The Eucharist in slow motion


1. Shapes, patterns and names

Most of us have probably had the experience of attending the Eucharist (holy communion or mass), reaching the end and realising that we have not taken anything in; everything has gone over our heads without any impression being made. Another thing that happens is that we pay attention all right, but don’t really understand what we say or why.

Let me say first of all that there is nothing wrong or second rate about either of these experiences. There is more to worship than our mental engagement or understanding. Nonetheless, if we are to begin to encounter that “more to worship”, if we are to relax into celebrating the Eucharist it may help if we have some knowledge of what is going on. In this short series I hope to move through the parts of the Eucharist from greeting to dismissal, discussing things as we go in what I hope is a helpful way.

In talking about worship, there are three aspects that I think belong together: the “historical” – how and why we arrived here; the “devotional” – what happens to us; and the “doctrinal” – what is going on here. I am somewhat reluctant to bring in the last of these but the editor asked me to say something so I shall, though only a little. Please remember that anything I write is to stimulate further thought, discussion and questioning, as well as to provide information.

This series will be concerned with the ritual of the Eucharist (the prescribed words, and sometimes gestures, of the service) rather than the associated ceremonial (vestments, candles, music, incense, etc.); again, how the two come together can be significant for particular celebrations. It is, however, more than time to press on.

Some basic patterns in the Eucharist

The Jewish background to what became the Eucharist is fairly clear even though we cannot be sure exactly how things were done in the New Testament period. All Jewish meals, especially the Sabbath meal, contained quite formal blessings and thanksgivings, though these would be directed towards God rather than upon the food. The Passover meal introduced the concept of bringing the past forward into the present, so that in the meal every Jew in every time takes part in the original Passover and Exodus, and the present actively anticipates the future banquet of the Kingdom of God.

The earliest Christians, being themselves Jews, not only continued these practices and attitudes but added the new element of recalling the life and work, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus in the context of a meal. This is partly a recollection of Jesus’ general practice at table, partly recalling of Jesus’ words and actions at the last supper (1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 is the earliest account), partly in anticipation of the “Kingdom Banquet” at which Jesus would preside. It is clear from Paul’s other remarks in 1 Corinthians 11: 23 ff that this eucharistic action (an important word) of taking, thanking, breaking and distributing took place within a contributory meal. For reasons, including those Paul suggests, the meal becomes separate to be an “agape” (love feast) in its own right.

By the time of Justin Martyr (died c. 165) who lived at the very end, and immediately after, the New Testament period, the Eucharist (thanksgiving – Justin’s word) has become a Sunday morning service, rather than an occasional evening meal; it is also the context in which baptisms take place. On Sunday the whole Christian assembly meets together, readings from the “prophets” and/or the “memoirs of the apostles” (presumably the gospels) are read, intercessions offered following an exhortation by the president and this leads to the kiss of peace. Bread and wine and water are brought and the president offers thanksgiving (eucharist) to the Father and in the name of the Son and Holy Spirit “ at length and to the best of his power”. The deacons distribute the bread and wine and take portions to those absent; Sunday was a working day and slaves and others would not always be present. Justin insists that for believers, and only the baptised are communicants, after the thanksgiving the bread and wine are no longer “ordinary food” but “is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh”, but he does not say how he understands this.

Our earliest example of a eucharistic prayer comes from early in the third century but it is a sample prayer, containing what is thought necessary, the president is still expected to improvise. The prayer begins with the dialogue, familiar to us, “The Lord be with you …. Lift up your hearts, etc.”, but does not include the anthem “Holy, Holy, Holy ….” or other acclamations. This is the model of all recent eucharistic prayers and moves from thanksgiving to God for works of creation, incarnation, redemption and sanctification to recalling the words of Jesus at the Last Supper and offering of the bread and cup to God, concluding with a calling down of the Holy Spirit on the gifts of the Church and for a fruitful reception of communion.

I do not have space to provide a complete history of the eucharist but by surveying the earliest period we can grasp the major point that recalling past events is not a simple remembrance but a telescoping of past, present and future. Also, whether the Jewish head of household, the New Testament host, the early Christian president, or the modern priest, one person personifies the unity of the whole assembly; one presides so that all may celebrate. Lastly, this early history reminds us that what we think of as “modern” services have deeper historical roots.

A brief word about doctrine

Anglicans believe that the eucharist is a sacrament; a sacrament is an action (originally the taking of a sacred pledge or oath) not a thing. Article XXV reminds us that sacraments are not merely tokens of our Christian commitment, nor only pledges of God’s grace to us individually but “effective signs” i.e. things that deliver what they represent: they do “exactly what it says on the tin”. In this case the bread and wine convey the body and blood of Jesus to the believer. We may understand this in two ways. One point of view (known as “receptionism”) puts the emphasis on the faith of the believer by which the bread and wine are the signs, but not the means, of conveying the body and blood of Christ. On the other hand, or the “real presence” view by the prayers of the Church, and Christ’s own promise, the bread and wine become vehicles of his body and blood, conveying the benefits of his risen and ascended life. Loyal Anglicans can subscribe to either of these views; both are consistent with the teaching of the Prayer Book, the early fathers, the fathers of the Reformation (especially John Calvin) and early Anglican teaching.

Names and their significance

In the New Testament letters breaking the bread (in Luke), Lord’s Supper (in Paul) emphasise that we participate in a real meal using the materials of a real meal. The holy communion derives from 1 Corinthians 10: 16 with its message that the consuming of bread and wine is a real participation, sharing or communion in the body and blood of Christ. As we have seen eucharist is an early post Biblical title, in modern times the most ecumenical title, placing the participation in communion firmly in the context of blessing and thanksgiving. In the Eastern Churches a usual name is the liturgy, meaning either a work for the people, or of the people: all are celebrants, all participate, all benefit. Finally, the Mass is not an exclusively Roman Catholic title – many Lutheran Protestants use it, and reminds us that the dismissal (the words have the same origin) is not the end of things but we have to take the Christ we have received into the world.

Having cleared some ground we can now move into looking at the parts of the service in some detail.

2. From the greeting to the collects

The entrance and the greeting

Since the eucharist is a corporate act, celebrated by everyone, it is desirable that the entry of the ministers, which may be accompanied by appropriate music and singing, should be through the congregation; not coming on from the side like actors in a play.

The greeting between the president and the people establishes their relations; the president, as servant of Christ the pastor, exercises his presidency within a congregation exercising its priesthood as servants of Christ the priest. As we saw last time, the greeting “The Lord be with you…” which has biblical roots (e.g. Ruth 2:4), was used liturgically as early as the third century. It is both a wish and a statement, a true eucharist can only be celebrated because the Holy Spirit is present to guide, protect and help; hence “The Lord is here …. His Spirit is with us.” Common Worship (CW) provides three forms of greeting including a special Easter one, which may be followed by the president’s own informal words.

The prayers of preparation and penitence

The preparatory prayer or Collect for Purity, beginning “Almighty God to whom all hearts are open …”, is attributed to Gregory, Abbot of Canterbury, c.780. As, in the medieval mass, it had been part of the priest’s private preparation, all English Prayer Books (1549-1928) gave it to the president alone. This prayer sets the tone for all that is to follow, setting our wills (the “thoughts of our hearts”) in the right direction to celebrate the eucharist.

The prayers of penitence follow naturally here and CW assumes that they will, while making a vague provision for using them later in the service (note 10). Actually, the case for a late position (e.g. before the Peace) is a good one. In favour of the position at the beginning is an acknowledgement of our unworthiness to offer any worship to God. The later position emphasises confession as a reaction to hearing God’s word; associated with the intercessions our confession identifies our shortcomings with those of the world; confession before the peace is a liturgical expression of Matthew 5: 23-4 and 1 Corinthians 11: 28.

The invitation to confession beginning” God so loved the world….” is based on three of Cranmer’s Comfortable Words and his invitation to confession. Two forms of confession are given in CW and others may be used, including a very fine one composed by Professor David Frost for ASB (1980) (“Father eternal, giver of life and grace …..) with echoes of the writings of Julian of Norwich.

The confession can be preceded either by the Commandments or the Comfortable Words, the latter were taken by Cranmer from Continental reformed liturgies; both could be used selectively more often than they are. The more often heard “Summary of the Law” (Matthew 22: 37-40, Mark 12: 29-31) began to be used in the eighteenth century, but the proposed Prayer Book of 1928 was the first Church of England work to permit its use.

The absolution is largely that of the old Roman rite followed by Cranmer 1549 and emphasises God’s willingness to forgive.

Kyries, Gloria and Collect

The response Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) began as a congregational response to the petitions of intercessory prayer in the eastern churches as early as the fourth century. It spread to the west and Christe eleison (Christ have mercy) added. By the time of Gregory the Great they were used without petition on non-festal days. By 700 they have assumed their present form and position, acquiring increasingly elaborate musical settings; only in the thirteenth century did they become a dialogue of priest and people.

Cranmer at first simply took them over in the Prayer Book of 1549, but in 1552 he used the translation “Lord have mercy upon us …” giving a more penitential slant, which became a response to the reading of the Commandments. From 1928 the Kyries began to be used as an alternative to the Gloria on weekdays and in Advent and Lent; CW follows ASB and allows either, both or neither to be used.

At one time at All Saints’ we used the Kyries every Sunday even with the Gloria; a reminder that even our praise of God depends on his merciful grace.

The hymn Gloria in excelsis (Glory to God in the highest) is a fourth century composition. It consists of an opening based on the angels’ song at Christ’s birth (Luke 2:14) followed by an acclamation to God the Father and two to God the Son. In the eastern churches it retains its original place as a canticle in the morning office. In the west it began to move into the eucharist at first only on Sundays and festivals where the Bishop presided; priests could only use it at Easter until the twelfth century.

Cranmer’s decision in the Prayer Book of 1552 to move the Gloria to the end of the communion rite had a certain logic. With the heavy penitential character of the early part of the service, there was a gradual movement from penitence to praise and those who had just shared the heavenly feast now shared in the hymn of praise. The movement first referred to is maintained by placing it before the collect, though now over a shorter period.

Collects are a distinct Western type of prayer which developed a particular shape:-

  1. An address to God the Father – in some collects composed for BCP 1662 (e.g. Lent 1) the address is to God the Son;
  2. Usually, but not always, a relative clause describing some attribute of God that is the ground of the petition;
  3. The petition itself, either for the Church or the congregation;
  4. The purpose or object of the petition;
  5. The meditation – “through Jesus Christ …” ending with a Trinitarian doxology and “who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit”. In modern English “lives with” often has the sense of “dwells” which is not quite the same as the Latin “visit” hence “is alive”.

Many of our collects go back to the fourth and fifth century and are noted for balance in the clauses and brevity in the sentiments. Prayers associated with particular days or seasons, known as “propers”, emerge with certainty at about the same time, and we tend to think of the collect of the day, although the collect shape can be used for many kinds of prayers.

As the name implies the collect is a collective prayer and is for the president as the focus of the prayers of the collected people of God.

3. From the readings to the intercessions

Perhaps many of us regard this part of the Eucharist with a degree of resignation, or even irritation; something attached to but not part of what we are here for – a kind of overture or entr’acte before the main event. So I suppose I have to confess that from a very small boy I found the readings and sermon the most engaging part of any act of worship: something for me. However, I cannot explain my own delight in these things, only try to explain their place in the eucharistic whole.

The readings

As we saw in the first part of this series our earliest account of the eucharist from Justin Martyr (died c. 165 AD) includes readings from the Old Testament and from Christian writings, probably the gospels, though Justin is imprecise. Almost certainly there was no lectionary or scheme of readings, and what was read would depend on time, and indeed the books, available.

In the early centuries, as church life settled down and particularly from the fourth century onwards, the number and type of readings varied. At some times, and in some places, there could be as many as four: from the Law and the prophets, as in the synagogue, with the addition of two others from the epistles and gospels. Other places used three, rather like our modern practice, and the Roman rite which was noted for its austerity and brevity, only two: Epistle and Gospel on Sundays, Old Testament and Gospel on weekdays, usually Wednesday and Friday. The system of two readings spread as the Roman rite established a pre-eminence in the Western Church and with the growth of “proper” readings for Saints’ days and seasons the Old Testament reading more or less disappeared.

The Church of England prayer books from 1552 to 1928 continued the medieval practice, for the Sunday eucharist, of New Testament readings only; a few Old Testament readings were provided for Holy Days. We should understand, however, that Cranmer expected that the Sunday eucharist would be preceded by Morning Prayer (with its Old Testament reading) and the Litany. All ages would attend this lengthy service, sometimes made longer by the catechising of confirmation candidates; and until 1689 attendance was legally compulsory. Around the mid-sixteenth century this pattern broke up and the eucharist became an early morning service for the devout, with matins becoming the main mid-morning service. In the twentieth century the growth of the parish communion movement resulted in those attending the main service of the day never hearing the Old Testament, hence the revised Anglican eucharists made provision for returning to the situation in the early church, with reading from both testaments.

Why readings from these books? Firstly, they provide a catholic moment both in time – we have seen the deep roots of scripture reading at the eucharist – and in space; all parts of the Church gather around scripture and in many places of worship (not all Anglican ones) these same readings will be read. We can go further: the reading from the Old Testament and use of psalms provide a link with our origins in Judaism; Jesus was a Jew not a Christian and his Bible was the Jewish one. The readings are a theological moment also, coming from our “classical” foundation documents; they do not contain the Christian faith in themselves, but rather the bricks from which the faith is built. Finally, the readings being a note of crisis, of judgement, read “plain and unadorned”; they mark a standard by which we may judge our worship and our lives. Humbert of Romans (c.1100-77), the fourth Master of the Dominicans, remarked that the words of scripture are “about God, from God and directed to God” – so we may say that they are “the word of the Lord”.

The hymns or psalms sung between the readings are called graduals, from the Latin gradus, the step from which they were sung.

The sermon

This follows naturally here, and did so in the early church, but when the creed was introduced the sermon often followed it as it did in the English Prayer Books (1549-1928). Although the sermon may include instruction or information, it is primarily not an educative but a spiritual matter for both preacher and congregation. How often do we pray for our preachers as we hear them? Preaching is a spiritual task, a vocation, a receiving of the Holy Spirit, an entering into the grace which God gives to his Church representative by the preacher’s congregation. Preaching is essentially God’s act, a kind of sacrament; the preacher through prayer and study can only do his or her best and trust that God will take human words and use them as vehicles of the Word.

The creed

This is no place to attempt a thorough analysis of the Creed; it deserves a series of its own, the “Creed in Slow Motion” perhaps! I was fortunate – that may be the word – as an undergraduate to translate the creed from the original Greek and to study the history of the early church period when the Fathers of the Church fought:

To prove their doctrine orthodox
By apostolic blows and knocks

So, to me, the creed is a kind of London Underground map; a stylised representation of more complex goings on. The Greek word for creed is symbol. The creed at the eucharist is the symbol, the consensus of opinion of all the bishops in councils called to settle various matters of dispute - chiefly to do with the relationship of the eternal Son with the Father, with the incarnate Jesus (Council of Nicea 325), and with how the Spirit relates to the Godhead (Council of Constantinople 381). You will have to take my word for it that these things matter. We call this creed the Nicene Creed but actually it is the Creed of Constantinople, which incorporates that of Nicea, with slight revisions.

The use of the creed in the eucharist seems to have begun in fifth century Antioch, spread to Byzantium and to Spain (where it served as a kind of text imposed by the Council of Toledo 589, Spain being recently converted from the Arian heresy) and slowly to the rest of central Europe. In Rome it was only accepted in the eleventh century, and then, like the Gloria only on Sundays and feast days. It was the Council of Toledo that added the clause “and the Son” to the paragraph about the Holy Spirit. The Council had no authority to do this and it is a sign of division between the Latin Western Church and the Greek East.

With that one exception the creed today is a sign of our unity with the Churches of the East and our solidarity with orthodox belief, even if we need an explanation of some of the meaning of its expressions. By the way, the modern translation is a much better one than that in the Prayer Book.

The intercessions

“They are normally broadly based expressing a concern for the whole of God’s world and the ministry of the whole Church.” (Common Worship, note 15)

4. From the Peace to the dismissal

The Peace

The biblical basis of the Peace can be found in numerous places in the New Testament: Romans 16:16, I Corinthians 16:20, II Corinthians 13:12, I Thessalonians 5:26, I Peter 5:14. In the earliest accounts of the eucharist it always came between the intercessions and the Eucharistic Prayer probably reflecting the sentiments of Matthew 5: 23-24.

In the fifth century Roman rite the Peace followed the Eucharist Prayer as an immediate preparation for communion. This is its place in the modern Roman Mass and Cranmer retained this for the first English Prayer Book (1549); subsequent Prayer Books dropped the Peace altogether until it became optional in 1928.

Modern Anglican liturgies have made it mandatory and restored it to its primitive place. How the Peace is expressed between the congregation is left to local custom but should strengthen the sense of unity and overcoming of faction.

The preparation of the table

The collection of alms, receiving of bread and wine and other preparations for the eucharistic action are mentioned frequently and early. While in the East deacons brought the gifts from the sacristy during the Peace, the Western Church developed an increasingly elaborate “offertory” of processions, censing, hand washing and music with each ceremony having its own prayers. The latter often seemed to confuse the giving and receiving of the gifts with the offering of Christ in his death referred to in the Eucharistic Prayer.

The reaction of the Reformers, beginning with Luther, was drastic. The Offertory was done away with altogether. In the first English Prayer Books there was a collection – put immediately into the poor box – bread and wine were often already on the Table and the priest immediately began the Eucharistic Prayer. The Prayer Book of 1662 restored the manual acts abolished at the Reformation, brought the taking, thanking and breaking together in one brief sequence during the “institution narrative” (see below). The modern eucharistic services emphasise each part of the action by giving it a distinct context. Taking the bread and wine may be only a preliminary action to thanking, but it is a necessary one and is mandatory, although the president is allowed (Common Worship note 17) to take the bread and wine into his/her hands during or before the eucharistic prayer; laying them back on the altar.

The Eucharistic Prayer

There is not space to discuss all the options in this prayer but the general shape is the same whatever version of the prayer is used. Although variability in the Eucharistic Prayer is relatively new in the Church of England (and in the Roman Catholic tradition also) in the early church variety within an agreed pattern was normal; different Eucharistic prayers for different times and seasons are neither unusual or new fangled.

Although this prayer contains distinct elements it is one prayer, any sudden changes of posture during the prayer, for which there is no precedent in Anglican practice, is illogical and destroys this unity of action. In particular, to kneel part way through implies a semi-superstitious belief that some parts of the prayer are more important than others. Individual frailty apart, posture throughout should be consistent.

The prayer begins with the opening dialogue and sursum corda (Lift up your hearts …) which appear in our earliest Eucharistic Prayer (215). The greeting (the Lord be with you ….) renews the relations between the president and congregation. The phrase “Lift up your hearts” (known as the sursum corda) emphasises that we meet with a Lord who comes to earth and, in worship, ascends to meet him in the heavenly places – even if we no longer think of these as “up”. “Let us give thanks ….” sets the essential agenda of the Eucharistic Prayer: eucharist means thanks.

The Preface is a variable part of the prayer, the tradition of different prefaces for different times and seasons is very old. They all thank God for his mighty acts, creation, incarnation, redemption, and so on, culminating in the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy ….) and Benedictus (Blessed is he …). These two anthems have been associated together in this place since the fourth century and are based on Isaiah 6:3; Mark 11:9-10 and Revelation 4:8.

We are then led into the invocation or epiclesis, calling upon the Holy Spirit. Most of our modern eucharistic prayers have a double epiclesis, one before the institution narrative calling the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine and one after calling for a blessing on the communicants.

The institution narrative recalls the command of Jesus at the Last Supper endorsing what we do in a context of giving thanks for his redeeming work. It does not follow exactly any one of the New Testament accounts.

The following acclamations, a long established tradition in the Eastern Church, focus attention on Christ’s death, resurrection and return. The oldest form is that beginning “Dying you destroyed our death …”

The anamnesis indicates how our action fulfils the Lord’s command (“therefore we remember … call to mind,” etc.) and how past, present and future are brought together through it. Often combined with a second invocation of the Holy Spirit on the congregation is a request for fruitful reception of communion. The whole prayer concludes with a doxology which summarises the movement of the eucharistic action. We stand with Christ and in Christ, and through him we are brought into the Father’s presence through the power of the Holy Spirit. The final Amen establishes the unity of the president and the congregation in what has been done.

The Lord’s Prayer and the Fraction

Gregory the Great (Pope 590-604) not only sent Augustine to England, but placed the Lord’s Prayer after the Eucharistic Prayer, after the example of the Eastern Churches. The Fraction – the breaking of the bread – is a necessary preliminary to distribution, fulfils the third part of Jesus’ action at the Last Supper and emphasises the unity of the Church in Christ (I Corinthians 10:16-17). This may be accompanied by the anthem Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) inspired by Isaiah 53:7, John 1:29 and Revelation 5:6ff. This was introduced, probably from Syria, in the seventh century and retained by many Reformation liturgies but dropped by the English Prayer Books from 1552.

The Distribution

This is the fourth of the acts from the Last Supper and is preceded by several forms of invitation – “Draw near with faith …” from the Book of Common Prayer, “Jesus is the Lamb …” from Roman Catholic tradition, “God’s holy gifts …” from the Eastern Church and an Easter invitation from I Corinthians 5:7-8.

The Prayer of Humble Access

Although we may agree that this prayer, composed by Cranmer from various Biblical and liturgical sources, is both elegant and well loved, the problem has always been where to put it: even Cranmer could not decide. Its present place, immediately before the reception of communion, resembles that in the Prayer Book of 1549. In essence this is a prayer for fruitful reception of the body and blood of Christ. Professor David Frost composed the alternative prayer beginning, “Most merciful Lord ….” related to George Herbert’s poem “Love” and containing images from the Psalms and the New Testament.

Post Communion Prayers

Following a seasonal post communion prayer all may join in either of two prayers of thanks and dedication. The one beginning “Father of all …..” again by David Frost, is very popular but is perhaps too rich in imagery to be clearly focused. It is a pity that the original “anchor us in this hope” (Hebrews 6:19) was changed to the feebler “keep us in ….”.

Blessing and Dismissal

The blessing, whether the “standard” one derived from 1549 or a seasonal one may be regarded as unnecessary at a small service where all have communicated. The dismissal, even if we do not actually go out, reminds us of the intimate relations between mission and worship. We are constantly driven from the glorious realities of one to the harsh realities of the other and back again.

Finally, we shall only encounter God in the eucharist, find the Word in the words, ascend by the Spirit to join the songs of heaven and meet Christ face to face in the sacrament if we come expecting that we shall.

BCP or Prayer Book – Book of Common Prayer
(especially those of 1549, 1552, 1662 and 1928)
ASB – Alternative Service Book 1980
CW – Common Worship 2000

Clarence Rickards

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Last revised 15th April 2006