With this, I have finally concluded drafting my chapter on the Eucharist. I don’t know that it’s achieved its final form, though. I think I may juggle some pieces. I know some of you suggested moving around some parts of Part 1—I need to revisit that now that I have a more definite shape of where I’m going and what falls where.
God willing, this is the last installment of the Prayer Book Spirituality Project and it’ll shortly be packed up and sent off to the sharp knives of the editors.
Be warned: this is rather long. However, I’d rather make this section long than break up the inherent flow of this part of the service.
So—without further ado…
The Holy Communion
|[hymn, psalm, or anthem]||[hymn, psalm, or anthem]||Optional||Weekly|
|The Great Thanksgiving||The Great Thanksgiving||Yes||By prayer|
|The Lord’s Prayer||The Lord’s Prayer||Yes||None|
|The Breaking of the Bread/Fraction Anthem||The Breaking of the Bread/Fraction Anthem||Yes||As desired; by season|
|Prayer of Humble Access||Optional|
|[hymn, psalm, or anthem]||[hymn, psalm, or anthem]||Optional||Weekly|
|Post-Communion Prayer||Post-Communion Prayer||Yes||By occasion|
|Blessing||Blessing||Optional||As desired; by season|
Let me give you an initial perspective to frame our discussion as we move into the Holy Communion. Gregory Dix, an Anglican Benedictine monk, in his monumental work Shape of the Liturgy gives us a key entre into the spiritual heart of the Eucharist as a result of his study of countless Eucharistic prayers of the Eastern and Western Churches. No matter what else they might do or have, they all had these four fundamental actions in common: take, bless, break, give. On a basic structural level, it’s easy to line these up with the elements in the chart above. In the Offertory, the congregation brings offerings to the altar including the bread and wine. Then, the Eucharistic prayer itself is the blessing of these elements. The bread is broken at the Breaking of the Bread/Fraction Anthem, and then both elements—bread and wine—are given to the people at the Distribution.
The real genius and spiritual meat of Dix’s observation, though, only comes with reflection. It’s easy enough to match up his four actions with parts of the service. But to stop and to leave it at that is to miss the deeper opportunities for reflection and growth to which Dix can take us. You see, no one action exhausts any particular element of the Eucharist. If we stop at the structural level, we fail to notice that these four actions tend to be operative in each individual part of the Eucharistic act. There’s a continual flow of these actions around and through the various parties enacting the Eucharist: When the priest “gives” the consecrated bread, we—the congregants—are “taking” (receiving), and in our receiving is Christ’s own “blessing.” To just call this Distribution/”Give” is to limit ourselves to a clerical perspective. The priest is “giving,” but what are we doing, what is Christ doing, where is the Spirit moving?
Likewise, within the Eucharistic prayer when we together with the priest are “blessing,” we are also in the act of “giving”—our very souls and bodies! And in so doing, Christ is “taking” while the Spirit is also “blessing.” Now, I could try and step through each element for you and show you how they line up, but that’s not how this works. As you engage in the Eucharistic meal, the Eucharistic practice, you will see for yourself different aspects come to the fore as you are ready to see them and as you need to see them. What is required is a sense of the four fundamental actions in order to be attentive to them.
The Offertory is the point when the gathered community offers its material possessions for the good of itself and the world around itself. Despite what you might think based on the church’s preoccupations, the Scriptures—the New Testament in particular—has far more to say about possessions and what we do with them than it does about sex! Proper stewardship and the sharing of resources has been a hallmark of the Christian teaching from the beginning (the book of Acts in particular makes this quite evident). This element gives us an opportunity to literally put our money where our mouth is. In this act, the congregation’s gifts are received and are then brought forward to the altar to be dedicated to God.
The Offertory Sentences all explore the ideas of offering and sacrifice primarily through a lens of stewardship. What we have is what we have been given whether directly or indirectly by God in creation. Some priests may raise the elements and say a prayer over them at this point—this isn’t a pre-blessing but rather a prayer of thanks to God for giving us bread, wine, and sustenance that we then are privileged to offer back. It is a recognition of the inherent circularity in the act of giving a part of the creation as a gift to the Creator.
The Great Thanksgiving
We now come to the pinnacle of the second part of the service, the great Eucharistic prayer. One of the most common ways of breaking it down is dividing it into its constituent parts. That is, there are subsections within the various Eucharistic prayers that have certain roles that can help us understand what we’re hearing and doing. This is a very common way to break things down. This is what your priests learned about in seminary, and a lot of writings on the Eucharist spend a lot of time on these and on their historical development. As a result, when priests teach the Eucharist, this part often gets emphasized—maybe even over emphasized—because this is how they were taught. It’s easy to trace these parts and to see literary dependence between different kinds of Eucharistic prayers.
But—fundamentally—the Eucharist isn’t about literary dependencies.
It’s not about the history of the development of the text of the prayer, either.
The Eucharist is a whole-body multi-sensory experience where we remind ourselves who God is for us, we praise in awe and wonder, and—ultimately—we taste and see that the Lord is good. We receive Christ into ourselves so that we (all of us, together, the whole company of faithful people) may be received more deeply into him.
And that’s why we look at the parts of the prayer—so that we can more clearly perceive within ourselves the fruits of his redemption.
The chief parts of the prayer itself (sometimes called the anaphora or canon) are these:
- The Opening Dialog
- The Thanksgiving (Preface)
- The Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) [stuck in the midst of the Thanksgiving]
- The Words and Deeds of Jesus (Institution Narrative)
- The Remembrance (Anamnesis)
- The Offering (Oblation)
- The Invocation of the Spirit (Epiclesis)
- The Final Blessing (Doxology)
The Opening Dialogue
The Opening Dialogue is a brief interchange between the priest and the congregation. It is a ritual exchange where we acknowledge what we are about to do and make public profession of our unity in what follows. This dialogue begins with the standard exchange that is the normal liturgical greeting and response: “The Lord be with you”/”And also with you [And with thy spirit.]”
The call to “lift up your hearts” only appears in the Eucharist. There are a few different ways to understand this call. One is to see this phrase as a metaphor inviting us to be joyful. By lifting up our hearts, we are metaphorically lifting them from sadness and putting them into a more acceptable place proper for rejoicing. Another, favored by John Calvin among others, takes it in a spirito-spatial sense. He understood this to be a reference to lifting our hearts “upwards” into heaven and into the presence of the enthroned Christ.
The final exchange establishes an agreement about what we’re all about to do together: to “give thanks” is, in Greek, the verb eucharistein from which our word “Eucharist” comes. The response, whether it’s the Cranmerian “It is meet [fitting] and right so to do” or the modern paraphrase of the priest’s statement, “It is right to give him thanks and praise” is a word of agreement. In essence, the priest says, “Let’s eucharist now!” and our response is “Yes, let’s!” From the point on, the priest continues, but we are all committed to the words the priest says and are united in the priest’s prayer. The priest is praying on our behalf, and in consonance with our own silent prayers. We are not observers simply because we are not talking; we are full participants—or at least certainly should be! This is part of the agreement we’re making. So, another way to consider it is that, in the final exchange, we as the people of God are extending our permission for the priest to give thanks to God in midst of all of us on behalf of all of us.
The Eucharist is an experience, but it’s not a strictly subjective one; we can’t make it into whatever we think it ought to be. Instead, the priest begins with an act of thanks that also reminds both God and us of the extent of our relationship up to this point. We are reminded of the intrinsic character of the God whom we are thanking.
Since we have just finished giving the priest permission to start thanking, the prayer logically proceeds in that vein. In most of our prayers, there is a Proper Preface that gets inserted at this point. Most seasons have their own Preface; on Sundays during green seasons there are three—Of God the Father, Of God the Son, and Of God the Holy Spirit—that may be used. Some occasions get their own prefaces—Baptisms, marriages, ordinations, a few classes of saints, the dead. Too, on regular weekdays the prayer is written so the preface can simply be dropped out. The proper prefaces thank God from a particular perspective and emphasize some special aspect of our relationship with God. The seasonal prefaces naturally emphasize something that pertains to the season, usually using images, biblical allusions, or referring to biblical events prominent in the season’s readings.
However the preface goes—or even if it’s left out altogether—it always concludes the same way. Our thanks turns to praise and we join our voices with the whole heavenly chorus.
A joke was making the rounds a while ago when I was in seminary in the South that went something like this:
A Southern Baptist minister and an Episcopal priest ran into each other at the Post Office one Monday morning. The Baptist turned to the Episcopalian and said, “We had such a great day yesterday! We had over 300 people show up. A famous foreign missionary came and gave us the message. And that was just our Seeker Service!”
“Wow—congratulations,” his Episcopal colleague responded.
“So—how’d you do?” the minister prompted.
“Let me think…” said the priest. “We had the Maxwells, the Murphys and their kids, and Bill & Joe. Old Miss Wordward was there and so was her driver. And we had nine ranks of angels, 144,000 sealed out of the tribes of Israel, and then a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, tribe, people and language. Our Lord Jesus Christ came and gave us himself. And that was just our 8 AM Low Mass!”
In addition to poking gentle fun at denominational rivalries, I’ve always remembered this joke because it expresses something deeply true about our understanding of worship—especially sacramental worship.
The Gloria is the first angelic song of our service. The Sanctus is the second. Coming as it does right after the invitation to “lift up our hearts” it reinforces the notion that the Eucharist is occurring in a different spiritual space than our normal lives. We are now existing in a geography peopled by saints, angels, and the hosts of the blessed dead. Or—better yet—it reinforces that there is something richer and deeper going on all around us of which we are usually unaware…
The word Santus is Latin for “holy” and the text of this song comes from Isaiah’s great vision of God in the Temple recorded in Isaiah 6. In his vision, this was the song of the seraphim as they flew about the person of God: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa 6:3). Significantly, St. John the Divine records a similar song from the four living creatures about the throne of God: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8). This second part of the song from Revelation conceptually leads into the second half of the Sanctus: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” A few things are potentially going on here.
First, it allows the liturgy to return the song heard in Isaiah and to amplify it with the song heard in Revelation. I hear the addition making an incarnational turn in that the coming of God in flesh (and sacrament) names for us specific ways in which God’s glory fills the creation.
Second, this addition is a direct quotation from Mark 11:9 and Matthew 21:9 that refers to Jesus. If Jesus hasn’t already been brought in to the picture by the Proper Preface, now he has. In our great act of communally blessing and thanking God as part of the greater chorus, our praise makes reference—if only indirectly, to the person of Jesus and, as it were, reminds the priest to say more about him. Sure enough, the prayer will usually take a more Christological turn after this point. We are blessing him who will shortly come and bless us in his sacramental presence.
Third, in the gospel contexts, these words are from the lips of the crowd at the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This provided an ideal point of connection for the patristic and medieval interpreters who allegorized the Eucharist according to the life of Christ; at this point Jesus enters the holy city to be sacrificed.
And the Thanks Keep Coming…
Some liturgical scholars will speak of the “Post-Sanctus.” This is the part that we’re looking at now. The name makes sense because this is the part that literally comes after the Sanctus. However, I don’t like it because it causes confusion about what’s actually going on. Don’t get me wrong, the name works, and is useful, but it’s most useful when you’re looking at a list of literary elements.
Here’s the problem that I have with it: it creates the sense that we’re doing something different now than what we were before—and that’s not the case. The priest is still engaging in the same basic act of thanks that the prayer started with. Furthermore, when we start breaking things up into elements it looks like we have three separate things here: A Thanksgiving – the Sanctus – The Post-Sanctus. When we see these three as a conceptual unity (which they are), then we better understand that the Sanctus too is an inherent part of our complete act of thanksgiving!
As prompted by the congregational reminder in the second part of the Sanctus, the object of the thanks focuses on what God has done for us specifically in and through the person of Jesus. God’s work of Creation often appears here, but the real move is to the person of Christ.
The Words and Deeds of Jesus
At this point we shift from Jesus in general to a vignette of Jesus in particular. The previous section invoked the broader work of redemption, often centering on the cross. Here we focus on the pivotal moment at dinner the night before.
Say what you like about history and continuity, we know that this part goes back to the very beginning of what Christians do together. Of all of the writings that we have, the letters of Paul are the ones that are the earliest. While dating the writings of the New Testament is a fairly tricky business, we know that Paul was writing in and around the year 51. Indeed, as best as we can tell, his letters were committed to paper ten to twenty years before the gospels themselves were being circulated. As a result, the earliest still-surviving written testimony we have to Jesus Christ, who he was, what he did on this earth, is preserved for us in 1 Corinthians—and it’s this moment:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor 11:23-26)
This moment is central for who we are and for who we are together.
It’s easy for us to become numb to certain words and actions, and these are no exception. We become used to hearing them and lose sense of how radical they are. If I had to focus on a single word to try and rekindle the wonder that lives within it, it would be “covenant.” In Classical Hebrew, you don’t “make” a covenant. Instead, the proper turn of phrase is to “cut a covenant.” Genesis 15 shows Abraham cutting a covenant with God and it really does involve cutting animals in half as part of the ritual action! Covenant-cutting is part of what God does. God commits reconciliation with his creation by means of covenants, solemn promises between the divine and the human. Now—here—at dinner—Jesus commits to a new covenant cut in his blood, by means of his blood. The symbolic action will become literal in a few short hours. And yet the great movement to which all of this is driving is not fundamentally about blood and death but about consummating a reconciliation.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:33-34)
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:2-4)
As Christians, we stand as people, witnesses, of this new covenant. In these words we hear it proclaimed week over week. And yet our struggle is to hear it again and again, to take its call to heart again and again, to step into the world that it offers us at our fingertips, closer to us even than our hands and our feet.
Having heard again the words of Christ, we are struck by the repetition of remembrance. After the bread, after the wine, he enjoins his disciples gathered with him—and that, too, is us—to do this, the act of blessing, breaking, sharing, in memory of him. Accordingly, in our prayer of thanksgiving having just heard this reminder we echo in return an act of remembrance. But what exactly are we remembering? Well—nothing exact if our prayers are anything to go by! That is, we’re not just remembering a poignant moment before he died; we’re not just remembering his death. Rather, our memory encompasses in a flash the whole sweep of our Great Three Days and includes not just his death, not just is descent among the dead and his redemptive work there, but also his resurrection, as well as his ascension, as well as his promise to come again, as well as the totality of who and what he was, is, and will be for us.
Here we speak in prayer what we effected in action at the start of this particular movement. In a choreographed moment (the offertory) that we initially labelled as a “take,” the prayer reveals it to be a “give,” but—oddly—in the act of giving, we shall receive, and it will be a blessing…
In the offering, the priest prays the elements back to God. And, in doing so, lays bare what we’re really offering here: ourselves. At the end of the day, this isn’t about bread and wine. It’s about the greater transformation into the fullness of God. It’s about us being transformed. But not just us, either. It’s about the whole created order being transformed back towards the image and ideal in and through which it was created in the first place. It’s that reconciliation business yet again.
The Invocation of the Spirit
The invocation of the Holy Spirit should remind us of what we’ve found ourselves in the midst of. Remember, in a very real sense, we have been invited into the interior dialogue of the Holy Trinity. As members of the Body of Christ and incorporate within him, we are participants in his own self-offering to the Father through the Spirit. Sometimes—and here especially—I think that our invocation of the Spirit isn’t truly an invoking in the proper sense. To invoke is to call; we’re not actually calling the Spirit; the Spirit’s here—it’s been here! Rather, we’re being proper in acknowledging one in whose presence we stand. And again, because it’s proper, not because we control it or direct it, we request the Spirit to do what it does in sanctifying the gifts and also us.
The Final Blessing
Finally we conclude the prayer with a final note of thanks. Acknowledging what we are doing, we attempt to wrap words around the Triune confluence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within which we have been privileged to participate. We have some fun with prepositions as we struggle to adequate describe our perception of the glory of Christ towards the Father—by him, with him, in him…. And of course the Spirit of whom we have just spoken is unifying and binding the act into a worthy garland of praise.
The prayer comes to an end with a great “Amen.” This “Amen” is our collective assent to what the priest has just prayed. Just as the prayer begins with an act of agreement that it is by all, for all, though through the mouth of one, so the “Amen” confirms the unity of our collective prayer. If you notice—these “Amens” are the only ones in the prayer book printed in all caps. They remind us visually of their importance and the emphasis that they deserve.
On that “Ping” Moment
Ok—now that we’ve just finished up our run-through of the Eucharistic prayer, we have to pause for just a moment. We’ve got to talk about the “ping.”
This is something liturgists love to fight about.
When do the elements, the bread and wine, really become “Jesus”? Where’s the moment at which the sacramental presence becomes present in a way that it wasn’t before? A favorite professor of mine liked to call this the “ping” moment… So—where do we look?
There are three good options: 1) The words of institution when the priest recalls Jesus’ own words over the bread and wine, 2) the invocation of the Spirit, and 3) the final Amen. Naturally, different groups have lobbied for different options.
The Western Church, in particular, has typically tended to go with 1. The whole reason that the Host is elevated in the Roman Catholic Mass at the words of institution is so that the congregation can adore Christ who is then present in a way he wasn’t before. When Martin Luther reformed the Mass, he basically took out everything except the words of institution and for generations this was the only part of the classic prayer that Lutherans used. For Luther, it was all about the promise of Christ to be present when the Word of the Gospel is joined with the elements, that’s when the magic happens.
The Eastern Church tends to go with 2. The invocation of the Spirit is what accomplishes the change, they’ll tell you. The priest doesn’t “make” anything, God does; therefore, it’s the action of the Spirit that effects the fundamental transition into the fullness of the Eucharistic presence.
A classic Anglican position likes 3. If we didn’t need the whole prayer, why would we have the whole prayer? Besides, consecration is a function of celebration; this isn’t a mechanical action. As a result, the whole prayer should be seen as a collective and coherent act of consecrating the elements.
Thankfully, although faced with an array of three possible options, all with good reasons to back them up, I can give you the single correct answer—it fundamentally and truly…doesn’t matter.
Well, let me clarify: it doesn’t matter when it happens; it matters that it happens.
Honestly—we don’t know and it’s not worth fighting over. What’s much more important is that we locate a movement of the greater presence of Christ in our midst at some point within this action. If it helps you to see it at a particular point—by all means, go with that! If it doesn’t matter to you, leave it at that. For me, I’ll always be a number 1 kind of guy. A good friend of mine who was raised Pentecostal will always be a number 2. And that’s fine. Neither of us can prove our point and for the sake of our own devotion and the sake of growing more deeply into the mystery of Christ we don’t need to. The “when” is not as important as the connection itself.
The Lord’s Prayer
As a fitting conclusion to our great prayer of the service, we then pray together the Lord’s Prayer. A standard element in most Christian services, we shouldn’t at all be surprised to find it in the Eucharist. The question, though, is why here? Why now? In one sense we’re continuing the theme of Christ’s conversation with the Father. We, as the Body of Christ are praying his own prayer. But I think there’s something more particular going on with its placement. When we pray this prayer at this moment in the service—after the prayer but before the distribution—it changes the way we hear the line at its center: “Give us this day our daily bread.” An obvious association is made between the petition for bread and the Eucharist, the bread from heaven.
The question is, how long afterward this meaning will linger? Does receiving the prayer at this point and experiencing this particular interpretation of what the text means alter it for us after that and become our instinctive understanding of the line? It’s hard to say. Perhaps its better to say it this way: this placement certainly recommends a meaning. While not closing off other interpretations of the line, it certainly does invite us to see it being fulfilled within the Eucharist.
The Breaking of the Bread/Fraction Anthem
Now we come to the worst-kept moment of silence in the Episcopal Church…
After the heading “The Breaking of the Bread”, the prayer book gives two short sentences as directions: “The celebrant breaks the consecrated Bread. A period of silence is kept.” After 15 years of attendance at Episcopal Eucharists, I can’t recall more than a few where the time between the breaking of the bread and the start of the Fraction anthem could justifiably be referred to as “a period.” Most of the time there is no pause at all—one runs right in to the other. And that’s a shame. This is a good point for reflection.
At this point we have the Fraction Anthem which are the words said or sung around the breaking of the bread. It’s quite common to have a double anthem here. The priest’s “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” and our response “Therefore for let us keep the feast” is an anthem; however, it’s common to immediately thereafter have either a choral or a congregational “Lamb of God”—also a fraction anthem. From a technical perspective, this is redundant. On the other hand, two different things are being expressed and both can use the expression! Indeed, the Rite I service includes both texts—the Christ our Passover and the Lamb of God—even though the Rite II text only contains the Christ our Passover.
The Christ our Passover anthem holds together the notion of the sacrificial meal. That is, it underscores the notion of sacrifice—as controversial as that still remains in protestant circles—but precedes immediately to the meal. The fact of the sacrificial death does not end the sacrificial act; hearking back to the Homeric, the meal has got to follow!
The Lamb of God anthem, on the other hand, contains the sacrifice concept but rather than the meal makes the turn towards the expiation of sin. It’s a more introspective response but one that deserves to be heard in relation to the other.
The prayer book doesn’t contain any other fractions although it gives permission for others; the hymnal, on the other hand, has quite a few more. In addition to the two already mentioned, it also has:
- The disciples knew the Lord Jesus (S167)
- My flesh is food indeed (S168-9)
- Whoever eats this bread (S170)
- Be known to us (S171)
- Blessed are those who are called (S172)
All adaptations of New Testament readings, these additions give us more perspectives into the meal which we are about to receive
Prayer of Humble Access
Rite I offers the Prayer of Humble Access as an option; Rite II does not mention it at all. In a very real sense, this prayer has become something between a Rorschach test and a litmus test for those who either champion or decry the liturgical shifts away from the 1928 status quo. For fans of the new approach, the Prayer of Humble Access seems overly penitential. With its bald assertion that “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table” (BCP, p. 337) it seems to dismiss the real consequences of grace, redemption, and reconciliation. Others, conversely, see its absence as a sign of spiritual arrogance and as the Church’s capitulation to a culture of entitlement that believes it deserves anything it wants. The proper question focuses around the “we”—who’s this “we”? Is this the “we” before, after, or apart from God’s grace?
Two things here.
First, I must say, reading the troublesome line in context helps… The sentence right before it—the one with which the prayer opens, actually—is this: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” (ibid.) The first line, therefore, draws a contrast between humanity’s own efforts towards righteousness, and the abundant mercies of God. The next sentence is logically read to mean that by our own efforts and merits we just don’t measure up. As Archbishop Cranmer penned this in the 16th century I’m sure he heard echoing in his ears Martin Luther’s teaching on Original Sin: that it consists of the basic inability to love, fear, and trust God as we should. Therefore, Luther taught, even if we outwardly act in accordance with all of the commandments we will still fail to satisfy them if we are not loving, fearing, and trusting with our whole hearts. That’s the intention here and the ground of our unworthiness apart from the grace of God.
Remember, though, the first sentence ends with the reminder that we don’t have to measure up! We don’t come to the table on our own nor do we have to earn our spot. Rather, we are called by the “manifold and great mercies” of God. The first sentence has a balance to it that starts with our efforts and moves to God. Classically, our next two sentences were one sentence connected together which echoed the structure of the first moving, again, from us (“We are not worthy…”) to God (“Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy”).
Thus, pulling the line out of context is a perfect recipe for misunderstanding it and the theology behind it.
Second, I want to remind us again of Rudolf Otto’s discussion about the human experience of the Holy. An inevitable part of that experience is the impact caused by the recognition of the gulf between Creator and creature. As I read it, this language of unworthiness is part and parcel of trying to wrap human language around the experience of finding oneself in the presence of the Holy. Like all attempts at this kind of language, it falls short. When this linguistic inadequacy is coupled with an atrophied sense of the Holy, than the prayer’s language can feel unnaturally or improperly penitential. Our greatest remedy, then, to overcoming the obstacle here is not to chuck the prayer, but to recognize and embrace its diagnostic function as a guide back to cultivating our own sense of the Holy.
Yes, I do understand that this 16th century wording does trip into the whole late 20th century conversation about the psychological importance of self-worth. I’m all for healthy self-confidence. But—again—as with Confession—it eventually comes back around to the reality of the human condition especially when it is put in perspective with the reality of God. We have sinned. We do sin. We hurt ourselves and the people whom we love. We have not lived up to our covenant promises to God. And yet the God who reveals himself at the table and in the breaking of the bread is revealed to be a God of manifold and great mercies who will not stop calling us back to himself and will not rest until we evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
At this point, the priests and the congregation receive the consecrated elements. There are some various words that can be used, all of which emphasize a special sacramental presence of Christ in the moment. Really—the words aren’t the main thing here. The main thing is receiving the Sacrament.
Thanks to the opening title sequences of the TV show “Iron Chef”, my family is well acquainted with the crowning quotation from French lawyer, politician, epicure, and early theorist of a low-carb diet, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
It’s that moment.
If ever that phrase had a deep, philosophical, existential reference—it’s this point.
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
So—what should you feel when you receive Communion?
My mother sometimes told me as a child that if you didn’t feel anything that means that you hadn’t spiritually prepared yourself properly. Now that I’m a grown-up and have lived with this for quite some years, I don’t think that’s quite right. (Sorry, Mom!)
It’s not a question of “should.” We get into danger when we start placing emotional requirements onto religious experiences. Because when we do that, we start creating expectations. If these expectations somehow aren’t met—or worse, if we are led to question whether they were met enough—then we can spiral into some unhealthy territory while we attempt to sort through what we did wrong to make God not like us to the degree that he didn’t let us feel what we were supposed to feel. Please—don’t go there…
Conversely, holding specific emotional expectations of the experience leads to the creation of tactics to either meet them or to exploit them. We can fall into this trap ourselves, but it gets even worse when worship leaders decide that they need to take matters into their own hands to make sure everybody feels the appropriate feeling. Because then we get into various forms of emotional and spiritual manipulation. And you know that doesn’t end well!
The better question isn’t “what should you feel” but “what do you feel?”
For me, the time after receiving Eucharist is a moment for awareness and for—literally—communion. What am I feeling? What am I thinking? How is God speaking to me in the midst of this very intimate experience? These are very real questions. I’m a thinking-oriented person by nature so I generally have to take some time with that first one since it’s not something I focus on a lot. But this is precisely the time to do that!
The prayer book allows “hymns, psalms, or anthems” during the ministration of Communion, and I’ve heard some people say that this sung element should be the whole congregation’s sung prayer upon receiving and is preferable to an individualistic act of prayer by yourself. Forget that! This is your time of communion with him whom you have taken into yourself. If you’re moved to sing along with a congregational hymn do that—but because you want to and because it’s expressing where you are, not because you have to. If you feel called to stay in prayer, do it.
My practice is usually to “kneel & feel” for a bit, then to pray the prayer appointed “After Receiving Communion”:
O Lord Jesus Christ, who in a wonderful Sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy passion: Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, p. 834)
You’ll note that this prayer isn’t about what we feel… Instead, it asks that God would give us the grace to properly venerate the Sacrament. Venerate here means to hold it in honor, to respect it in all its forms, and to give it the full attentiveness it deserves as a central mystery of our faith. The result of this veneration is so that we might be enabled to perceive the fruits of Christ’s redemptive work within ourselves. Notice here what we’re saying. We’re not asking for grace to be redeemed. Nor are we asking for grace to feel redeemed. Instead, we’re asked for a grace of perception. The prayer acknowledges that whether we feel it or not, whether we perceive its fruits or not, Christ’s redemption is already at work in us! We don’t get a choice here! We’re only asking to be allowed to see the products of the work of inner transformation that Christ is working in us.
Brillat-Savarin’s quote I mentioned above was paraphrased in the 1920’s by nutritionist and salesman Victor Lindlahr into its more common current form: “You are what you eat.” There’s a subtle difference between the original and this form, and I rather think this one works better here.
Between the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation, and the fruits of redemption, it’s shaping up to be quite a meal.
There are two forms of the Post-Communion Prayer in Rite II, one of them being a direct descendent of the prayer used in Rite I. Depending which one you’re praying, they weave together many of the themes that we’ve touched on (and will talk about again in the next chapter). The key here is that each of prayers has two main components. First, it gives thanks for what we have received. We give thanks for the gift of the sacrament and for what that means corporately—that we are part of the household of God. Second, it acknowledges that we have to go out and act like it. God has given us work to do—his own work of reconciliation—and in this meal we are strengthened to go forth and accomplish it. In doing so, we demonstrate with our lives our connection with the household of God, that we are board-mates with Christ. Showing up on Sunday and coming to the table isn’t the point; doing the will of the one who sends us is the point.
The blessing either by the priest or bishop moves this thought along. If our initial acclamation at the beginning of the service was the priest’s liturgical hello, this is the priest’s liturgical goodbye. Properly and appropriately it comes in a Trinitarian formula, and there are seasonal variations available in the Book of Occasional Services and elsewhere.
Not to be out done, the deacon—in places where there is one—also has an official liturgical goodbye and that’s this element. Like the priest’s blessing, like the post-communion prayer, it has two key aspects: we are God’s, and he’s got some work for us to do…
Our response, “Thanks be to God,” then, is our liturgical goodbye. Too, it stands as an act of thanks, an act of praise, and an acknowledgement of the charges that we have been given.