving much of the material but, afterward, adds on five supplemental sections that may be used to fill in the service. To say it the other way, if you try to read through the Rite Two service starting on page 355, you’ll find yourself needing to flip to several other sections to read along with the whole thing. So, what texts exactly are we missing here? Here’s a chart of the Rite Two service:

Reading through the Service

Jumping to Another Place

Entrance rite (pp. 355-6)  
Collect of the Day (p. 357) Collects: Contemporary (pp. 211-61)
Lessons (pp. 357-8) The [Eucharistic] Lectionary (pp. 888-931)
Sermon (p. 358)  
The Nicene Creed (pp. 358-9)  
The Prayers of the People The Prayers of the People (pp. 383-93);

The Collect at the Prayers (pp. 394-5)

Confession of Sin (pp. 359-60)  
The Peace (p. 360)  
The Holy Communion Offertory Sentences (pp. 376-7)
The Great Thanksgiving: Eucharistic Prayer A (pp. 361-5) Alternate Forms: Eucharistic Prayer B (pp. 367-9); Eucharistic Prayer C (pp. 369-72); Eucharistic Prayer D (pp. 372-6)
The Great Thanksgiving [start] Proper Prefaces (pp. 377-82)
The Breaking of the Bread (pp. 364-5)  
[Post-Communion Prayer and Dismissal] (pp.364-6)  

 

On the surface, this way of arranging things looks crazy! Why do this? The collects and the Eucharistic lessons had always been a separate section; the real change here is the addition of all the material from the Creed on. We’ll look at the “why” of it in a second, I just need to observe an important point first before we go there.

Just because the service or the prayer makes a jump doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to follow it!

This may seem odd, but it’s not that odd once you spend some time with the material that we’re jumping to. The Offertory Sentence is just that—it’s a sentence. And it’s not something we say anything to respond to, either; the priest says it, and our liturgical response is to dig out our wallet. We don’t need to read it to get a sense of what’s going on. Same with the collect at the end of the prayers—the priest picks one and we say “Amen.” The priest definitely needs to know where to find the Proper Preface—and we should read them over and be familiar with them—but it’s a sentence fragment! By the time you’ve found it, it’s probably done and you’ve spent more time trying to locate it than you have actually listening to what it’s saying.

You should be seeing a theme here by this point… One of the great strengths of the Book of Common Prayer from its first beginnings is that it has all of the words: everything the priest says, everything the people say. There are no secret parts. Yes, some priests might have some devotional prayers that they say to themselves that may only be heard by God and the altar party, but the whole content of the “common prayer” is printed out in black and white. As lay people we have access to all of these as is our right as members of the Body of Christ. We should read them and learn them and know them—but we don’t always have to read along with them in the book at the time of the service; we can just listen to some of them! Priests tend to have one technological advantage over laity when it comes to these things: ribbons. It’s a lot easier to flip back and forth between these various parts if they’re all marked out before-hand with properly set ribbons attached to the spine of the book. Pew editions rarely have them; altar books always do.

The jumps that we need to be able to follow are the ones 1) where there’s more than a sentence or two of content and 2) where we need to provide responses. There are two of these: the Prayers of the People and the Eucharistic Prayers. (I’ve bolded them in the chart above.) If you hang around the Church long enough, you’ll probably memorize the forms that get used the most—and I’d encourage that whole-heartedly—but until that happens, these are the two jumps that make sense. It might not even hurt to check your bulletin when you first receive it and to mark where you’ll need to jump to before the service begins so that you’re prepared at the appropriate time. Who knows—you might even want to get yourself a couple of ribbons…

Ok—now that we’ve spoken about the logistics of these jumps, let’s take about the whys and wherefores.

First, one of the guiding principles of the revision that gave us our current prayer book is that diversity of form does not hinder unity in prayer. That is, we can pray using different forms and different words for the same service and still be accomplishing the same thing and expressing the same theology liturgically. Whereas in the past, a single service was given—actually, in the original English situation imposed by means of the State with the full weight of law behind it—this revision multiplied options and enshrined diversity as a theological principle. Hence, Rite Two gives us six different written forms for the Prayers of the People and four different Eucharistic prayers.

Second, different prayers use different parts. Specifically, the Proper Preface changes according to the season or occasion in most of the Eucharistic prayers, but not in Prayer C or Prayer D. They have their own fixed Proper Prefaces that are not meant to be swapped out.

Third, while Rite Ones and Two are basically comparable in the Daily Office, the differences are larger in the Eucharist. As with the Daily Office, Rite One retains a higher degree of continuity with the classical Anglican rites. To generalize, Rite One prayers tend to have a higher degree of penitential language—a greater acknowledgement of human sin and our need for grace—and also tend to draw closer connections between the Eucharist and the Passion of Christ than Rite Two prayers. Conversely, Rite Two prayers tend to emphasize the celebratory aspect of the Eucharist, and to speak more broadly of the redemptive work of Jesus—they don’t just focus on the Passion but include a greater sense of his other words and works as well.

Fourth, the six different Eucharistic prayers should be seen as more or less complementary to one another. There are not great theological differences between them. Rather they should be seen as differing in emphasis. We’ll talk a bit about what these emphases are when we turn to the various prayers. On the whole, though, they should be seen as being in continuity with one another.

Introductory Material

Rite One

Rite Two

Required?

Variation

[Exhortation →]   Optional None
Decalogue: Traditional Decalogue: Contemporary Optional None
A Penitential Order: Rite One A Penitential Order: Rite Two Optional None

 

All of the Introductory material is technically optional. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t perfectly good reasons and times to use it.

The Exhortation is placed at the head of the Eucharistic material and, in a sense, serves an introduction to all of it. While it is structurally placed alongside the Rite One material, it’s not actually Rite One in language. The introductory material doesn’t give a very good sense of where it would be used, but a note within the services themselves clarifies that it is used in place of the invitation to Confession.

The Exhortation exhorts the congregation to several different things, primarily the reception of the Eucharist, and is well worth hearing or reviewing several times a year. After offering a brief reminder of the nature and purpose of the Eucharist, we are reminded of the dignity of the Sacrament and of the need for spiritual preparation for its reception. This is something we need to hear more rather than less; one of the great concerns expressed in the move towards weekly Communion was the concern that the Sacrament would become less precious if it were experienced more often. The Exhortation is a useful reminder of the need to view the Eucharist within the whole context of our lives and faith—and to remind us that the pattern of our lives ought to be worthy of the Sacrament’s grace.

The Decalogue is another term for the Ten Commandments. The Rite One Eucharist recommends either the Ten Commandments or the Summary of the Law at its start. This is a particularly Anglican feature—the Decalogue isn’t used this way in the Historic Western Liturgy. The original reason for its inclusion was to make sure that it got used liturgically. From the earliest days of the Church, a minimum standard of knowledge about the Faith was reckoned as the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Even throughout the medieval period when the services were in Latin, Church councils reminded clergy that they were required to teach these three things to the congregation in their mother tongue. Now, of these, the first two appear at both Morning and Evening Prayer. If you’re following the prayer book’s rule of life, you’ll be saying these quite a lot—but the Decalogue has no equivalent liturgical rehearsal. As a result, it was introduced (likely following other Reformation liturgies) in the 1552 revision as a means of making sure that congregations heard it and learned it from regular use. Its use in the American prayer books has become more optional over the successive revisions, and yet it still deserves a place within our liturgical memory.

The Penitential Orders are a means for transferring the Confession of Sin and related material from the middle of the service and placing it at the start. If anything, the title of this section makes this material sound more penitential than it is in actual fact; indeed, if you take a good hard look at these, you’ll note that we’re not really adding much additional penitential material! The opening dialogue is the same as the regular Eucharistic opening; the text of the confession is the same as what ordinarily follows the Prayers of the People. The only true addition is the option to include the Decalogue and/or the Summary of the Law or another scriptural sentence. So while this element may sound penitential, it’s simply a means of reordering what’s already in the service and adding in one or more Scriptural pieces. The key thing here is that this is the only rubrically-approved method for including the Decalogue within the Rite Two service.

4 Replies to “Anatomy of the Eucharist: Part 1”

  1. Such a concise and inspired commentary! One of the problems presented by the 1979 BCP is the multiplication of options—not that there is anything wrong with many options, but too many folk came away with the idea that they should be continually rotating among all the options—thereby never presenting a Eucharistic community with a “dependable” and “predictable” pattern. The Prayers of the People is a good example—if only one form is used constantly, no reference to the book is necessary. (And the same thing goes with many of the Canticle options in the Office.) I think sometimes we are optioned to our own confusion. Ideally, a Christian assembly ought to be able to get through the Eucharist without reading anything from a book.

  2. Oh, it’s not concise—this is part one of several! And yes, I am planning a short section on options after I get through the rest of it.Just because they’re there doesn’t mean you have to use them in constant rotation.

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