Tag Archives: Prayer Book Spirituality Project

Ash Wednesday 2015

I love the way the liturgy functions…

As many readers know, I’ve got two books in the pipeline right now, one on early medieval monastic Gospel interpretation at the final page proof stage, the other on the spirituality of the prayer book in the editing stage. Both of them deal with the liturgy and how it works; I was reminded of elements from both today.

One of the strengths of the interlocking liturgical cycles is the opportunity for “pregnant juxtaposition.” That is, through the regular operation of liturgical mechanics, items and elements are put into relationship with one another. The ones praying have an opportunity to see connenctions between them and, in this process of discovery, to gain new insights into the character of the faith and the identity of the Triune Deity behind it all.

The regular monthly psalm cycle gave us Pss 90, 91, and 92 this morning. As I mentioned in my previous post, Ps 90 is and will continue to be a focal point for my reflections on intentionality and simplification this Lent; its appearance this morning was completely seredipitous. Likewise, Ps 91 is deeply connected with Lent for me. In the medieval cycle, the Minor Propers for Lent I were taken from Ps 91 given its appearance in the Gospel appointed for that feast, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus being tempted by Satan. Medieval monastic interpreters—Aelfric among them—argued that Satan was misinterpreting the psalm in applying it to Jesus. Rather, it applies to those of us struggling towards righteousness. God will allow us to be tempted and tried, but also lends us protection and strength throughout the process. Lines from this psalm will recur throughout the monastic Office for the entirety of Lent, reminding those paticipating in the liturgical cycles of God’s faithfulness in trial and testing.

To close out, I’ll leave with a section I just finished up in the prayer book spirituality manuscript with regard to Ash Wednesday and its liturgy:


The season of Lent engages the affection of penitence. During Lent we consider ourselves from two vantage points. The first concerns the human tendency to sin—individually and corporately. Sin is a reality of human existence. The other unavoidable reality of human existence providing the second vantage point is death. Lent opens with Ash Wednesday’s stark acknowledgement of the reality of death. Lent isn’t about being morbid, or punitive, or tearing ourselves down, or whipping ourselves into a lather of self-condemnation. It is, rather, about that word I’ve used twice now: reality. It’s about taking honest stock of who and what we are in the face of eternity and in the face of God. We are limited; we are fallible. In a short life of uncertainty we make choices that lead us deeper into separation and chaos—cutting ourselves off from those who love us and whom we would love. Lent is a deliberate exercise in owning up.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy has four particular components that serve to focus our attentions at the start of the season. The first is the exhortation to a holy Lent. It sets forth briefly the idea of Lent, noting its dual role as a season for baptismal preparation and also a season for corporate repentance. After the history lesson, it points us to the particular disciplines of the season and identifies elements of a holy Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 265). Thus, we confront the reality of our inner lives, we do those things that help us love God and neighbor, and re-center ourselves on the vision that God has for the world and our place within it.[i]

The second component of the Ash Wednesday service that focuses us is the imposition of the ashes themselves. This is a liturgical moment of great power—and should be allowed to speak for itself without piling up a bunch of words around it. Some of my most poignant and important memories of Lent are memories from this point in this service. I remember my first Ash Wednesday as a parent when I carried my infant daughter to the rail and saw the priest put the ashes on her forehead. The contrast, the paradox, between her youth and the mark of mortality affected me deeply. Some may think this inappropriate—but I recall how many churchyards through which I have wandered, looking at gravestones, and seeing markers for children (and often their mothers) younger than her. The reality of mortality offends our sensibilities—but to deny plays into our fantasies.

Alternatively, I remember one year when I assisted in the chancel, imposing ashes. As I moved around the rail, I found myself at three figures—in the center was an elder of the congregation, his eyes closed, face to the sky, arms outstretched, gripping the hands of his wife on one side, his best friend on the other. For the previous nine months I had been visiting him weekly as he wrestled with an aggressive cancer that had turned terminal. We all knew this Ash Wednesday would be his last. For him, this moment was a solemn embrace of sister Death within the company of the church, the whole Body of Christ gathered around him.

Here, though, lies one of the brutal truths of Ash Wednesday: he was not closer to death than anyone else in the room. All of us are but a breath, a heartbeat, a moment away from death. The difference between him and us was his awareness of his situation. He knew and chose to face the truth of his mortality, a truth about which most of us would prefer to remain blissfully unaware.

From this point in the service we move to the third component, Psalm 51, the greatest of the penitential psalms. In these words, we are given the example of what full disclosure before God looks like. The psalmist is under no illusions about his interior state; there is an honesty here that we may find uncomfortable, but which speaks directly to the presence, reality, and power of sin in our lives. To my mind, the prayer book gives us this psalm at the beginning of the season. We receive it as a model of penitent prayer. We may not feel every bit of what the psalmist says, but it gives us direction and guidance for our own deep self-examination to which we are called. And, as we pray it and gaze within ourselves, we may indeed find ourselves drawing closer to his perspective than we might have first thought!

The fourth component is the Litany of Penitence which also spurs us to self-reflection. Its beginning mirrors Jesus’ Summary of the Law that classically began Anglican Eucharists and that still heads up the Penitential Order that is especially appropriate in this season (the Rite I version is p. 319; Rite II, p. 351). Jesus encapsulates God’s Law in Mark’s gospel in this way:

Jesus said, ‘The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12-19-31 (BCP, p. 351).

By putting this section of Scripture at the beginning of our Eucharists, the architects of the early prayer books were giving this passage a special place in our understanding of what God requires of us and what righteousness looks like: loving God, loving neighbor. This is us as God wants us to be.

The Litany of Penitence starts out with a frank acknowledgement of us as we are in clear and deliberate contrast:

We have not loved you[, God,] with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.

Have mercy on us Lord (BCP, p. 267).

A lot of us are uncomfortable talking about sin, sometimes due to coming from traditions that seem to over-emphasize it, but here the prayer book is laying out clearly its definition of sin. Sin is the failure to love. Where we have failed to love—in thought, word, and deed—we have departed from God’s intention for us and for his whole creation. The rest of the litany goes on to identify and help us recognize concrete ways that we have done this. Having set out the main thesis up front, we are offered further examples of failures to love in which we may find ourselves. Again, the purpose here is not self-flagellation, but honesty about who and what we are. The litany confronts us with the reality that we fail to be the people God created us to be and gently recalls us to that high vocation, reminding us of that second call of the Baptismal Covenant: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” (BCP, p. 304).

In these ways, Ash Wednesday sets the proper tone for the rest of the season. It’s not a period of punishment, but a sober, honest opportunity to look at ourselves as we are: frail, fallible, and mortal. We need God’s grace. We need God’s love. And we need to live that grace and love for the rest of the world to see. Lent is our time to look into ourselves, our communities and to pray for the strength, the courage and the assistance to live our Baptism like we mean it. In a work such as this, I would certainly be remiss if I did not offer the reminder that Lent is a perfect time to recommit ourselves to the regular practices of the faith—including the praying of the Office and attendance at Eucharist. These are not great ascetic works—they’re actually fairly easy—but are more useful in the long run than attempts at greater feats of penitence. As we move more towards the habitual recollection of God, we are also recollecting ourselves—who we are in the face of the God who created us and loves us (no matter what!).

[i] You may wonder where “love of neighbor” shows up in this list: it’s tucked into the call to “prayer, fasting, and self-denial” (BCP, p. 265). Fasting is not just about going without for as some sort of holy diet. The intention is that you reduce the amount of food that you eat so that these resources can be given to those who do not have it; we abstain from food so that we can take the food or money we would have spent of food and offer it to charity. Furthermore, in the time that we save from not eating, we engage in prayer for ourselves and for the world, loving our neighbors in the passive act of intercession as well as in the active act of giving alms.

Out the Door

As the last post indicated, that was the final chunk of the Prayer Book Spirituality Project to be written. Late last night I got all of the pieces assembled and sent off to the good folks at Forward Movement. They’re glad to have it; I’m glad to be done with it for a while!

At points here people have suggested things that really needed to be added. Some of these I did add, others I’m on the fence about, others I said, “No, I really don’t have time or space to treat that…” Can I just tell you how hard that last response is for me to give?

As any project manager will tell you, one of the hardest impulses to reign in is “scope creep.” That’s the urge to add that one extra little feature…and the next one…and the next… Part of the discipline of a work like this—intended primarily as an introductory book for laity—is resisting the temptations to chase wild rabbits and, as most regular readers know, that’s really hard for me!

And, I must confess, even with the amount of saying no that I did, my resolve wasn’t quite as firm as it could have been… I originally pitched a paperback book that was about one hundred book pages (not MS Word pages, mind you). Your average regular book-shelf sized book page has roughly 350 words on it. The final tally for this stage was 82,222 words. If you do the math that’s right about 235 pages… Whoops!

As has been noted by Susan and others, though, I am not by nature a concise writer; there’s no telling how many words of solid content that actually represents! Oh well—we’ll see what the count is when the editors get done with it.

Anatomy of the Eucharist: Part 3

Ok—this is the final section. It began here with the Anatomy of the Eucharist, Part 1 and continued with Anatomy of the Eucharist, Part 2.

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

Rite One

Rite Two



Offertory Offertory Yes As desired
[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
Distribution Distribution Yes As desired
[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
Dismissal Dismissal Yes As desired

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

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 Thanksgiving

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.

The Sanctus

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.

The Remembrance

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.

The Offering

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.

Post-Communion Prayer

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.

Anatomy of the Eucharist: Part 2

This is the second part of the Eucharist chapter that started here.


The Word of God

Rite One

Rite Two



[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:


Prayer Book

Historical 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).

Anatomy of the Eucharist: Part 1

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


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



[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.

Eucharistic Spirituality: The Body of Christ

This contains the (current) contents of what will likely be the last substantive chapter in the book. Again—all of that (order, contents, etc.) could change once the editors take a look at it, but that’s how I’m seeing it. I’m trying to stay on that fine line of being informative without getting too technical. I’ve noticed that I pull in a fair amount of Bible here; as a New Testament guy it’s an occupational hazard but hopefully should help you see what I’m driving at.


The Body of Christ

In order to wrap up our look at the Eucharist, and to connect some of the dots throughout the book, I want to focus on one particular term and what it means for us: the Body of Christ. Two little words in Greek (soma Christou), three in English, this term has several interrelated meanings that will lead us deeper into our consideration of the Eucharist, into the sacraments as a whole, and into the identity of the Church. In essence, it’ll take us full circle, and we’ll end by consider from a new perspective some of the topics with which we began.

The Physical Body of Christ

This is the absolute starting place; any proper discussion of the meaning of the term “Body of Christ” has to start here—with the physical blood, guts, bones, and bile of Jesus. His was a historical body that lived, occupied space, sweated, smelled bad, and performed all of the physical functions that a body does. The letter of 1 John affirms this body by taking the physical encounter with it as its literal opening point:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

And here we hit on our first key point concerning this body. The Johannine perspective, found both in this letter and in the Gospel of John, emphasize that this body is simultaneously the Word (of God, of Life) and is a real body. The most paradoxical aspect of John’s hymn-like start to his Gospel becomes the great antiphon of Christmas encircling it, encapsulating it, and proclaiming it:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Here we assert the perennial teaching of the Church: that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. In his body, that born from his mother Mary, he was both completely human and completely God. Now—we all know that 100%+100% doesn’t add up to 100%! Countless explanations have attempted to fix the equation ranging from “all human pretending to be God (0%+100%)” to “a human body but a divine soul (50%+50%)” to “all God pretending to be human (100%+0%)”; at each explanation, the Church has looked, sniffed it a few times, and said, “No—this isn’t it.” The best answer that we’ve come up with is a mystical union. The Word of God united to physical flesh is both God incarnate and a true human being.

This is the body that got weary from walking up and down the hills of Galilee; this is the body that got exhausted after nights spent in prayer rather than sleep; this is the body that took bread, blessed it, and broke it saying, “This is my Body, given for you.” This is the body that was nailed to the cross and died and rose again.

The Resurrected Body of Christ

We affirm that it was the physical Body of Christ that died and was raised. And yet, the resurrected Body did things that normal living bodies do not. On the other hand, it also did things that only normal living bodies can do (so far as we know…). John goes to great pains in his gospel to affirm that there is a direct and fundamental continuity between the physical Body of Christ and the resurrected Body of Christ; as proof of his identity, the Risen Jesus shows his disciples his hands and his side (John 20:20). The story of Thomas serves to hammer this point home: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25) Of course, when Jesus comes to the disciples again, he invites Thomas to do just that: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27). The wounds that Jesus received in his physical Body remain in his resurrected Body.

Furthermore, Jesus uses this resurrected Body in very physical ways. He breathes on the disciples (John 20:22). He cooks fish for them, and breakfasts with the clear implication that he ate some of it as well (John 21:9-14). And this isn’t just a John thing either; Luke spends some time with this as well. Jesus walked and talked with the men on the road to Emmaus. He took, blessed, and broke bread with them (Luke 24:13-35). He specifically invites the apostles to touch him, including his hands and feet, and asks for some broiled fish to eat in their presence (Luke 24:41-3).

On the other hand, both John and Luke record the resurrected Body doing things beyond the ability of physical bodies—entering locked rooms (John 20:19), appearing suddenly among them in a manner that seemed like that of a ghost (Luke 24:36-7), and ascending into heaven (Acts 1:9). Furthermore, disciples who knew him well—including Mary Magdalene—had a hard time recognizing him by sight in both Luke and John.

So, as Luke and John tell it, the resurrected Body is fully continuous with the physical Body but is beyond it in some quite important ways.

The Pneumatic Body of Christ

With the ascension of the resurrected Body, and its enthronement—literal, metaphorical, symbolic—at the right hand of God, we pass into various post-physical modes of the Body of Christ. The lines between some of these are admittedly fuzzy but are worth mentioning nevertheless because some of them shade into one another to a greater or lesser degree and some are distinct from one another to a greater or lesser degree. We’ll see that in this first one I’m identifying, the pneumatic Body.

From the Greek word pneuma (“spirit”), this is the Body that is mediated to believers by the Holy Spirit. I find this mode in Matthew in particular when Jesus promises, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). This seems to be the mode of presence that Paul invokes at the start of 1 Corinthians 5 when he tells the Corinthians that he is present with them spiritually “When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:4b).

Just as there is a special continuity between the physical and resurrected Bodies, this mode of the Body of Christ has a certain continuity with the next two as well.

The Mystical Body of Christ

The mystical Body of Christ is best captured in a single verb: “abide.” This is the mode of mutual indwelling where Christ dwells in us and we in him. Scripture speaks of it in a variety of ways:

[Jesus said:] I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:1-8)

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:13-16)

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20)

Perhaps most telling is this last selection which is one of my favorite passages in the Pauline letters:

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col 3:2-3)

Particularly significant here is the means by which our death of which Paul speaks has occurred: “…you were buried with him in baptism…” (Col 2:12)

When we are baptized, we are baptized into the Body of Christ and become partakers of the divine life of God. Specifically, this is the Body of Christ that we are being baptized into. And, being baptized into Christ we are also linked into all those who share that baptism. This is the Communion of the Saints spoken of in the Creeds. We share a common life in Christ through our connection in him.

The Social Body of Christ

The social Body of Christ is the visible institution of the Church. There is a lot of overlap between the mystical Body of Christ and the social Body of Christ; perhaps in a perfect world they would be identical, but in this present age that is not to be. The distinction between them is that the social Body is a human society, reinforced with human rules and administered by human beings. While we truly believe that it is of divine origin and receives divine guidance through the Spirit, the Anglican churches acknowledge the fallibility of such institutions.

We cannot be Christians properly by ourselves. Our binding into the Body of Christ obligates us to gather with one another into the visible institution of the Church. Both the Scriptures and the witness of the Early Church legislate particular forms of church life that include bishops, priests, and deacons alongside the main body of the faithful. As an “episcopal” church—that is, one whose name includes the Greek word for “bishop”—we believe that these structures are important and necessary channels for the maintenance and proclamation of the faith.

Furthermore, the Church has been granted means of grace as sure and certain channels of the grace of God. Chief among these are the sacraments and various sacramental rites. Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Anointing, Marriage, Ordination, these rites and others like them have reference to the life of the Church and connect individuals, families, and communities deeper into the life of the Church, the social Body, and—hopefully—deeper into the mystical Body as well.

This social Body is one of Paul’s favorite uses for this multivalent term. In several of his epistles he makes reference to this metaphor, particularly to speak of the nature of the Church and its essential interdependence:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.  (1 Cor 12:12-31)

That’s long, but definitely worth citing in full. The reason is because here we see Paul talking about differentiation within the Body; not everybody has the same job—nor do they need to! Not everyone fulfills the same role, but all roles are important even if some of them are more visible than others. The fact of differentiation and the hierarchy or potential for hierarchical ranking within it emphasizes its social character as it grapples with the ways that the Church both is and is not (or should not be) like any other human social grouping.

But, continuing with the theme of differentiation within the body and with the different roles in it causes us to return to one of the fundamental places where we began. When we started speaking about the purpose of Christian spirituality, we began with Paul’s use of the Body metaphor in Ephesians, and this is the particular sense in which he was using the term:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. . . . The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Eph 4:4-8, 11-16)

Paul goes to great lengths to emphasize the unity of the Body, but—in addition—makes clear that being the Body is not enough. The Body of Christ is not yet fully matured. It is in the process of becoming filled out and strong, but is not at that point yet. The Body of Christ—this social Body—does not yet fully possess the Mind of Christ. Only when the Body grows into full unity will it most fully be what it is.

The Eschatological Body of Christ

“Eschatological” is a fancy word that simply pertains to “final things.” Theologians use it when referring to the ideal future state all of God’s plans have come to fruition, and humanity and are creation are finally and ultimately reconciled with God and one another. One way of grasping the great eschatological vision appears in Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming messianic rule which we recall at Christmas:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  (Isa 11:6-9)

Isaiah speaks of entire ecosystems being fundamentally realigned in order to communicate the radical nature of this idyllic state and to contrast God’s perfect image of reality with our current situation. This is a new Eden. Everything is as it was in the Garden, full harmony between Creator and creation.

Humans are included in this vision too, and a later author aligned with Isaiah’s vision uses similar imagery, combining it with undertones of the sacrificial meals in his description:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.  (Isa 25:6-9)

We’ll return to this image a little later—I’m sure you’ve noticed that it has some interesting interpretive angles on the topic at hand—but the key point I want to make right now is that this is a comprehensive gathering of all people.

So—what does this have to do with Christ?

Well, in the Stoic philosophy of the time the term Logos (“word”) was used to speak of the logic or pattern underlying the universe. It’s likely that when John’s Prologue speaks of Jesus as “the Word,” it is tapping into this sense of a cosmic pattern. Paul certainly has this notion in mind in Colossians:

[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  (Col 1:15-18)

Imagining the fullness of time, all creation is reconciled back to Christ the Logos within the eschatological Body. All creation is conformed, in joy and perfect freedom, to the pattern intended for it by its Shaper.  Romans alludes to this when it speaks of creation’s groaning in anticipation of God’s birthing of the new age:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:19-23)

This, then, is the eschatological Body—looking forward in hope to the point when Christ is all in all. This mode of Christ’s presence exists for us now as a future state. It is something that our present activities can point towards, but cannot be full realized until the consummation of all things.

The Sacramental Body of Christ

Finally, we arrive at one of the most common—and most argued over—uses of the term. When the consecrated Eucharistic bread is distributed from the altar, the priest never just gives it silently. The prayer book gives three phrases to choose from:

  • “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life,”
  • “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” or the expansive form found in Rite One,
  • “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

Whichever version your priest happens to go with, one thing is left abundantly clear: the Church makes the claim that the piece of bread being put into your hand at that moment is in some important way the Body of Christ.

How, exactly, do we mean this? Well—that’s part of the genius of the Anglican system… Our formularies and liturgies are quite careful not say exactly how we mean it, which permits a variety of acceptable interpretations and neatly side-steps one of the greatest and most pressing religious differences in the Western Church from the time of the Reformation to the present: the mode and means of how Christ is present in the Eucharist.

One end of this understanding is a theology that the final line above appears to recommend, a memorialist position. This theology suggests that the phrase “Body of Christ” is a metaphor and that the consecrated bread reminds us to remember Christ’s death on our behalf and to nourish ourselves and our faith through this fundamentally mental act. The other end of this understanding is a theology that seems most perfectly at home in the second line. This takes the identification of the bread with the Body of Christ literally and believes that Jesus is—somehow—truly and fully present in the bread. Different Anglicans have understood the mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in a variety of ways with some advocating a memorialist position, some speaking of a purely spiritual presence, others speaking of a real presence, and still others explaining by means of minor nuances how their view differs from transubstantiation—a theory of Real Presence explained by means of Aristotelian metaphysics—which was officially forbidden under the English “39 Articles.”

I’m not going to try and persuade you one way or another—as I said, the prayer book permits quite a range. What I must insist upon, however, is that the every one of our Eucharistic prayers includes the words of Jesus at the Last Supper when he tells his disciples, “Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you” requiring every theory of Eucharistic presence to be grounded in Christ’s own words. There is a unavoidable continuity between the physical Body, the resurrected Body, and the sacramental Body. Likewise, all of the prayers forge a direct verbal connection between the bread of the rite and the Body of Christ:

  • Prayer I: “we, receiving [these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine] according to thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most Blessed Body and Blood” (p. 335)
  • Prayer II: “bless and sanctify these gifts of bread and wine, that they may be unto us the Body and Blood of thy dearly-beloved Son Jesus Christ” (p. 342)
  • Prayer A: “Sanctify [these gifts] by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him” (p. 363)
  • Prayer B: “send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant” (p. 369)
  • Prayer C: “Sanctify [these gifts] by your Holy Spirit to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord” (p. 371)
  • Prayer D: “sanctifying [these gifts] and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ” (p. 375)

It is difficult to interpret all these in a purely metaphorical sense; the language seems to recommend something more substantial. Too, the practice of reserving the Sacrament—keeping leftover consecrated bread within a special box in the chancel or on the altar—within many Episcopal churches in recent years follows the logic of Real Presence. After all, if the bread is only a reminder or a metaphor, there’s no reason to put it in a special box…

No matter how we understand it or what the mechanics are, our prayers emphasize that the consecrated bread is the Body of Christ—this is the faith of the Church.

(I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one clarifying point… The Church has always taught that the fullness of both the Body and Blood of Christ subsist in each of the elements. That is, the “Body of Christ” is not restricted to the bread or the “Blood of Christ” to the wine; to receive one of the elements is to receive the fullness of Christ’s Eucharistic presence. Those who cannot drink wine or cannot eat gluten are not thereby excluded from it.)

Real Presences

The classic argument over the Eucharist is about the Real Presence of Christ within it. I can’t help but think this is the wrong way of asking the question. It’s not: is there a Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? Rather, I’d ask: how many modes of Real Presence are we experiencing simultaneously within the Eucharist? Or—to phrase the same question another way—how many dimensions of the Body of Christ are operative within a given rite?

I’d argue that, quite frequently, several of these dimensions are active in most anything that we do. As we’re walking down the street, going to work, cooking dinner, we are functioning as members of the Body of Christ. We are participants—however passively at the moment—of the mystical Body of Christ through the basic fact of Baptism. When we pause with our families to say grace over dinner, we add a further dimension of the pneumatic Body as we unite in the Spirit through the act of prayer. When we pray the Daily Office, we connect to the social Body as well as the mystical Body and the pneumatic Body as we express prayer as a habit of the Church, whether gathered together or dispersed.

But it is in the Eucharist that we have the greatest possible confluence of the multiple senses of the Body. As members of the mystical Body of Christ, we have been invited to participate within the interior life of the Trinity and to experience the self-offering of the Son to the Father through the Spirit. We physically gather with the social Body to raise our collective voices in praise and thanksgiving. Our spirits mingle in the pneumatic Body as we share in the one Spirit that leads us. We receive into ourselves the sacramental Body—however we choose to understand Christ’s presence within the elements. And, together, as people gathered from all nations around the meal with God we foreshadow the eschatological Body when Christ will be all in all and the reconciliation of Creator and creation will be complete.

It’s too easy to get stuck in binaries. For a long time, the argument focused around the exact nature of the bread and wine: was he really there or wasn’t he? In more recent years, the focus has changed to a fixation on the worshipping assembly as the Body of Christ to the relative exclusion of other meanings. Instead of proposing a narrow set of mutually exclusive binaries, it seems to me that we engage in the spirit of the Eucharist most fully when we experience it as a solemn and holy game of hide-and-seek where we keep our eyes out, ever attentive, ever watchful, to locate the presence of Christ within it in a way that we had not expected or suspected before.

Furthermore, I’d suggest that our liturgies ourselves point us to this perspective. Within them we find, deliberately interwoven, intentional ambiguities, double-meanings, and turns of phrase designed to call to mind the many simultaneous modes of Christ’s presence. One of the reasons why I love hearing the Rite I liturgies is due to the way these Eucharistic prayers subtly reinforce the aspect of the mystical Body while making explicit reference to the sacramental Body. It begins most overtly in the Oblation of Prayer I when we ask that “we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him” (p. 336). The theme appears again in the Prayer of Humble Access where we ask: “Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” (p. 337). It appears once more in the post-communion prayer—but not alone. Perhaps in recognition that an over-emphasis on this aspect can lead to an unhealthy individualist attitude of “just Jesus and me,” the post-communion prayer deftly ties this aspect to three others. Here’s a section of the prayer:

…we most heartily thank thee for that [A] thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us; [B] and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical Body of thy Son, [C] the blessed company of all faithful people; [D] and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom. (BCP, p. 339)

Starting with [A] the prayer begins by invoking the sacramental Body that we have just received. Then in [B], the mystical Body is brought in. However, this is immediately qualified and diverted from an individualistic focus in [C] with a nod towards the coexistence of the mystical and social Bodies. Finally, this chain concludes in [D] with a move towards the eschatological Body.

The other Eucharistic prayers are equally as rich in meaning. If we get in our heads an expectation that there is only one place where the Body can be and one form in which it can be found and one mode through which we can experience it, we close off a host of potential meanings and insights concerning the nature of God and God’s interaction with his creatures.

The Eucharist as a Gift to the Church

As we move into and through the Christian life, there is an order—a progression—through which we pass. Not all do it the same way, of course, but history and experience have shown that there is a regular channel that the Church has identified as the ordinary path of the means of grace. In this channel, some experiences and states of the Body of Christ are more foundational than others; there is a logical order. If one mode of the Body of Christ should be selected to hold the primary place amongst the rest in our experience as Christians, it should be the mystical. The mystical Body is the means by which we as individuals are plugged into the life of God, are welcomed into the interior dialogue of the Trinity and, in that connection, are united to our fellow brother and sister believers without regard to time and space, becoming heirs of the hope of the ultimate victory of love and life in the final consummation. Our entry into the mystical Body serves as the great gateway into the full experience of life in God. The writings of the New Testament emphasize the rite of Baptism because it is the means revealed for achieving this connection. Matthew’s grand ending pushes this point home as it encompasses the mystical, social, pneumatic, and eschatological Bodies in the words of the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20).

Baptism stands as our point of entry into the mystical and the social Bodies of Christ. The other sacramental rites proceed from and assume the mystical Body as a foundation for everything else.

The Eucharist did not appear one day, out of the blue, in the middle of a Galilean sidewalk. Rather, it is a rite that was bequeathed to the Church. It was given to the mystical Body as a deliberate act of the social Body. The sacramental Body of Christ is given context as an act of the social Body on behalf of the mystical Body as a sign of and for the eschatological Body.

As the Church, we don’t own the Eucharist—it’s not ours. And yet, we are called to be stewards of it, meaning that we should faithfully celebrate it under the conditions in which it was given to us. It is an act of the Church that provides grace for the Church as the Body of Christ to be transformed more completely into the Mind of Christ. Outside of the Church, and outside of the company of the baptized, it loses a host of meanings because the multiplicity of Bodies participating within the rite are not present in the same way.

There are voices within the Church that urge the communion of the unbaptized as a sign of hospitality. It’s hard to be against hospitality! And, indeed—we never should be. However, there is more present and at work in the Eucharist than simply that. The mystical Body is the foundational Christian reality that sheds light upon everything else that we do together. To be intentionally welcoming, our hospitality should focus upon welcoming the curious and the seekers into the mystical Body of Christ. They should be given the opportunity to perceive the context of the Eucharist for themselves—to see it as a culmination of Real Presences that bind us deeper into the life of God into which we were planted in Baptism.

St. Augustine, the 4th century Bishop of Hippo, offered an invitation to the Eucharist in one of his sermons that neatly captures the mechanics at work here. In speaking with reference to the Eucharist elements, he exhorts his listeners: “Be what you see; receive what you are!” He invites them, as the gathered Church, to receive the Eucharistic elements, then to enact the victory of life and love! He invites them to receive the sacrament, then to be the Church, to be the consecrated—set apart—Body of Blood of Christ in and for the world. This is the Eucharist’s true home; this is where it makes sense.

On the Spirituality of the Eucharist

I stick this up with a certain amount of trepidation. There is so much that can, should, and needs to be said about the Eucharist—trying to figure out how to boil that down meaningfully into three fairly brief chapters that serve as an introduction to people not schooled in theology is a daunting task! That having been said, here’s the first section of my thoughts on the Eucharist for my work on the spirituality of the prayer book:


Spirituality of the Eucharist

There are a lot of different ways that we can talk about the Eucharist and many different angles that we can approach it from. Books, long books, multi-volume books, have been written on the Eucharist and on its spirituality. In a few short introductory chapters we can do no more than to lightly scratch the surface. I’m not going to try to be comprehensive in any sort of way, rather, I want to give you some perspectives, some lenses, through which to view the Eucharist in hopes that they can enrich your vision of what we do in this celebration and what it means for our Christian life together. I want to begin with  big metaphorical step back and gives us the broadest possible big-picture view before we head back in, take a look at our prayer book Eucharist and interact with what we find there.

Starting with sacrifice

We are modern 21st century people; we can’t be anything other than this. We know our world and, for us, Eucharist is a church ceremony that happens on Sundays. I want to start by taking us out of our environment and putting us in a completely different headspace. The reason why I want to do this is because a new perspective will help us get a different angle on something that we’ve seen done over and over again. Here’s where I want to approach it from: the Eucharist, as religious practice, is deeply rooted in the sacrificial customs of Mediterranean antiquity.

So, the place to start is the ancient Mediterranean mindset; we need to have a sense of what those people were thinking, in order to have a better sense of where Jesus and the early church were coming from. One particular element I want to highlight up front is this: when we think about sacrifice, and animal sacrifice in particular, we tend to focus on one particular aspect of it – the death of the animal. But when we do that, we miss so many other factors that are going on around it. We fixate on the moment and the concept of death, and we fail to see the other things that surround it.

To get in this alternate headspace, I would like us to start out in Homer’s Iliad. One of the great epics of world literature, the Iliad is a long poem originally composed and handed down orally that was written down in Greek probably at some point in the eighth century BC. It tells the story of the great siege of Troy, a Greek city on the coast of modern-day Turkey, and the struggle of other Greeks – Achaeans – against the Trojans. As a result, the Iliad it gives us a glance into Greek society at a time when it was more closely aligned with its ancient neighbors in the Middle East then it would be in its later Golden age.

The Iliad opens in the middle of a problem: there’s a plague occurring in the Greek camp. This plague is no accident; just before the scene opens, the Greeks have raided some towns and the leader of the army, Agamemnon, has taken captive a girl named Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo. Her father, Chryses, tries to ransom her back but Agamemnon isn’t interested. So, Chryses asks Apollo to send a plague upon the Greeks – and he does. In response, the Greek captains have a big meeting, Achilles, the central hero of the poem, makes Agamemnon give the girl back, and Agamemnon takes the girl of Achilles, thus setting up the poem’s key conflict. However, Odysseus goes on a mission to return the girl Chryseis to her father and takes along a hecatomb (100 cattle) as recompense. Once they get there, a sacrifice happens. That’s where we’ll pick up:

[A] When prayers were said and grains of barley strewn,

they held the bullocks for the knife, and flayed them,

cutting out joints and wrapping these in fat,

two layers, folded, with raw strips of flesh,

for the old man to burn on cloven faggots,

wetting it all with wine. [B] Around him stood

young men with five tined forks in hand, and when

the vitals had been tasted, joints consumed,

they sliced the chines and quarters for the spits,

roasted them evenly and drew them off.

[C] Their meal now prepared and all work done,

they feasted to their hearts’ content and made

desire for meat and drink recede again,

then young men filled their winebowls to the brim,

ladling drops for the god in every cup.

[D] Propitiatory songs rose clear and strong

until day’s end to praise the god, Apollo,

as One Who Keeps the Plague Afar; and listening

the god took joy. After the sun went down

and darkness came, at last Odysseus’ men

lay down to rest under the stern hawsers.

(Iliad, I.526-46)

I have added in some letters to help us keep track of the action. One of the ways to analyze what is happening in this scene is to break it down into four pieces: [A] marks the deaths of the animals; [B] is when the meat gets cooked; [C] describes the meat being eaten together; and [D] is where the god is praised.

I want to emphasize some points here. First, yes, a lot of animals are dying here. But notice how little emphasis is given to that fact. The animals die, but that does not seem to be the central point of this operation. Second, if there is a central point, it would be about the party and not the preparation. The emphasis is placed on the meal. Third, we should not miss the act of social reconciliation that is occurring. The men of Odysseus are not random guests who stopped in; they are pirates who sacked this town a short time before. The last time these men saw each other, they were likely trying to kill each other! The fact that the priest and his young men sat and ate with Odysseus and his men must not be overlooked. Fourth, there is an act of divine reconciliation going on as well. Apollo looks upon both the act (the restoration of the girl) and the sacrifice with favor, and is present with them – listening – in this event.

One of the things that church people love to argue about is the basic nature of the Eucharist: is it a sacrifice or is it a meal? The way we answer this question has broad implications. For example, it determines whether that thing in the front of the church is an altar or a table.

Well – what would Homer say?

Let me suggest three main takeaways from this description of a Homeric sacrifice. First, there is the fact of the hecatomb: that’s a lot of cow! Consider all of the economic effort that goes into raising 100 head of cattle. This is quite a lot of property, this is quite a lot of wealth, that is being dedicated to the god. It is given to the god, and the giving is motivated by the god, and the secondary result of the gift is that it is also shared with the community. Second, meal and sacrifice are intimately related. We cannot escape the way that these are inextricably bound to one another. It is not an either/or; it is definitely a both/and. The meal cannot happen without the deaths, and the deaths enable the meal. Now – did the Greeks ever have sacrifices where the meat was not eaten, when it was burnt entirely? The answer is yes, but typically that occurred when they were making sacrifices to the dark chthonic gods of the underworld – the gods they had no interest in eating with! And that leads to the third point… Third, the meal is bidirectional: the humans are communing with one another and communing with the god to whom the sacrifice is being offered. Again, it’s a both/and.

Now, I’m not suggesting that there is a direct line between Homeric sacrifice and the Christian Eucharist. Too much time and too many changes separate the two. However, there are broadly continuous themes here that we will also find when we look in the Old Testament record, and that are still found in the world of late antiquity which birthed the Church. If we take a look at the type of sacrificial events that show up in the Old Testament, we find three major categories. The first are the whole burnt offerings. As we discussed when talking about the Daily Office, you see this most in those alimentary offerings, when the point was to “feed” God in the temple. The second are the sin and guilt offerings. With these sacrifices, some of the meat was burned, the other portion was given to the priests to eat; you didn’t get to party if you are paying for a sin… The third are the thanks offerings and free will offerings. These were the occasions of rejoicing in God’s presence, or thanking God for his benefits. These sacrifices were shared with the priests and the community. This is the kind of meal most closely related to what we see in the Homeric vision.

Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 10 reveals just how prevalent these understandings remained in the life of the early church. In this chapter, Paul wrestles with the issue of whether Christians are allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols. The question that he is dealing with here is whether eating such meat is itself an act of communing with the god to whom it was sacrificed. On one hand, he wants to deny that the old gods have any power over the faithful; on the other hand, he understands how powerful the associations remain and does not want weaker Christians to be harmed by what they see more mature Christians doing. What makes this issue even more complicated is that most of the meat sold in a Greek market of his day would have come from a temple sacrifice!

So, how does this peek into the past help us understand what we do today? Well, it gives us a bit of perspective when we say that the Eucharist is a “sacrificial meal of reconciliation.” No part of this phrase need stand in opposition to any other part of it. Sacrifice, meal, and reconciliation appropriately belong together. To argue otherwise seems to stand in contradiction with the milieu from which this rite is coming.

Eucharist as sacrifice

Alright—in what sense is the Eucharist a sacrifice? In a strictly literal sense, nothing dies. Your priest doesn’t get up on Sunday morning and kill something in front of you (murdering the sermon doesn’t count…). And yet, the Christian tradition emphasizes that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. Chronologically speaking, Paul’s letters represent the earliest Christian writings that we have – and it is his words that we use at the fraction: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast. 1 Corinthians 10 (which we mentioned above) and the following chapter (after an aside at the start of 11 regarding women’s hair) speak of pagan sacrifices and the Eucharist as fundamentally analogous and competing rites:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?  No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Cor 10:16-21)

Rhetorically, Paul is insisting upon the continuity between pagan sacrifice, Jewish sacrifice, and the Eucharist: the same intrinsic mechanism occurs – the act of sacrifice and the subsequent sharing in the meal is a sharing in and with the spiritual being with whom the sacrifice is performed, whether divine or demonic.

Now, exactly how the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and what we mean by that, has been a major point of argument between Protestants and non-Protestants (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox alike) ever since there were Protestants. I have no interest in refighting these fights nor do I think we need to in order to get at what we are aiming for. To really get at the heart of the prayer book spirituality of the Eucharist, it is sufficient to agree on this central point: we are participating in Christ’s own self-offering at his own invitation.

We don’t believe that anyone is re-sacrificing Jesus. Indeed, the book of Hebrews goes to some lengths to note that one of the ways in which the self-sacrifice of Jesus is greater than that of the temple sacrifices is because they must be redone year after year; the act of Jesus was done once and accomplished for all time. Rather, our repeated actions are joined to his single great action.

And that’s where our attention focuses—the great action. In the Eucharist, the events of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion are superimposed upon one another through Christ’s own words and promise. Our Eucharistic prayers in both Rite One and Two do this:

All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst [A] give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; [B] who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; [C] and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again. (BCP, p. 334)

So—here the prayer begins by specifically talking about the passion and death of Christ on the cross at [A]. Then, at [B], it moves into language that both identifies this action as an act of sacrifice, but also goes to great lengths (clearly with Hebrews 7-10 in mind!)  to establish several things: that this death was fundamentally a self-offering—not forced, that this one offering was sufficient for all times, and that this act in itself accomplished the everything that needed to happen to reconcile God and humanity. Having established these points, the prayer comes back to the Eucharist itself and identifies it as a regular reminder of that sacrifice (using the word again to make sure we don’t miss it…) for the Church.

Or, to say the same thing with some slightly different emphases, we also pray this:

Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, [A] you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, [B] to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

[C] He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world. (BCP, p 362)

Here we see the same fundamental pattern. In [A] Jesus is sent to us. The mention of his death is balanced by mention of his life—a reminder of the redemptive action of the Incarnation—but it is clearly in focus here. Then [B] identifies the goal of both his life and death: reconciliation between God and humanity. While this prayer doesn’t use the same sort of legal language to proscribe the terms of the reconciliation as the Rite One prayer above, this section functions in the same way as the [B] part of the previous prayer, assuring us that the reconciliation promised was effected by the totality of Christ’s life and death. Continuing, [C] specifically moves to the cross and picks up a few remaining points. Again, it specifically uses the word sacrifice and, in direct reference to it, emphasizes that this cruciform death was a self-offering. It was not an accident nor was it compelled: it was a decision, freely given.

Sacrifice here is functioning as a central vehicle of reconciliation. In Antiquity, who you ate with carried great significance, particularly social significance. To eat with someone said something public about who you were and what sort of company you kept. Remember, one of the chief charges against Jesus was that he ate with tax collectors and sinners, the wrong kind of people. Just as in the Homeric sacrifice we saw former enemies sitting down together around a meal, the Eucharist likewise gathers together a broken humanity in an act of reconciliation. People are brought together over food.

But the bidirectional aspect we noted in the Homeric sacrifice is present here as well; this is also where we recognize that the Eucharist doesn’t just focus on the Last Supper and the Passion—it also connects us with those odd meals on the foggy lakeshore and the journey to Emmaus where the disciples break bread with the Risen Christ. This memorial of his passion is also a remembrance of his resurrection and of his resurrected communion with his disciples. And that brings home one of the key points about a sacrificial meal. It wasn’t just about sharing a meal at the temple with your family and the other people you brought with you to help celebrate, and it wasn’t just about sharing with the priests; you were all sharing a meal together with the god as well. Our Eucharistic meal isn’t just a remembrance of a dead Jesus, it’s eaten in the presence of the Risen Christ. Both of these factors play an important part in what’s going on in the Eucharist.

Recognizing and growing deeper into the spirituality of the Eucharist is bound up with our ability to grasp the sacramental paradox: in the Eucharist, the Body of Christ is eating with Christ and is eating Christ in order to participate within Christ’s work of the reconciliation of all creation.

Eucharist and Oblation

There’s one more point that I want to loop back to as we consider the relationship between the Homeric sacrifice and the Christian Eucharist. That’s the notion of the hecatomb. As we said before, the hecatomb was a sacrifice of 100 cattle. It represented a huge amount of wealth dedicated to the god. It was precious and costly.

Where is that element in our rite?

We offer bread and wine. That’s not terribly expensive—particularly given the sort of wine we normally get!

One of the historical characteristics of Anglican Eucharistic prayers is what’s sometimes referred to as the self-oblation; here are four examples from our current prayer book:

  • Rite I, Prayer I: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee…”
  • Rite I, Prayer II: “And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, whereby we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.”
  • Rite II, Prayer B: “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
  • Rite II, Prayer D: “Grant that all who share this bread and cup may become one body and one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ, to the praise of your Name.”

You see—if we take the language of our prayers seriously, we are offering something costly at the altar.

We’re not just offering Jesus—we’re offering ourselves as well.

Daily Office: Psalms and Readings

Ok–having written the Calendar section in part as an extended apology for the Collect of the Day, we’re back to the Daily Office. I’m not including here my section on the Fore-Office and instead we’ll start with the Psalms and Readings. At this point it’s only right to give a shout out to Scott Knitter and Chris Yoder for their work in putting the psalms and readings respectively into some great spreadsheets. That material gives the overview essential for seeing the patterns described below.


The Invitatory and Psalter

These are the elements of the Invitatory and Psalter:



Variation (if any)

Opening Versicles Yes A little
Invitatory Antiphon No Seasonal
Invitatory Morning: Yes, Evening: Optional Morning: Seasonal
Appointed Psalms Yes Choice of Pattern


This section gives us a great big block of musical material, chiefly psalms, after a short dialog that gets things going. Most of this material is not optional as it forms one of the great theological centers of the Office. If the Office is a “sacrifice of praise,” then this is a big part of where that offering actually happens!

As mentioned above, the Opening Versicles of Morning Prayer (“O Lord, open our lips…”) come from Psalm 51 and were literally true in a monastic environment; most orders observed a Great Silence from the end of Compline to the beginning of Matins where no talking was allowed. These words would be the first words spoken in the morning. The Opening Versicles of Evening Prayer (“O God, make speed to save us…”) are from Ps 70:1 and reflect the breath prayer taught by John Cassian and the Desert Fathers. These are the normal opening versicles of the Offices from before the Reformation. In the English prayer books, they were included at Morning Prayer as well right after the morning versicles.

The only variation here is that the “Alleluia” gets dropped in Lent and Holy Week.

The invitatory antiphons are sentences used with the invitatory to communicate a sense of the season or occasion. Morning Prayer has them, Evening does not. Options are given for seasons and for Holy Days. (Lesser Feasts do not receive their own antiphon and would use the appropriate seasonal option.) The first part of the antiphon establishes a sense of the season or event; the second is an invariable call to praise, “O come, let us adore him” from Ps 95:6 (although our present prayer book rendering of this phrase is: “O come, let us worship/bow down”…). And, yes, the Christmas hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful” is a deliberate riff on the structure of the invitatory antiphon.

We’re not given any clear direction as to exactly how the antiphon is to be used with the Venite or other Invitatory Psalm (it’s not used with the Christ our Passover as it has its own internal Alleluia antiphon). There are two common ways to use it. The easiest is simply to use it before and after the psalm. The other, and more traditional, method is to include it several times within the psalm; the musical settings in the hymnal confirm that this should be done at each section break.

The invitatory is an opening song or psalm that literally invites the worship of God. The prayer book contains five different options for Morning Prayer and a single for Evening Prayer. Three of the morning options are all shades of the same text, Psalm 95. It’s customary to refer to the psalms by the first couple of words in Latin. The monks didn’t memorize the numbers, so they simply referred to the opening bits. This custom was continued by Cranmer at the Reformation and has stuck. In our case it’s particularly useful because our Venite, the first word of Psalm 95 is actually not identical with the psalm.   The Rite I Venite contains the first 7 verses of Psalm 95, then substitutes Ps 96:9, 13 in place of the condemnatory verses at the end of Ps 95. The Rite II Venite simply omits these verses. However, at points (particularly Fridays in Lent and Friday and Saturday in Holy Week) all of Psalm 95 is appointed. Psalm 100, the Jubilate, is also an option and was historically used when Ps 95 appeared amongst the Morning Prayer psalms. For Easter, the Christ our Passover (Pascha Nostrum) is provided. It must be used during Easter Week and may be used for the rest of the Easter season. I prefer to use it throughout the season, as it’s a good daily reminder that Easter is 50 days long. The Evening Prayer invitatory is an ancient hymn from the Greek Church, O Gracious Light. It doesn’t need antiphons nor are any provided.

At the heart of the concept of the invitatory is an invitation. The appointed texts urge those praying them to worship. Psalm 95 holds such a privileged place because it does it three times in rapid succession. It opens with a repeated call to worship in verses 1 and 2: “Come let us sing…let us shout for joy…Let us come…and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.” The call repeats in verse 6:  “Come, let us bow down.” The other element of Psalm 95 that made is so attractive is found at the end of verse 7: “Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!” Although this passage logically goes with the next section of the psalm which gives the rebellion of the people under Moses as an example of what not to do, the Rite II Venite ends here. In addition to the call to come and worship, we are reminded to also listen and take heed of what God is telling us. The Rite I Venite preferred not to include any of the condemnatory section, but swaps in additional encouragement to praise from Psalm 96 and retains the notion that God is also coming to meet us in our worship.

The Jubilate contains these elements as well. It opens with an exhortation to worship: “come before his presence with a song” (Ps. 100:1), and repeats it “Enter his gates with praise; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his Name” (Ps 100:3).

The Easter time Christ our Passover is Cranmer’s compilation of Sarum antiphons drawn from the writings of Paul. The repeated “Alleluia” is its own internal antiphon, so it doesn’t need an invitatory antiphon to accompany it. As appropriate for the resurrection season, this text focuses on the passage from death to life and Christ’s victory over the grave. The repetition at the beginning of the second and third sections, “Christ . . . raised from the dead,” and the conclusion with its triumphant “all shall be made alive” is one of my favorite pieces of the Easter experience.

The Evening Prayer invitatory, O Gracious Light, served as the Eastern lamp-lighting hymn for centuries. In an electric-lit culture we usually miss the symbolic moment when the day moves from light to dark; this hymn helps remind us. At its heart, this is a simple hymn of praise to Christ as the Light of the world that praises the Trinity at the hinge of the day.

The appointed psalms come next. As I have said, this is the historical and theological center of gravity of the Office, and the next chapter is devoted to exploring the psalms within their Office context. The main decision at this point is which psalm scheme to adopt. The book gives a choice of two; the first appears in the Daily Office lectionary while the second is found in the section of the prayer book containing the psalms.

The first option is the lectionary cycle. This cycle spreads out the 150 psalms across seven weeks. The cycle begins on the first week of Advent, the first week after Epiphany, the eighth week after Epiphany (if there should be one…), the second week of Easter, with Trinity Sunday and Proper 2, Proper 9, Proper 16, and Proper 23. The earlier iterations of the cycle often are not complete because of a number of proper psalms around Christmas, the length of the Epiphany season, proper psalms for Holy Week and Easter, and on what Proper the season after Pentecost begins. The last three cycles, though, are only interrupted by occasional Holy Days.

If you look at the layout of this particular lectionary, a pattern emerges. Psalms were specifically picked for Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening. Next, the many parts of the lengthy Psalm 119 were assigned to Wednesdays, alternating between evening and morning. Then, the remaining psalms were distributed to each week, trying to balance out the number of verses and placing some penitential/passion psalms on Fridays (i.e., Pss. 22, 51, 69, and 88). Psalm 95 falls in the evening—thus you need not worry about it appearing right after you’ve used it as the invitatory at Morning Prayer! (Psalm 100, though, falls on Tuesday morning of week 6.) The pattern shows that the emphasis was upon having appropriate psalms for public worship on Saturday nights and Sundays. In addition to this, provisions are also made for dropping verses of psalms or whole psalms that might be deemed offensive or problematic to congregations. On the balance, each Office prays just under 30 verses of psalms.

The second option is the monthly cycle found within the psalter itself. On turning to page 585—the first page of the Psalter proper—you’ll see a note in italics right above the title of Psalm 1: “First Day: Morning Prayer.” On page 589 before the start of Psalm 6 is another note: “First Day: Evening Prayer.” These notes are given for thirty days, morning and evening. If a month has a 31st day, the psalms given for the 30th are repeated. On the average, this cycle provides about 45 verses of psalms for each Office. (The longest is the evening of the 15th with 73 verses; the shortest is the evening of the 2nd with 24—most counts fall between the high thirties or low fifties, though.)

The monthly cycle foregrounds the catechetical role of the Office. That is, it emphasizes the continuous repetition of the psalms for the purpose of learning them. It presents a less flexible cycle that is not particularly responsive to seasonal awareness. Most of the people I know who use this cycle (myself among them) only deviate from it for the Principal Feasts. This can lead to unusual combinations when a particular angry psalm might show up on a happy festival or a joyous one occur where it doesn’t seem to fit. Often it’s in these moments that I learn something important—either about the psalm or the occasion—that had always been present; I just hadn’t noticed it before. The odd combination cast it in relief and made it stand out.

In contrast, the eight-week lectionary covers the psalms, but over a longer period. Its strength is that it lends itself to occasional use. That is, the monthly cycle is used best and works best when it is prayed daily. The eight-week cycle is specifically set up so that the days when newcomers might appear—as on a Saturday or Sunday service of Evensong or Morning Prayer or even a mid-week Wednesday—it neither assumes nor requires a previous discipline. Similarly, using proper psalms for Holy Days is the better option if a parish that doesn’t normally pray the Office together decides to hold an Evensong.

The Lessons

These are the elements of the Lessons:



Variation (if any)

Old Testament Lesson Morning: Yes, Evening: Optional Daily
Canticle Yes, if reading Variable
New Testament Lesson Yes Daily
Canticle Yes Variable
Apostles’ Creed Yes None


This section contains the biblical readings and the sung canticles. It concludes with the Creed which reminds us of the Church’s interpretive lens for the Scriptures.

The Daily Office lectionary provides for three readings per day over a two-year cycle: an Old Testament reading, an epistle reading, and a gospel reading.  Both Morning and Evening Prayer can accommodate—and have traditionally had—two biblical readings each for a total of four per day. As a result you’ve got a choice—you can use the three readings as appointed and distribute them through the Offices (usually two at Morning Prayer and the third at Evening Prayer), or you can find another reading. The normal way to do this is to use the Old Testament reading from the off-year and place it as the first reading for Evening Prayer.

In terms of completeness, the lectionary does a good job with the New Testament. Of the Gospels, all of Matthew and Mark are read each year. Luke is missing about 50 verses (4% of its length) but these are the genealogy and the iconic birth story and his appearance in the Temple at age 12 which get play in the Eucharistic lectionary. John is missing about 80 verses (9% of its length) and these are all sections from the passion and resurrection narratives which, again, are well represented in the Eucharist.

Of the New Testament apart from the Gospels, the large stand-alone books of Acts, Hebrews, and Revelation are read in their entirety each year. We read 97% of both the Pauline Epistles and the General Epistles. Missing from the General Epistles is one section from 1 Peter 3 dealing with wives being submissive to their husbands; most of the material missing from the Pauline Letters, mostly from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, similarly deals with the social roles of women and slaves.

When we come to the Old Testament the percentage drops. Overall, across both years—or in one year if you read two readings—we read just under half of the Old Testament. When you look at it by category, we read more percentage-wise of the Minor Prophets than any other grouping (72% as opposed to the others in the 40%’s) due mostly to the brief length of these books. By year, Year One reads through about 22% of the Old Testament and contains more of the Histories and the Major Prophets. Year Two reads about 25% and contains more of the Minor Prophets, the Law, and the Wisdom literature. There is some overlap where certain passages are read in both years (apart from the Holy Day readings) and this occurs mostly in Isaiah, the Histories, and Genesis and Exodus, but it accounts for under 10% of what is read each year.

Why so little of the Old Testament by percentage? It’s pretty simple: math. The gospel readings and other New Testament readings average to be about eight verses and seven verses long respectively. If you want to keep the length of the three readings balanced, than this is the problem you’re going to have to face. The Old Testament readings currently average a little under ten verses in length. If you were going to get through the entire Old Testament, you’d have to more than double that amount!

To put it another way, the original Daily Office lectionary scheme that Cranmer came up with when he compiled the first Book of Common Prayer, went through most (but not all) of the Old Testament each year. Readings were typically assigned by chapter not verse; thus, on January 4th, for example, you’d read Genesis 5 in the morning with Genesis 6 in the evening. The corresponding New Testament and Gospel readings which were of an equal length went through the full cycle three times in a year! That’s a lot more reading than what we have now. In fact, looking over the almost 500 years from then to now, we’ve seen the length of the readings steadily drop over time. The goal is to get people to pray the Office and read their Scriptures. The trend has been to reduce the time it takes by reducing the amount of Scripture required.

Just as in the eight-week psalm cycle, the Daily Office lectionary has two different things going on for the sake of occasional use. For the most parts, biblical books are read through continuously. That is, a reading will generally stick with a book and read straight through it or, when it does skip material, it usually does so sequentially. However, this sequence is interrupted for Sundays. A different cycle of readings appear on Sunday for the benefit of those who only experience the Offices once a week—or less—and who may have occasion to experience a Sunday reading and not any of the others.  Thus, the Daily Office lectionary will jump on Sundays to a different place and pick up a different story than what has been read through the rest of the week.

Final Calendar Section (Anatomy, Part 4)

Here’s the last section on the Anatomy of the Calendar running from Holy Week through the end…


Holy Week

Holy Week constitutes the space of our deepest yearly meditation upon the passion of Christ and ushers in the Three Great Days that are the highlight of the Church Year. It’s also the space of a single week and, if a family follows typical American church-going habits, it’s possible for them to miss all but one day (Palm/Passion Sunday) or even the whole season altogether! It can be said without exaggeration that this is the season where faithful attendance at—or at least attention to—the public liturgies of the Church matters the most and renders the most. Both the prayer book and the Revised Common Lectionary provide material for every day of the week, with The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday receiving their own distinct liturgies in the block between pages 270 and 285 of the prayer book.

Palm Sunday was conflated with Passion Sunday in the mid-20th century by the Roman Catholic Church; this move worked towards the process of leveling the grades of Lent, but also recognized by means of the title what was actually going on in the service. That is, Passion Sunday didn’t have a passion reading—Palm Sunday did. Indeed, there is little in the liturgy of Passion Sunday to signal a further shift towards the cross and passion than other Lenten Sundays: neither the Gospel (John 8:46-59) nor the other propers seem more passional than normal. By contrast, the celebration of Palm Sunday had included the reading of the entirety of Matthew’s Passion (chapters 26-7) from at least the 7th century!

For most Episcopalians this change makes no difference—the 1928 prayer book was the first American or English book to identify the Fifth Sunday in Lent as “Passion Sunday” and it directed no liturgical changes at this time. Only those who followed old traditions or Roman Catholic customs of the timing for veiling images and crosses, dropping the Gloria Patri from the end of the psalms, and singing different hymns at the Office noticed and then had to decide whether to keep doing it following the Fifth Sunday in Lent or whether to shift these practices to Holy Week.

All of the days of Holy Week have been prayer book service days since the very first prayer book. Following the traditional pattern, the passions from the four gospels were read through the week: most of Matthew’s passion was read on Palm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday recounted Mark’s passion, Wednesday and Thursday read through Luke’s passion, and John’s passion was read on Friday; Saturday finished off the end of Matthew’s passion with the burial of Jesus. Our current Holy Week chooses to move in a chronological direction rather than a comprehensive one: the Passion Gospel of Passion Sunday comes from the gospel appointed for the year, the days of Holy Week read from John’s narrative beginning at chapter 12 which begins “Six days before the Passover…” (The Revised Common Lectionary only offers John’s sequence; the prayer book lectionary that it replaced offered both the John readings and alternatives from Mark on Monday and Tuesday, Matthew on Wednesday, and Luke on Thursday.) Oddly enough, the Daily Office lectionary of Year One also prescribes similar but not identical readings from John 12 for Monday through Wednesday.

Holy Week is fundamentally about the journey to the cross. We accompany Jesus, his apostles, and the disciples on the last walk into Jerusalem and through the days that follow. The services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are best seen as a single liturgical unit with long pauses between its movements. For me, I can’t help but hear strains of Renaissance settings of the Book of Lamentations floating all through Holy Week—as Lamentations was the heart of the Daily Office services and some amazing settings were composed for Tenebrae, the Office of Shadows that occurred in the early mornings at Matins and Lauds. We can take our cue from them: Holy Week has a restrained grandeur in order to communicate in beauty the horror of human hatred that we unleashed upon the Lord of Life.

Recognizing that, it’s important to take a moment and consider our perspective: how we interpret these moments and where we find “us” within the events of the passion. Some of the greatest devotions of the Passion—like the Stations of the Cross—come from the imaginative-affectional tradition of devotion. In these sorts of devotions, we use images, readings, hymns, and prayers to give ourselves the sense of being there, to imagine exactly what we would have seen and heard, and then to feel the emotions that seeing these things would bring upon us. Certain traditions are better at this than others. For instance, I’d suggest that “Were you there?” from the African-American experience stands strongly in this tradition. And, while we may not normally think of them as “feely” type people, many of the passion devotions from late Sarum England, just before the Reformation, place great emphasis upon this imaginative-affectional spirituality. However—as I have spent time working with and ready through these devotions, I have identified what I believe to be a fundamental flaw in their imaginative construction.

These materials tend to identify heavily with the disciples and with the women who accompanied Mary. That is, we see images or texts will describe vignettes where we have graphic depictions of what is suffered by both Jesus and Mary in the events of the capture, the judgment, the torment, the crucifixion and the death. (The Fifteen Oes of St. Brigit are a classic example of this should you desire to see them for yourself.) The problem here is that the identification of “us” is consistently and relentlessly with the disciples. We gain a clear sense of “us” and “them.” “We” are those who follow Jesus; “they” are those who slay Jesus. The devotions themselves with this stark contrast lead us to experience the crucifixion of Jesus not as humanity’s inhumanity to the Son of Man, but as the experience of what the Jews did to Jesus. Given the emphases of these devotions, it’s no surprise that medieval and renaissance pogroms sometimes coincided with Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This kind of Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism is absolutely deplorable and has no place in our faith. In addition to that, it’s also bad spirituality.

This kind of devotion which allows us to create and foster an “us” and “them” perspective on Holy Week misses one of the big patterns of Scripture and undermines a proper understanding of the season and its liturgies. We misconstrue the basic teachings of the Church and the Scripture on sin if we fail to account for the fact that “we” are “them.” This is not a new insight. Indeed, in the period of the Reformation itself and in a lot of Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic spirituality this point is made sometimes to the point of excess. A good example of the proper reversal is “Ah, holy Jesus.” The second verse in particular makes the turn that the Sarum materials lack: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee” (Hymnal 1982, 158). We stand both as the disciples and as the crucifiers. The impact of Palm Sunday is muted if we fail to make the connection that the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna” was the same crowd that shouted “Crucify him!” and that, we need to be able to locate ourselves within both crowds. It is only with this perspective that we can hear the Good Friday Reproaches properly as words directed at us rather than condemnations of “the Jews.”

It is a shame that more people don’t come to the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. Again—I realize they’re not on Sunday and thus fall outside the usual pattern. However, patterns lie at the heart of this. We say that God is love. We say that Jesus is God incarnate and, therefore is the most perfect exemplar of love. But love is a very broad word. Considering all of the things that the word “love” is used for in American culture these days it includes quite a range of things! Surely we mean something more significant, something more meaningful. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are about a life patterned by love and therefore about the nature of love and the consequences of love. Christ came to preach love. Had the content of love been some ooey-gooey feel-good message of self-satisfaction, no one would have demanded his death. That’s not the love that Christ preached incarnate. He preached a love—and enacted a love—that made people deeply uncomfortable, that challenged the status quo, and that was not afraid to speak openly against sin, hypocrisy, and pride—particularly amongst those who saw themselves as most religious. Holy Week warns us of the consequences of preaching true love.

Maundy Thursday lays bare the strength and power of humble service. The maundy or commandment from which the day gets its name is the Gospel exhortation to love one another as Christ has loved us. All three of the great liturgical actions of the evening offer a powerful—and disturbing—example of what this love and service looks like. The Last Supper is an intimate gathering of friends, yet its elemental symbols and pregnant words reveal a host of deep meanings. The washing of the feet offers a vision of a leader who is strong enough in humility to perform the role of a menial servant in the midst of his friends. (And, in this present age can be far more intimate and therefore intimidating when a relative stranger offers to touch and wash our feet!) Lastly, the stripping of the altar portrays in symbolic terms the stripping away, the falling away of all supports and defenses and shields.  Don’t kid yourself—Jesus could have run. But he didn’t. Therefore it is only fitting that we give John the last word: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)

Good Friday is our great festival of paradox: we celebrate the day that mortals slay the immortal, the day the Lord of Life gives himself up to death. And we call it “good,” firm in the conviction that in his dying the power of death will be destroyed. Most of our acts this day involve paradox in one form or another. We lift high and venerate a very simple yet effective instrument of torture.  We address a long series of collects to the one who did not respond to his own Son’s cry from the cross. We receive from the reserve sacrament in the absence of a consecration a meal which proclaims his presence and power.

If not many make it to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, fewer still appear for Holy Saturday and yet we do have a service for it in the book. It’s a simple Service of the Word about which there’s not much to say. It’s the last service of Holy Week for as the sun sets we prepare to turn the corner and head into Easter.

The Easter Season

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Liturgical Renewal Movement is the restoration of the Easter Vigil. The dual emphases on Baptism and Easter come together in full flower in the splendor of a well-celebrated Easter Vigil. I can say without exaggeration that hearing the singing of the Exultet before a newly-lit Paschal candle in the midst of a darkened nave at the end of a long Lent is truly one of the top spiritual moments of my year.  The Vigil sets the tone for the rest of the Great Fifty Days as the Church celebrates the coming of Easter and the on-going power of the resurrection. Another related thrill comes the next morning as Morning Prayer kicks off with the Alleluia-laden “Christ our Passover (Pascha Nostrum).” Likely the oldest season of the Church year, it follows gospel chronology effortlessly, celebrating the bodily Ascension of Christ on the Thursday forty days after the resurrection and ending with Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the birth of Church on the fiftieth day after the resurrection.

The first week after Easter, from the Sunday of the Resurrection to the Second Sunday of Easter is another special octave; every day is a prayer book Holy Day with special readings assigned for Eucharist and the Office, and no other feasts are allowed to fall within this week. If March 25th (the Annunciation) or a feast of the apostles falls within its span, they are transferred out to the days after the Second Sunday.

Easter is the season when we meditate upon the resurrection and acquaint ourselves with the affection of joy. As I said of the affections earlier, this is not an emotion or an expression—it is a pattern of being. It is—thankfully—not about feigning a feeling or attempting to put on a happy face. It is more subtle, deeper, richer, than that. This is simply the joy of living, the joy of resting in the presence of God, and in being in the presence of those you love. It takes its cue from the resurrection, the triumph of life, the ultimate sign that love is stronger than death.

The Church does not follow its usual pattern of fasting during Easter because of the celebratory nature of the season. Likewise, in some churches it is the custom to not kneel during Easter for the same reason. This prohibition of kneeling is sometimes connected to a canon from the Council of Nicaea—the church council back in 325 AD that agreed on the wording of what would become the Nicene Creed. A canon from that council does prohibit kneeling both on Sundays and throughout the Easter season. However, it comes from a liturgical environment where kneeling and multiple prostrations was the regular rule. It was a liturgical culture entirely unlike ours. Thus, it seems odd to impose one part of its practice during Easter (standing) and ignore the more regular and consistent part throughout the rest of the year (kneeling and prostrations). Furthermore, the council was attempting to establish liturgical uniformity upon the Church through this canon. It is, therefore, ironic that John Cassian and his friend Germanus coming from Gaul by way of Palestine questioned the Egyptian monks about it during their tour there around the year 385; apparently they were used to both kneeling and fasting during Easter from their time in the Palestinian monasteries. Whatever uniformity the council was attempting to achieve, it did not achieve.

The Season after Pentecost

The Season after Pentecost is referred to in some Calendars as Ordinary Time. This is not supposed to suggest that it is ordinary in the sense of being normal and not important, but rather that the Sundays are counted in an ordinal fashion. Unfortunately, this fine distinction is usually easily and quickly lost. This is the long green season that occupies somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-eight weeks out of the year depending on when Easter falls. As far as I’m concerned, it is most closely connected with the affection of faithful endurance!

The beginning of this season can be a little tricky particular for those who are diligent in their use of the Daily Office. Sundays in this period are counted, as the table on page 32 of the prayer book shows us, as Sundays after Pentecost. However, the collect and the readings are established be reference to a numbered Proper which is anchored around a calendar date. Thus, an ordinary average Sunday like Proper 15 will be whatever Sunday falls closest to the date of August 17th (and we can find this out by looking through the Season after Pentecost either in the collects, the Eucharistic lectionary or the Daily Office lectionary.) The logic here is that the fixing of Propers to calendar days minimizes the effects of a constantly moving Easter season. Thus, we can always count on the same readings showing up in the summer and fall. The difficulty comes at the very start. The season after Pentecost begins on the Monday after Pentecost. The problem is that the collect for the week is typically that of the preceding Sunday—but not in this case. Instead, we locate the Proper that falls closest to the date of Pentecost, use its collect, and begin lectionary readings from this point. The first Sunday of the season itself is the Feast of the Holy Trinity, one of our Principal Feasts. The week following the feast continues with the collect of the Sunday that would have been and continues the lectionary readings in course. Thus, due to the placement of Pentecost and the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the two earliest possible Propers, Proper 1 and Proper 2, will never actually be celebrated on a Sunday, although their collects and weekday readings may be used when Easter falls at its earliest dates.

As noted above, the Sundays of the Season after Pentecost hold the lowest order of precedence and it is permissible to celebrate a Holy Day in place of the Sunday if it should happen to fall on a Sunday. Note, however, that it’s not proper to move a feast that falls in the week onto a Sunday unless it is the feast of the parish’s title (i.e., the saint or mystery that it is named for) or its patron (i.e., any saints whose relics might be enshrined in the church). The only other feast that may be transferred to a Sunday is the Feast of All Saints because of its status as a Principal Feast. Anything else requires the bishop’s permission.

The Last Sunday after Pentecost is officially titled in the prayer book as just that: “The Last Sunday after Pentecost” and is “Proper 29, the Sunday closest to November 23.” Just as the Revised Common Lectionary placed Transfiguration Sunday at the end of its Season of Epiphany, the Lectionary and the Roman Catholic Calendar appoint the final Sunday after Pentecost as the Feast of Christ the King. Again—as with the end of Epiphany—the prayer book has not adopted the title but has taken the concept: the collect and the readings celebrate the reign of Christ.

The Days of Optional Observance

Having spoken about the Principal Feasts, Sundays, Holy Days and the Days of Special Devotion, that leaves only one more category of days to be reckoned with from the prayer book’s section devoted to the Calendar: the Days of Optional Observance. These are the “ferial days” or “ferias” which means any day that isn’t a Sunday or a feast. If you add together the 7 Principal Feasts, the 49 Sundays (as three are Principal Feasts), and the 32 Holy Days, that gives a total of 88 prayer book feast days, leaving 277 ferial days in a regular year.

The monthly listing of days between the Calendar rubrics and the list of titles of feasts give us a potential set of people to be celebrated as Lesser Feasts on these days. When Lesser Feasts were first introduced in 1963, there were 115 recommended Lesser Feasts on the list; the latest set of recommendations brought before the church for approval in 2009 (which is still pending as I write in 2013) contained 288 occasions. One of the issues over the latest list is the sheer volume of names brought forward; as you can see, even accounting for some of these falling on Sundays in any given year, it doesn’t leave a lot of open days. The thing to remember, though is this: they’re all optional! You can choose to celebrate as many or as few as you would like.

Because of the cyclical nature of the Daily Office, Days of Optional Observance don’t impact it much—the only effect is whether you choose to change the Collect of the Day. If a Eucharist is being celebrated on a ferial day, the prayer book provides a range of six possible options. They are:

  1. To celebrate a Major Feast that has fallen elsewhere in the week as provided in the prayer book,
  2. To celebrate a Lesser Feast as a Day of Optional Observance appointed in the Church’s Calendar,
  3. To celebrate a Lesser Feast as a Day of Optional Observance not appointed in the Church’s Calendar by using the Commons of Saints,
  4. To celebrate the season by using the propers of the preceding Sunday,
  5. To celebrate the season by using the propers appointed for a day in the given week of the season, and
  6. To celebrate an occasion provided for in the propers for “Various Occasions.”

Because the celebration is optional, all of them have equal standing.

More Calendar (Anatomy, Part 3)


The Christmas season lasts a spare twelve days—but at least half of them are prayer book Feasts if the two possible Sundays are included! The season begins on Christmas Day, December 25th, and runs up to the eve of Epiphany. It is a season of rejoicing that focuses on the Incarnation and on the mystery of Immanuel: God with us. Yet, the rejoicing of the season is tempered a bit by the character of the Holy Days that, very early on, became associated with Christmas. This season is one of the most complicated in terms of rubrical gymnastics because there are four fixed Holy Days in a row, any one of which could be a Sunday in any given year: Christmas Day, Saint Stephen, Saint John, and the Holy Innocents. A note in the collects section establishes that if a Sunday happens to fall on any of the latter three days, that day and any successive day are pushed back by one. (For instance, if Sunday falls on the day after Christmas, the 26th is celebrated as the First Sunday after Christmas, the 27th honors Saint Stephen, the 28th honors Saint John, and the 29th honors the Holy Innocents.)

These Holy Days have been attached to Christmas for a very long time; they tend to put some perspective on the joy of Christmas. St. Stephen is referred to as the “Protomartyr”—the first of the martyrs. He is the first of Christ’s followers who suffers death because of the faith, and the story is consciously told in such a way to mirror the death of Christ himself. This death is recorded in Acts 7; parallel to Jesus, Stephen commends his soul to God and forgives his persecutors—the young Paul among them.  Historically, the liturgies of the Church have focused on two aspects of the feast of Stephen. First, in his death like Jesus, his prayer is effective: Paul is himself converted and this conversion is greatly attributed to Stephen’s prayer. Second, both prayers and hymns catalogue a number of antitheses or dramatic and ironic reversals between the Nativity and the death of Stephen: Christ was born to the world, but Stephen died to the world; Christ conferred life, Stephen endured death; Christ descended to humanity, Stephen ascended; Christ came to earth, Stephen went to heaven, etc. The underlying reminder here is that while Christ came to share the life of God with the world, this way is none other than the way of the cross.

Next, we celebrate St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. The only apostle not to suffer a martyr’s death, the connection between John and Christmas comes preeminently through the famous opening of his Gospel—which has been read at the third Eucharist of Christmas ever since we have records of such readings. No other gospel account captures quite so effectively the sense of Incarnation as John’s Prologue (John 1:1-18) and the high point of that passage is verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, as of the only Son from the Father” (ibid.).

The third Holy Day is the feast of the Holy Innocents which, like Stephen, gives Christmas a darker turn. While it commemorates an event from Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:16-18), its inclusion in this cluster of feasts around the Nativity itself underscores that we know how the story will go: innocence is no guarantee of safety and the innocent Lord of Life—himself an infant at this point—will in his own turn be condemned to die.

The next feast of Christmas is more benign even if it celebrates an occasion that may seem an odd liturgical moment: the feast of the Holy Name. This is a Feast of the person of our Lord and, as such, should be celebrated even if a Sunday falls on this day. It’s also our first “octave” day of the year. Under the pre-Reformation systems, certain important feasts would be celebrated for a whole week afterward—liturgically if not otherwise—and Christmas was certainly one of them. Thus, January 1st falls the week after December 25th—seven days after, but eight if you begin counting with Christmas itself. What’s interesting about this day is that, in addition to being the octave of Christmas, it also celebrates a biblical event: the Circumcision of Jesus which, as with any good Jewish lad, occurred eight days after his birth as recorded in Luke 2:21. The ceremony of circumcision also included the naming rite; our current prayer book prefers the more delicate “Holy Name” rather than former books’ “Circumcision of our Lord.”  More than just recording a biblical event, this feast reminds us of an important corollary to the fact of the Incarnation: it explicitly reminds us of the scandal of particularity—that Jesus was born as a specific person in a specific culture (which is not our culture). Circumcision brought him into God’s covenant with the children of Abraham, locating him within a people, affirming and confirming his Jewish identity.

The doctrine of the Incarnation sometimes gets short shrift because the season dedicated to it is so brief and falls at a time that is so often given over to travel, family, and holidays rather than church. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important doctrines of the faith and it can—and has—been argued that Anglicanism in particular has a special affinity with it. Indeed, the statement of the Incarnation was one of the greatest stumbling-blocks of Christianity in its first few centuries. People could get behind a God who loved them. People could get behind a God who worked wonders, even the resurrection. But the idea that a God, a divine spirit-being, would stoop to sully himself with matter—fallible, corruptible, imperfect, decaying matter—was crazy talk to the dominant Neoplatonic perspective that said that spirit was better than and fundamentally opposed to both body and matter. And yet, this is what the Church insisted upon even in the face of a variety of potential explanations of how spirit and matter stayed appropriately separate in the person of Jesus. Instead, we chose, and defended, and fought for Incarnation: the belief that God cares about us enough to become one of us. This is the miracle of Christmas: God took on humanity so that we might take on divinity. This, in and of itself, totally apart from crucifixion, totally apart from resurrection, is a fundamental act of God reconciling humanity and all creation to himself. Of course, crucifixion and resurrection are also part of the equation, but take on greater and deeper meaning for the fact of the Incarnation. They mean more when we acknowledge that it was a truly human Jesus who suffered and died and was raised than if it was a spiritual projection who only seemed to suffer.


One of the principles observed and standardized in the mid to late 20th century Calendar reforms is the notion that seasons tend to begin and end with feasts. As a result, it is often said that the feast of Epiphany concludes the Christmas season. In one sense this is true—in another it is not. On one hand, if you count out the famous “Twelve Days of Christmas” by modern reckoning, they will end on January 6th, the Epiphany. On the other, if you count them out following the standard classical method (counting the day you start with), the twelve day period ends on the 5th.  According to the prayer book’s list of feasts (BCP, p. 31), Epiphany is the first entry under the “Epiphany Season” while the Second Sunday after Christmas day closes out Christmas proper.

Whether there is such a thing as the “Epiphany Season” is a point of some debate. In my graduate student days, a famous professor of preaching once paused a lecture to inquire specifically upon this point! The confusion was likely compounded by the fact that she was attending an Episcopal parish at the time (dedicated to the Epiphany no less!): according to the prayer book, there is an “Epiphany season”; according to the Roman Catholic reform of the Calendar, Christmas runs through the Sunday after the Epiphany and everything after that is Ordinary Time designated as “Sundays after Epiphany.” The Revised Common Lectionary attempts to split the difference; it retains the title “Season of Epiphany” yet breaks into an Ordinary Time sequence after the Second Sunday after Epiphany, beginning with the Third Sunday and thus functionally siding with the Roman Catholic removal of the season. With the Episcopal adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, we find ourselves in the odd situation of keeping the season yet losing its character.

The original point of the season is that it was about epiphanies. “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word meaning “manifestations” or “showings-forth.” Actually, many of the medieval calendars retained the Greek name of the feast, Theophany, which means “manifestation of God.” The point here is that the Epiphany season focused on the ways that the divinity of Christ was revealed to the world. The season as whole was about how God was made manifest within Jesus and how he was shown to be both fully human and fully divine. As a result, the Gospel readings of the period cycled through the first miracles in each of the Gospels and some of the earliest teachings of Jesus. These were all understood as differing ways that the Christ made himself known to the world.

So—why does this matter? What’s the point?

As far as I’m concerned, the point has to do with the degree to which we accept an over-simplification of our Calendar. The Roman Catholic reforms and the Revised Common Lectionary following them attempt to make the Church Year more tidy; they place it into neat classifications. According to these schemes, there are two cycle: one celebrates Incarnation, the other celebrates Redemption. The first includes the preparatory season of Advent, then the festal season of Christmas; the second includes the preparatory season of Lent, then the festal season of Easter—everything outside of these is relegated to “Ordinary.” I resist this, though, because it feels just a little bit too tidy! If God’s work of reconciliation is packaged into these two boxes, we lose a variety of shades of meaning through which these two interact with and interpenetrate one another. Retaining an independent Epiphany season recognizes that the earthly ministry of Jesus contained redemptive moments possible through his incarnate nature, that redemption includes more than simply crucifixion and resurrection—as central and important as these rightly are!

There’s one more oddity here that ought to be mentioned…  In accordance with the concept that feasts should begin and end liturgical seasons, the Revised Common Lectionary created a feast to conclude the Season of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. This actually makes quite a bit of sense if the theme of the Epiphany season is manifestation as this is one of the more dramatic manifestations of Jesus’ two natures in the gospels.  In hindsight it does seem ironic, though, to create a new feast to underscore the meaning of the season after having functionally gutted it by turning it into Ordinary Time! Furthermore, the prayer book already contains a feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th. The prayer book’s original solution was to offer the feast without the name—the Gospel reading was of the Transfiguration and the collect mentioned it, but the day itself was simply referred to as “The Last Sunday after the Epiphany.” Now, with the official adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, its status and title is unclear.


The season of Lent engages the affection of penitence. During Lent we consider ourselves from two vantage points. The first concerns the human tendency to sin—individually and corporately. Sin is a reality of human existence. The other unavoidable reality of human existence providing the second vantage point is death. Lent opens with Ash Wednesday’s stark acknowledgement of the reality of death. Lent isn’t about being morbid, or punitive, or tearing ourselves down, or whipping ourselves into a lather of self-condemnation. It is, rather, about that word I’ve used twice now: reality. It’s about taking honest stock of who and what we are in the face of eternity and in the face of God. We are limited; we are fallible. In a short life of uncertainty we make choices that lead us deeper into separation and chaos—cutting ourselves off from those who love us and whom we would love. Lent is a deliberate exercise in owning up.

Of all the seasons that were altered in the 20th century reforms, Lent was changed the most. The best way to look at the historic Calendar is that it saw Lent as a graded movement into practices of penitence. That is, it started off easy, then, at designated points, ramped things up as you progressed further in the season. The season began with Septuagesima on the Sunday ten weeks out from Easter creating a three week Pre-Lenten period. Then Ash Wednesday hit with the liturgy of the ashes. The Lenten liturgical round started on the First Sunday of Lent. Then Passiontide moved the bar higher two weeks before Easter. Finally, Palm Sunday kicked off Holy Week. So, there were a series of four grades that moved us deeper into Lent and its exercises. However, this process did not fit within the 20th century emphasis on idealized 4th century baptismal practices. In the move to realign the Lenten experience with the 4th century catechumenal process, the principle of grading was rejected and the Lenten experience was reduced to a period of forty days beginning with Ash Wednesday. The Pre-Lenten season was trimmed away; Passion Sunday was merged with Palm Sunday to make Holy Week even more distinct. The Revised Common Lectionary does not recognize Holy Week as a distinct season—it is the final week of Lent. The prayer book, however, does give Holy Week its own heading equal with Lent so we shall consider it separately though recognizing its intrinsic Lenten character.

The fullness of the intention of the 20th century renovation of Lent is not entirely clear without the catechumenal liturgies contained in the Book of Occasional Services. Within the Pastoral Services a set of liturgies is provided for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. On the First Sunday in Lent, the candidates for Baptism are enrolled; on the Third Sunday, they are given the Creed; on the Fifth Sunday, they are given the Lord’s Prayer. I have only ever experienced the fullness of a “catechetical Lent” once—and that was in the context of a Roman Catholic college chaplaincy (I sang in their choir). It was a moving experience to share the Lenten journey with those preparing for Baptism, and it did give that Lent a deeper character. On the other hand, I have never seen this process take place within an Episcopal Church! While the prayer book envisions and provides resources for a return to adult baptism and its communal celebration during Lent and Easter, our evangelism seems to have fallen behind our liturgies… The potential here is all too often left on the table. We have trimmed away some of the traditional richness of the season to make room for another facet of the season that, all too often, is lacking.

Lent is a time to get back in touch with holy habits. The prayer book reminds us that all of the weekdays of Lent are “observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial” (BCP, p. 17); Ash Wednesday’s exhortation to the observation of a holy Lent spurs us to both penitence and faith “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 265). In a work such as this, I would certainly be remiss if I did not offer the reminder that Lent is a perfect time to recommit ourselves to the regular practices of the faith—including the praying of the Office and attendance at Eucharist. These are not great ascetic works—they’re actually fairly easy—but are more useful in the long run than attempts at greater feats of penitence.

On a practical liturgical note, the Lenten liturgies receive a more austere tone. The Gloria in exclesis is not sung; “alleluia” is not said. If a “Hallelujah” does appear in a psalm, the word can simply be omitted. Penitential options are provided for the opening of the Eucharist and as the invitatory antiphons at Morning Prayer. Sundays are always feast days (which is why we speak of Sundays “in” Lent rather than Sundays “of” Lent), but it’s appropriate that the rejoicing be a bit more subdued. (And, of course, on Sundays you may—within moderation—indulge in those things that you have given up for Lent if it is your choice.)  The veiling of images, statutes, icons and crosses is common, but different authorities give different periods as to when this should be done. Some suggest that it is done on the First Sunday in Lent; others suggest Passion Sunday. Of course, with the transference of Passion Sunday to Palm Sunday a decision must be made whether Passiontide is retained as a two week period or, following the prayer book, is reduced to Holy Week itself.