This is the second part of the Eucharist chapter that started here.
The Word of God
|[hymn, psalm, or anthem]||[hymn, psalm, or anthem]||Optional||Weekly|
|Opening Greeting/Response||Opening Greeting/Response||Optional||Seasonal|
|Collect for Purity||Collect for Purity||Rite I: Yes, Rite II: No|
|[Ten Commandments]/Summary of the Law||Optional|
|Kyrie/Trisagion/Glory be to God on High||Glory to God in the Highest/Kyrie/Trisagion||At least one||Seasonal|
|Collect of the Day||Collect of the Day||Yes||Weekly|
|The Lessons||The Lessons||At least one||Weekly|
|[psalm, hymn, or anthem]||[psalm, hymn, or anthem]||Optional|
|The Gospel||The Gospel||Yes||Weekly|
|The Sermon||The Sermon||Yes|
|The Nicene Creed||The Nicene Creed||On Sundays and Major Feasts|
|The Prayers of the People||[The Prayers of the People]||Yes|
|Confession of Sin||Confession of Sin||May be omitted occasionally|
|The Peace||The Peace|
This section entitled “The Word of God” is the first half of the Holy Eucharist. It’s sometimes called the “ante-communion” where the Latin “ante” designations the portion “before” the communion. I’m not a fan of this term because it implies that these elements are merely the warm-up and are not integral elements of the Communion as a whole. But they are!
As we established before, this first half of the service offers us a direct encounter with the person of Jesus Christ who is the true Word of God. The highlight of this half is the exposition of the Gospel. By using the word “exposition,” I’m hedging my bets a little… This term can refer either to the sermon and its interpretation of the Word of God for a given congregation or, more narrowly, can refer to the act of reading the Gospel lesson aloud in a language understood by the people. Indeed—sometimes it’s necessary to go with the more narrow definition. Even when the preacher delivers a dud, the Gospel is still heard in its proclamation—in spite of the preacher’s potentially counterproductive attempts!
As the Gospel is the high point, the other elements are structured around it in order to help us hear it and respond to it most fully. The collect should help to set the scene liturgically as would various seasonal additions or deletions. The readings before the Gospel help give us a better context for its message within the scope of God’s prior relationship with humanity and in the Early Church’s own understanding of Jesus. After the Gospel we recite the Creed and once again remind ourselves of the Church’s guide for the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Lastly, the intercessory prayers come out of our sense of the world’s need and the divine capacity to meet that need.
An introductory hymn usually opens the service and gives a liturgical space for an entrance procession. It’s not required, but is quite common. Of course—as is the case with all hymns and anthems appointed—it does help if the hymn is somehow connected to the readings or the season, but this isn’t always possible or feasible.
The prayer book offers three opening greetings at the start of the Eucharist, an ordinary use opening, then special options for Easter and for Lent/penitential occasions. It’s well to remember, though, that it hides another away an additional bit for specific circumstances: when Baptisms occur, the opening is increased with an expanded dialogue (on page 299). This opening is the liturgical equivalent of saying “hello.” As a result, there’s no additional need for the clergy to begin with a literal “hello” or an introductory greeting of some other sort.
The Collect for Purity is a gem of Anglican devotion. An open admission to the God who knows our faults and shortcomings better than we do ourselves, we ask for the cleansing presence of the Holy Spirit that we might love and worship God rightly. It is rightly one of our most beloved prayers. Originally a private prayer of the priest as part of his preparation for Mass in the Sarum missals, Cranmer made an excellent choice in sharing it with the whole congregation. If you only memorize one collect in your life, this would be the one to pick! Rite One requires its use; Rite Two leaves it optional.
Following the Collect for Purity is the space provided in Rite One for either the Decalogue or Jesus’ Summary of the Law. Rite Two does not technically offer this same option unless the Penitential Order is being used.
The first principal element of the service is the song that appears at this point: the Kyrie, the Trisagion, or the Gloria in Excelsis. These are all hymns of praise sung or said corporately. Particularly when the Gloria is sung—but even when an alternative is used—this moment can be seen as the point where the gathered congregation purposely joins its voice to the great unceasing universal chorus of praise to God and to the Lamb. In this hymn, we stand alongside the angels who proclaimed “Gloria” at the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem and the saints and martyrs whose prayers have been received before the throne of God. Some of the great choral settings of the Gloria directly evoke the experience of standing in the midst of celestial choirs and contribute to the solemnity of this moment.
The Kyrie is a simple cry to God for mercy that acknowledges our dependence upon divine grace. In its simplest form it is the repetition of three brief sentences: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord have mercy.” We have the option of using either English or Greek (Kyrie, eleison). This is a thoroughly biblical phrase. Suppliants ask for Jesus’ help in the Gospels with these words, and the psalmists and prophets alike cry for help with them in the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was the Church’s first Bible.
The Kyrie can be used as written, a simple alternation between priest and people, or it can be more elaborate: the Additional Directions allow its “threefold, sixfold, or ninefold form” (p. 406). The basic alternation written in the prayer book is the threefold form; in the sixfold, the priest or cantor sings and line and the congregation repeats it; in the ninefold, each line is said three times either in alternation or together before moving on to the next line. While this may sound complicated, it’s not—the hymnal gives examples of the sixfold version in S85, S88, S94 and S95; the other settings represent the ninefold form.
The Trisagion means “three-times holy” because this Eastern acclamation names God as holy in three different ways. Like the Kyrie, it can be used alone or repeated three times. Unlike the Kyrie, when it is repeated, the whole unit is repeated three times rather than each line. Again, the hymnal contains settings for both: S102 gives it once; the other settings (S99-S101) use the threefold repetition.
The Gloria we already touched on when it appeared as a canticle in the Daily Office. Beginning with the words of the angels from Luke, it flows into the words of the Church and serves as the preeminent vehicle for joining us musically with the full heavenly host. Permission is given to substitute another “song of praise” for it, but this should be used sparingly if at all. The best options here would either be a hymn paraphrase (like 421, “All glory be to God on high”) or a canticle like the Te Deum or the Benedictus es.
The rubric with the Gloria indicates that it should be used “when appointed” but it doesn’t give any clues as to where that might be found… It’s tucked away in the Additional Directions on page 406. As usual, the directions are fairly permissive and leave a lot open to local interpretation or practice. Here are the directions in tabular form alongside the historic use:
|Advent||Omitted during this season||Omitted during this season|
|Christmas||Every day in this season||Every day in this season|
|Epiphany||“as desired”||Sundays/feast days only|
|Lent||Omitted during this season||Omitted during this season|
|Holy Week||Omitted during this season||Omitted during this season|
|Easter||All Sundays, every day of Easter Week; other weekdays “as desired”||Every day in this season|
|Post-Pentecost||“as desired”||Sundays/feast days only|
Simply put, the Gloria is for our big celebrations. Thus, we use it throughout our festal seasons, we omit it during our more solemn seasons, and we use it for feast days in the seasons in between.
When the Gloria is omitted, either of the other two songs will take its place in Rite Two. Rite One gives the option of using the Kyrie consistently (or the Trisagion) and adding the Gloria when appropriate, following traditional Anglican use.
At this point, the Collect of the Day is prayed. As discussed in the Collect chapter, this is one of the great unifying moments that connects this particular Eucharist to the larger superstructure of Episcopal devotion. Sometimes the collect may have a strong enough emphasis to establish a theme for the day’s liturgy. However, between the reshuffling of collects in this prayer book and the introduction of the Revised Common Lectionary, themes in the collects rarely align neatly with the Scriptural texts anymore.
Following the Collect comes the Lessons. There is quite a lot of variety and potential possibilities at this point. At the most basic, at least one non-Gospel lesson is needed, there may be a psalm or music, and a Gospel lesson is read. Earlier prayer books had only one non-Gospel reading, almost always from a New Testament Epistle, and some Rite One services will use one Epistle reading in continuity with this practice. However, ever since the introduction of this prayer book with its Eucharistic Lectionary and especially since the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, most Eucharists will include an Old Testament reading, a selection from a psalm, a New Testament reading and a Gospel reading. Some parishes may choose to include a hymn between the New Testament reading and the Gospel, but an Alleluia verse is also common, frequently serving as music for a procession if the Gospel-book is read from the midst of the congregation.
Just as we spent some time talking about the pattern of the Daily Office readings, it’s worth spending some time talking about the pattern of the Eucharistic readings and about the thought process behind them as well.
In the Daily Office, we encounter biblical texts in the form of “pericopes” (pronounced “per-I-ko-pees”) or short sections. Nevertheless, the basic unit of encounter is on the level of a book. That is, the Daily Office moves through entire books piece by piece—or at least hits the major representative points of the book—in sequential order. In the Eucharist, the basic level of encounter has classically been the pericope rather than the book. In the superseded One Year lectionary of the historic Western liturgy more-or-less shared by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and some Lutherans, the Gospel and Epistle readings were selected based on how appropriate they were to a given liturgical occasion, the Gospels being selecting without regard from all four gospels. The orienting pattern was the liturgical year, not the narrative sequence of the book.
Consider a moment what this means… A Eucharistic liturgy that picks small sections out of Scripture on the basis of appropriateness is not a tool suited for basic education in the scope of the Scriptures; its primary purpose is not teaching the breadth of Scripture. This is compounded by the fact that there were only two readings—an Epistle and a Gospel. There was a serious lack of the Old Testament in the Eucharist under the former way of doing things! Frequently there was a thematic correspondence within the two readings. The Epistle would serve in some way to illuminate something within the Gospel.
The reason for this difference in structure comes down to purpose. The purpose of the Daily Office lectionary that engages at the level of the book is catechetical—it serves to teach the breadth of Scripture and to give worshippers a familiarity with Scripture on a basic level. The purpose of the Eucharistic lectionary is mystagogical—it serves to delve deeply into one particular aspect of the mystery of Christ, usually one singled out or at least suggested by the liturgical year. The two lectionaries were originally designed to work in intentional combination with one another. The Daily Office taught the broad scope of Scripture, while the Eucharist focused on particular moments of encounter with Christ assuming a prior familiarity with Scripture gained from the Office.
The reformers of the liturgy in the mid-Twentieth century chose to overhaul the Eucharistic lectionary in a fairly substantial way. Instead of a one year cycle that repeated year after year, they moved to a three year cycle. Instead of the Gospel readings being pulled from all four gospels, they focused each year of the cycle upon a single primary gospel—either Matthew, Mark, or Luke—and reading them in sequence whenever possible, interweaving John across the three for festivals. Instead of a single non-gospel reading, two were selected, one (usually) from the Old Testament, the other from the New Testament epistles. In order to convey the scope, the Old Testament readings in the Season after Pentecost moved sequentially through a particular type of Old Testament book, a type that complimented the character of the year’s selected gospel. Anglicans and Roman Catholics eschewed an entirely sequential approach to the Old Testament, though, and another set of readings provides Old Testament lessons related to the Gospel pericope. Hence, we now speak of “two tracks” for the Season after Pentecost: a sequential set of Old Testament readings and a complementary set keyed to the Gospel.
Consider what’s going on here—it’s an attempt to do both, to be catechetical and to be mystagogical, at the same time. Whether it’s actually possible to achieve both at the same time is an open question! If we criticize the two-year Daily Office lectionary for missing quite a lot of Scripture, it’s mathematically obvious that a three-year Eucharistic lectionary is going to miss a whole lot more. Too, the attempt to structure the Gospel pericopes sequentially for the main part of the year obscures the liturgical principles for selecting them in other parts of it.
On the other hand, this form of three-year lectionary does recognize the reality that most people in our congregations are not praying through the Scriptures in the Daily Office. It does give the average person in the pew a broader familiarity with the Old Testament, and hits some of the classic Bible stories that are disappearing from the vernacular of Western culture.
The Revised Common Lectionary is anchored around the Gospel reading. The three year cycle appoints a primary gospel for each year: Year A uses Matthew, Year B uses Mark, and Year C uses Luke. The Gospel of John appears on significant feasts and fills out a section of the summer of Year B to compensate for the shortness of Mark’s Gospel. The First Reading is usually an Old Testament lesson. Matthew, often considered the most Jewish of the gospels and the one that partakes of a rabbinic spirit is paired with readings from the Old Testament Law—Genesis and Exodus. Mark is paired with readings from the Historical books of Samuel and Kings. Luke, with its emphasis on social justice, is paired with the prophets, particularly Jeremiah. The chief exception to the “First Lesson is Old Testament” rule is Easter time; we hear from the book of Acts in this season and the events that happened to the Early Church after the time of the Ascension of Christ. The Second Lesson is always from a New Testament non-gospel text—usually an epistle, but Acts gets mixed in at points as well.
When the Early Church realized that it needed to formally expand its canon beyond the Old Testament, it addressed the issue by means of this question: what books do we read publicly in worship? This was the guiding criterion by which the dispersed Church communities assessed the books that would be gathered into our New Testament and into our Scriptures. This criterion underscores that, for Christians, our paradigmatic encounter with Scripture is hearing it in the liturgy. Don’t get me wrong—I think we need to read it, and that we have to read it outside of worship in order to truly learn it and gain the most from it. But our most important encounter with it is hearing it proclaimed in the midst of the worshipping community. We hear it most completely for what it is in this context.
The sermon, then, should flow naturally from the presence of the Scriptures within the liturgy. There are as many different approaches to preaching as there are preachers. However, a few basic principles should remain consistent across them. First, the sermon is a part of the liturgy, not a distinct and separate event apart from it. The sermon is located within a liturgical setting. The sermon and liturgy should inform one another or—at the least—not contradict one another! It follows from this that the sermon usually has some direct continuity with its liturgical surrounding. Typically, Episcopal sermons comment on the Scriptures appointed for the day, especially the Gospel. Second, if the sermon is part of the liturgy, than it should be trying to accomplish the same basic thing that the rest of the liturgy is. Whether it emphasizes interpretation of the Scriptures, or teaching, or something else, its underlying aim should be mystagogical. That is, it should seek to open our eyes and hearts to some aspect of the mystery of Christ. It should show us the work and person of Christ—for us, with us, in us, and through us.
In some traditions, the sermon is the service—or at least the greater part of it. That’s not our tradition. The “success” of the service does not stand or fall on the sermon. The sermon is but one element within the whole scope of the liturgy. That’s no excuse for poor preaching, of course, but stands as a recognition that even if the sermon is a flop, the worship of God still goes on!
The next element in this portion of the service is the Nicene Creed. As we’ve said before, the creeds (whether the Nicene or the Apostles) belong in relation to the Scriptural readings and their interpretation because they are guides for the Church’s interpretation. Not only that, at this point—no matter how well or poorly the sermon was preached—we are reminded of the basic framework of our faith: the identity of the Triune God, Christ who took on our nature that all creation might be reconciled with God, and the ongoing work of the Spirit in the Church.
There are always a few who look askance at the presence of the Creed because it was not part of the 4th century Eucharist and was a later introduction to the service, and I know some clergy who omit it even when the prayer book requires it (all Sundays and other feast days), but I think that’s a mistake. When I read through the missionary preaching that swayed Europe and brought it into the Christian fold, one of the fundamental patterns of proclamation was a rehearsal of the Creed. In my corporate job, executives like to talk about the importance of an “elevator pitch”: a succinct summary of a product or a position. This is ours; the Creed is, in essence, a Christian elevator pitch. It’s not designed to persuade—that’s simply not its function—but it conveys the heart of the Christian belief in a quick, easy to memorize framework. In an increasingly secular culture, the Creed stands as a great tool for thinking through how we answer questions about what Christians really believe. Hearing it weekly in the Eucharist establishes in us the fundamental framework of the faith.
The Prayers of the People are a response to the Gospel call that we have heard in the readings, the sermon, and the Creed. Furthermore, they also enact one of the central roles of the gathered community. As Christ both interceded for and directly intervened to address the ills of his people and the world, his gathered Body continues to raise these same concerns and to identify the broken and hurting places of God’s world that cry for attention.
In order to ensure that our span is properly comprehensive, the prayer book establishes six areas of concern that must be addressed:
- The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
- The Nation and all in authority
- The welfare of the world
- The concerns of the local community
- Those who suffer and those in any trouble
- The departed (with commemoration of a saint when appropriate) (BCP, p. 359)
Rite One provides a prayer in continuity with those of past prayer books that covers all of these areas. It feels more communal to me when, following the direction at the bottom of page 328, the leader ends each paragraph with “Lord in your mercy,” allowing for a congregational “Hear our prayer.”
The six forms given between pages 383 and 393 all incorporate these concerns as well and may be used in either rite, adapting the language for Rite One should they be used there. These forms are examples, and they can be freely adapted—if necessary—to reflect the situations of local communities or to more closely connect them to the liturgical situation.
Local adaptations should be done with care. I’ve heard some that were preachy—it seemed the priest was trying to fit extra material that didn’t make it into the sermon into the prayers. Others turn to the gossipy, especially when the “concerns of the local community” are amplified with excessive detail. Still others can come across as consciousness-raising exercises where particular causes seem to dominate. The root problem with all of these is that the worship of God has taken a second place; the prayers have become speech to the gathered community rather than the community’s speech to God.
The invitation to Confession in Rite One serves as a great introduction to the next elements of the service: Confession, Absolution and the Passing of the Peace. The invitation calls for those people to join in who are committing to making three changes in their lives:
- “who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins,”
- “are in love and charity with your neighbors,”
- “intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways” (p. 330)
Under the earlier prayer books, the greater part of the congregation could leave at this point, and only those who desired to receive Communion would remain for the confession and the Eucharist that followed. Thus, this call was formerly extend to a self-selected set of the congregation. In its current location it invites the whole congregation to these three disciplines which are put into practice with what follows.
The Confession of Sin is a response to the Gospel proclamation no less than the Prayers. The classic human response to an experience of the holy is to draw near with wonder. An inherent secondary response is to draw back in recognition of our own limitation and sin—signs of our difference from the holy. The Confession gives voice to this experience. Too often penitence has been structured or explained as the religious process of feeling bad about ourselves. This is not the point of the exercise at all! Instead, the Confession gives voice to a realistic appraisal of who we are in the face of the Holy God. The Confession of Rite Two (which also has a Rite One version) is structured in a very specific way. The confession at its center is an exact reversal of the Summary of the Law. In the Summary, we hear the words of Jesus exhorting us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (BCP, p. 351). In the Confession, we acknowledge that we have not done this; we are acknowledging the reality of our human situation. We then ask not only for forgiveness, but for the grace to do better. But note how we phrase this hope of “doing better”: it’s not an intellectual change—it’s not about knowing—instead it’s about embracing God’s will with joy and then “walking” in his ways. This is a long-term full-body response. It’s not just thinking or doing, it’s the whole body responding in faith in words that recall to us the vision of the faithful laid out in Psalm 15 and Psalm 26.
The Absolution is the Church’s response to our congregational confession. There is a difference in wording between Rites One and Two here that is worth exploring. The Rite Two Absolution is characterized by its certainty. There is nothing conditional here; it is a straight-forward assurance of pardon: “Almighty God have mercy on you . . . forgive you . . . strengthen you . . . keep you . . .” (p. 360). The Rite One Absolution begins differently: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you . . . pardon and deliver you . . . confirm and strengthen you . . . bring you to everlasting life” (p. 332). That relative clause that identifies God names a promise with certain requirements, namely that forgiveness is given to “all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him.” We hear this absolution best when both versions are kept in mind. As we hear the Rite One version, we need to remember the assurance of pardon. As we hear the unconditional pardon of Rite Two, we need to remember our duty to conform to the Confession we have just said and enact the pardon we have received.
The difference between the Rites continues here. Rite One follows the absolution with one or more lines from Scripture, referred to as the Comfortable Words. These New Testament passages emphasize Christ’s victory over sin on behalf of the whole world. They explicitly name the promises alluded to earlier.
The final element in this half of the service is the sharing of the Peace. There is a significance to this action much deeper than just shaking the hands of the people around you; rather, we enact being “in love and charity with [our] neighbors.” If the Confession and Absolution have reconciled us with God—which they have—then we need to share active signs of our own reconciliation with our neighbors. Two gospel passages should be floating through our heads at this point. The first is a direct reflection of what has just occurred. In Matthew’s parable of the forgiven debtor (Matt 18:23-35), a king forgives a servant who owes him ten thousand talents (a ridiculous amount of money, like saying “a billion dollars” today), but the servant turns around and demands from a fellow servant a hundred denarii (a much more reasonable sum, a couple of hundred bucks). The king then throws the first servant back in jail and demands the full amount because he has failed to learn the lesson of mercy. In the same way, our recognition of the forgiveness given to us by God demands a similar action on our part. The classic summary of this concept comes from the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
The second passage that should be running through our heads leads us towards the next major portion of the service. Near the beginning of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23-24). Well—we’re at that point! We’re about to offer our gifts at the altar. Jesus is reminding us that reconciliation with God is not a personal endeavor; it’s social, it’s communal. Our reconciliation with God is incomplete if we aren’t actively advancing reconciliation with those around us.
To be honest, we don’t tend to emphasize this union between the Confession and the Peace very much, and there’s a good reason for that—it’s hard work! As much as I wish the hyperbolic overstatement in Psalm 51 were true (“Against you [God] only I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight” [Ps 51:4, BCP, p. 656]), it’s not. An honest confession of our sin reveals that we have sinned—in what we have done and in what we have left undone—against those around us, and particularly against those to whom we are the closest. The sign of peace, whether it’s an actual kiss, a hug, or the token shaking of a hand, ought to be a sign of our deeper commitment to set things right and to honor, value, and love those closest to us. John’s First Epistle neatly—and uncomfortably—concludes this for us: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21).