We’re going to do something a little different this morning. Instead of having the usual kind of sermon, we’re going to do what’s called an Instructed Eucharist, where we’ll stop at several points during the service and briefly explain what’s happening. I hope each one of us will hear something new in this – or be reminded of something we haven’t thought about lately – and I hope that might open us to a deeper experience of worship, today and going forward.
Let’s start by giving the thing its proper name. Our principal service of worship in the Episcopal Church is called Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer. We sometimes use other names, including Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, and in some Episcopal Churches you’ll even hear it called the Mass, which comes from the Latin for the words of dismissal: Ite, missa est, or Go, the dismissal is made. Because what we do here doesn’t end at the door. It continues with our being sent forth from church into the world to live what we’ve just experienced.
Eucharist comes from the Greek word meaning thanksgiving. The entire service is an expression of gratitude, and it’s not something the priest does while the people just watch – it’s something we all do together. That’s the idea behind the prayers that are said by the whole assembly, the hymns we sing, and all the standing, sitting, and kneeling we do.
We’ll begin by looking at vestments, which help to set what we do here apart from the ordinary, and also connect us to other Christians through time.
All three of the vestments I’ll wear today – alb, stole, and chasuble – are descended from clothing worn in Roman times. The alb comes down from the white tunic worn the Romans wore as a kind of undergarment, and for us it’s a reminder of the white gown or outfit we wore on the day we were baptized. Roman officials wore a kind of scarf as a mark of rank; for us, the stole is a mark of ordination. (Many of us kiss the cross at the back of the neck when we put the stole on, as a sign of commitment and devotion to this calling.) And the chasuble’s ancestor was a Roman outer garment. The stole and chasuble change color with the liturgical season.
If you visit different Episcopal churches, you might see ministers of the liturgy wearing other vestments that we don’t use here at all. You might see different gestures, both at the altar and in the congregation, and that’s even true here. The Episcopal Church is diverse in some of these details of how we worship, but what we all have in common is the Book of Common Prayer.
[Read after the opening remarks, before the entrance procession]
The service of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer is our principal act of worship. The Eucharist is a celebration of God’s self-giving love for us, and it’s more than a remembrance – we believe that it actually brings us into the presence of Christ.
It’s divided into two parts, titled the Word of God and Holy Communion.
These are the essentials:
During the first part, we
- Gather in the Lord’s name,
- Proclaim and respond to the Word of God,
- Pray for the church and the world, and
- Exchange the Peace
During the second part, we
- Prepare the table,
- Make Eucharist,
- Break the bread,
- Share the gifts of God,
and finally, we are sent back out into the world.
This form of worship is called liturgical because it follows a set pattern which traces its roots to the first centuries of the Christian church. The first part of our service recalls worship in the synagogue, where Jews came together to pray and read from Holy Scripture. Our Opening Acclamation – “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” – is similar to Jewish prayers that also begin with the words, “Blessed be God.”
But before that acclamation, we sing a hymn. Our church law specifies that music should be used “as an offering for the glory of God and as a help to the people in their worship.”
COLLECTS AND READINGS
[Read after the Collect of the Day, before the First Reading]
The Collect for Purity was once said privately by the priest, but has been part of our public worship since the 16th century. The word collect comes from the Latin word meaning to gather; it gathers our individual prayers into one.
On Sundays and Holy Days, a Song of Praise comes next. It’s usually the Gloria, though in Lent we often say “Lord, have mercy” or “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One” instead.
That’s followed by the Collect of the Day, which suggests a particular theme for that day.
Next, we hear readings from Holy Scripture. The specific passages for each Sunday are specified in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three-year cycle of readings that’s used by many Christian denominations around the world – so we’re all on the same page, so to speak. Right now we’re in the year titled Year A, when we hear the Gospel of Matthew. Year B is Mark; Year C is Luke. Readings from John’s Gospel are spread through the three years, mostly in the season of Lent.
The Sunday lectionary specifies a passage from the Old Testament, a psalm, a New Testament passage, and a selection from one of the Gospels, which must read by a priest (or a deacon, if one is present). The Gospeller, as the one who reads the Gospel is called, usually begins by making a cross on the forehead, the lips, and the chest. Others in the congregation might make the same gesture, accompanied by a silent prayer dedicating mind, mouth, and heart to the Word of God.
Although we sit to listen to the other readings, we stand for the Gospel as a sign of particular respect for these stories about Jesus and what he did and said. The Gospel book is a symbol of Christ’s presence, and we carry it out into the midst of the congregation to remind us that Christ is the center of our community.
The Book of Common Prayer specifies that Gospel should be followed by a sermon, and while some parts of the service are marked as optional, this one is not. But the prayerbook doesn’t say anything about what a sermon should be. First of all, it’s not a lecture. It’s not intended to teach about God’s Word, but rather to help us experience it as something that’s alive and has meaning for us in our own lives. There’s a place in John’s Gospel where several Greeks approach Philip at the festival in Jerusalem and plead, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus!” That’s exactly what a good sermon should do: help us to see Jesus.
CREED, CONFESSION, PEACE
[Read after the explanation of the sermon]
After the sermon, we say the creed. The first version of the Nicene Creed was approved at the Council of Nicea in 325 in an effort to make a common statement of the beliefs shared across the universal church. It was adopted in its present form in the year 451. The Latin word credo means I believe – but more than expressing our own personal faith, saying the creed places us in a community that is universal and historical – that’s the meaning of the word catholic in the phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic.” And so when we say the Nicene Creed in church, we begin, “We believe … “
After the creed, we offer prayers for the church and the world. The Prayers of the People include prayers for the universal Church, the Nation and all in authority, the welfare of the world, the concerns of the local community, those who suffer or are in any kind of trouble, and the departed. The Book of Common Prayer contains several forms of the Prayers of the People, but these are offered as examples, and we’re not required to use those exact words.
The Prayers of the People are followed on most Sundays by a general confession. Private confession isn’t required in the Episcopal Church, although it is available for those who desire it. But we take time during our worship to remember the ways we have failed to be the people we were created to be, and we ask for God’s forgiveness. In the Anglican tradition, we believe that it is God who forgives, while the priest simply announces this forgiveness. “Declar[ing] God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners” is one of the responsibilities given to priests by the bishop during the ordination ceremony.
Finally, we pass the Peace. This is more than a friendly greeting – it’s meant as a sign of reconciliation, following Jesus’ instruction that we must be reconciled to our brothers and sisters before we come to offer our gift at the altar. Knowing we are forgiven by God, we stand ready to offer our forgiveness to others.
There are several points in the Eucharist where announcements can be made, according to the Book of Common Prayer, and at Good Shepherd we have our announcements in the time after the Peace and before the Offertory. There’s a natural break there, and the practice of sharing our blessings in community at this time points us toward remembering them as part of our offering back to God of the blessings we’ve been given.
SETTING THE TABLE
[Read after the announcements, but before the offertory]
Now we come to the second part of the service, Holy Communion. We begin by “setting the table,” preparing the altar as you would prepare the table for a meal at home.
A piece of white cloth called a corporal is placed on top of the large cloth that covers the whole table, in order to collect any crumbs of wafer that might fall. Communion wafers are placed on the round dish called a paten – which comes from a Greek word that means flat dish. Wine is poured into the cup called a chalice, and a little water is added to it.
There are several different ways to think of the meaning of adding water to the wine. As a practical matter, people in New Testament times always added water to their wine because it was thick and not really drinkable unless it was diluted. Pouring water into the wine also recalls the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with a spear as he hung on the cross, and blood and water flowed out.
Finally, water may be poured over the priest’s hands. This is called the lavabo, from the Latin for I will wash. In early Christian times, this followed the reception of offerings that might have come in the form of produce and animals which weren’t very clean. Now it represents a prayer for spiritual purity.
[Read after the altar has been prepared, the gifts presented and blessed,
right before “The Lord be with you”]
We have presented our offering to God from the gifts we have been given.
Now we come to what the Book of Common Prayer calls making Eucharist, the part of the service that’s labeled The Great Thanksgiving in the prayerbook. These prayers express our thanks for God’s work in creation and on our behalf through history, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us, and to rise again at Easter.
The priest prays with arms spread and hands open, in what’s called the orans position, a traditional prayer posture that dates to the early church. Its meaning is communicated without words through the posture itself.
Referencing the accounts of the Last Supper in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and First Corinthians, we remember the words of Jesus: “This is my body … this is my blood … do this for the remembrance of me.”
The Eucharistic prayer calls on the Holy Spirit to sanctify both the bread and wine and ourselves, transforming us into signs of Christ’s presence in the world. Over time the Anglican tradition has included a variety of beliefs about the real presence; today Episcopalians generally believe that Christ is present in the elements of the Eucharist, but how that happens is a mystery that can’t be explained.
The priest holds up the large wafer and breaks it at the Fraction – or Breaking of the Bread – which reminds us of the brokenness of Christ’s body on the cross.
This is followed by the doxology (“By him, with him, and in him … “) and the Great Amen, an affirmation of the entire Eucharistic Prayer by everyone present.
And finally, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus himself taught his disciples when he asked them how to pray. Like the Creed, it unites us with Christians who have prayed these words down through history, and across the world.
[Read after the bread is broken, before the words of invitation]
At Good Shepherd, people come to the altar rail and stand or kneel to receive communion. Standing was the traditional posture for receiving communion, and in fact in the early church it was the most common posture for prayer. Kneeling didn’t become popular until the Middle Ages, and the communion rail didn’t arrive until the 18th century. The Book of Common Prayer says nothing about standing or kneeling here, and the practice for receiving communion varies among Episcopal churches.
In our tradition, everyone has the opportunity to receive both the bread and the wine, although we do believe that Christ is fully present in both. The use of the words The Body of Christ and The Blood of Christ dates to early times; the Amen said in response by those receiving communion is an affirmation of this profession of faith.
[Read after communion is finished and the altar is cleared, before the post-communion prayer]
And now, having gathered in God’s name, proclaimed and responded to God’s Word, prayed for the church and the world, exchanged the Peace, made Eucharist, broken the bread, and shared God’s gifts, we’re ready to be blessed and sent back out into the world, to love and serve God.
To further explore the origins and history of the services in the Book of Common Prayer:
Commentary on the American Prayer Book, by Marion J. Hatchett
To further explore the spirituality of Holy Eucharist:
Liturgical Life Principles: How Episcopal Worship Can Lead to Healthy and Authentic Living, by Ian S. Markham
 Book of Common Prayer, pp. 400-401.
 Constitution & Canons, Canon II:5.
 John 12:21 NRSV
 Book of Common Prayer, p. 531.
 Matthew 5:24
 John 19:34
 Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
 Matthew 6:5-13 and Luke 11:1-4