Understanding the Holy Eucharist
Holy Eucharist on Sunday is the central point of our week as Christians. We gather to be renewed in our faith and life together. When we worship and pray together, we are taking part in a tradition that is bigger than ourselves. Our prayers are united with those of Christians through time and space. At Christ Church Eureka, we take great care when it comes to worship. We celebrate a Contemplative Eucharist at 8 AM which includes little to no singing and a Choral Eucharist at 10:30 AM which includes hymns accompanied by the organ and often the choir. This guide is offered to help all of us understand more fully what it is that we do when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
Preparation for Worship
- Focus on Sunday worship during the week as the center point of your week. Look forward to it. Read the lessons for the coming Sunday. Worship, along with daily prayer and regular service to those in need, forms the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
- Arrive early at church for a time of quiet preparation before worship. We are coming into the presence of God so we do not arrive breathless or late for the meeting. We need time to become aware of God and of each other. You can use the prayers on pages 833-841 in the Book of Common Prayer as preparation.
- We are not meant to be passive or solitary in worship. As Soren Kierkegaard has written, “Worship is a drama: the congregants are the players, the clergy and musicians are the prompters and God is the audience.” The drama is about how God has revealed himself to us and our response. There are four parts to the drama:
- Prepare to hear the story
- Hear the story
- Act out the story
- Go forth with the story
Prepare to Hear the Story
- The Prelude is a musical offering that enables preparation for worship
- The Procession during the Hymn symbolizes that the entire congregation comes before God as we stand and sing together.
- The Call to Worship (“Blessed be God…”) begins the service by drawing the presider and people into a dialogue and establishing our reason for being together – to praise God.
- In the Collect for Purity, we pray that we may come before God with a pure desire to worship him, asking God to cleanse our hearts, our wills and our entire being so we may give our whole attention to him. (For history on this lovely prayer, see appendix A)
- The Hymn of Praise can be the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion or other hymns that remind us of God’s glory. (See appendix B for more on the common hymns of praise).
- The leader then greets the people: “The Lord be with you.” Our response is always “And also with you” or “And with thy spirit” depending on whether we are praying with contemporary (Rite II) or more traditional (Rite I) prayers. Every time we say this to one another we are making a bold assertion of the Presence of God here and now, among us and within us. (See appendix C for more on this greeting known as Dominus Vobiscum)
- The Collect of the Day is a “summing up” prayer that brings together (“collects”) our thoughts and prayers and sets the theme of the season or day. When we say the word the “collect,” we put the emphasis on the first syllable (COLL-ect).
Hear the Story: The Word of God
- The Lessons include two readings with a psalm from the Bible, following a season (Advent, Easter, etc.) and 3-year pattern for Sundays, which can be found on pages 889 – 921 of the prayer book or online under Revised Common Lectionary. (The word lectionary is a fancy word for a list of readings.) They tell how, throughout history, God has been revealed and how people have responded. It is not a preliminary to preaching. It is God speaking to us in the present, here today.
- If you come to church every Sunday for three years, you will encounter nearly all of the New Testament and a good amount of the Old Testament. Some of the most challenging and interesting parts of the scripture are omitted, so there’s no substitute for picking up a Bible and reading it yourself, if you want the full story!
- The Gospel Procession: The Gospel reading holds a special place because it tells the story of Jesus and of our redemption. By moving into the center of the congregation, the procession symbolizes the way in which the Gospel—the Good News of God in Jesus Christ—came into the world and continues to do so. The congregants turn their attention to the Gospel during the procession and the reading. The Gospel is read by a deacon when one is present, or otherwise by a priest.
- The “signing” of the Gospel: we make the sign of the cross on our forehead, lips and heart, asking that the Word may be in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts.
- The Sermon: Our prayer book requires a response to the scriptures in a sermon. The preacher comments on the readings and helps us make connections with our own lives. Sermons are not just Bible Studies in which we scrutinize the scriptures with critical eyes, though the sermons may take us deeply into scripture. Sermons are not merely essays on what is happening in the world, though no good preacher will ignore the world outside the church. Rather sermons are meant to draw us into the sweeping narrative of God’s love found in the scriptures and to help us find our place in that grand story.
- After the sermon, silence is observed so that we may reflect on what we have heard and so that we may listen to God speak into our hearts and lives.
- The Nicene Creed serves as a sign of unity and an opportunity to reaffirm what we believe. When we say, “We believe…” we are saying these words together with Christian who worship all over the world and who have worshipped since the 4th By reciting these words together, we place ourselves in a beautiful and slowly moving river of Christian theological tradition. Regardless of the issues we face in our lives and in our world, the church throughout all time and all places proclaims the same ancient faith rooted in the saving work of God the Father (in creation), of God the Son (in our redemption), and in God the Holy Spirit (in sustaining us). We often make the sign of the cross when we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.”
- The Prayers of the People: Having heard God’s promises and love for us in the Word, we now come before God with our needs and the needs of the world. The Prayers of the People are led by lay people to demonstrate the priesthood of all believers. (For more on the Prayers of the People, see Appendix D)
- Confession: Rooted in an awareness of God’s love and forgiveness, we honestly confess our sins to God. After we ask for forgiveness and pray for change in our lives, the priest will pronounce God’s forgiveness. This is kind of confession is often called general confession, as it is said by all people, covering all sins. Some people will want to avail themselves of what is sometimes called private confession—where one confesses privately to a priest—outside of the liturgy.
- Absolution: The priest pronounces the forgiveness of sins not in his or her name but in God’s name. Thus, having reconciled with God, we exchange the Peace.
- The Peace celebrates our forgiveness by God and symbolizes our reconciliation with one another. It is not a time to chat but to offer God’s peace to one another. It is a sign that we are prepared to move on to the Liturgy of the Table. (For more on the Peace, see Appendix E)
Acting Out the Story
- The Offertory: Money is gathered as an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over the world and over our lives. We also acknowledge that all we have has been given to us by God. (On the third Sunday of the month, we bring fruit and vegetables to the altar for a blessing. This food is then brought to St. Vincent de Paul Free Dining Facility.) Whatever is collected from the people, all our gifts –including our gifts of home-baked bread and wine for Holy Eucharist—are presented and placed on the altar.
- Bread and wine are used because they were used by Jesus at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26-29). Water is also used, symbolizing both the water that flowed from the side of Jesus on the Cross and as the sign of our baptism.
- In the offertory procession, we offer our very selves to God, trusting that God will transform our lives so that we might live according to God’s purposes for us.
- We sing the Common Doxology after the priest says, “All things come of thee, O Lord” and the people respond, “And of thine own have we given thee.” (For more on the Common Doxology, see Appendix F)
The Holy Communion
- The Great Thanksgiving: All that we have done so far has prepared us for the thanksgiving meal when we share the bread and wine together. Jesus first showed us how to do this, and he promised that he would be present whenever we share this special meal (Mark 14:22-24; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). The word Eucharist means “Thanksgiving” and the word communion comes from the same root as community. We are the Lord’s community communing together around his meal, giving thanks to God for all God’s gifts to us.
- The Invitation: “The Lord be with you…” (Dominus Vobiscum, see Appendix C)
- Sursum Corda: This is Latin for “Lift up your hearts,” an old Jewish table blessing
- Proper Preface: A seasonal or thematic introduction to the Sanctus
- Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy…” comes from Isaiah’s vision of heaven (Isaiah 6:1-8) and the song sung in God’s presence from Revelation 4 and 5. This hymn of praise presupposes that God has come among us, and we worship him with these words. We often make the sign of the cross when we say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
- The Eucharistic Prayer: There are four of these in the Prayer Book and they have many things in common. They call us to remember the history of what God has done for us, especially on the night of the Last Supper. In all the prayers, the priest asks the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine holy, to represent the body and blood of Jesus. This is what we mean when we say the bread and wine are consecrated. We believe that as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are experiencing the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection for us. This enables us to share in the new life that Jesus brings to us by his dying and rising again.
- See Appendix G to learn about the Hebrew Blessing Fr. Daniel often offers during the Eucharistic prayer
- Memorial Acclamation: “Christ has died…” or “We remember his death…” This is proclaimed strongly, as an affirmation of our faith.
- The Great Doxology: “By him, and with him, and in him…”
- THE GREAT AMEN: This is in bold capitals because it is proclaimed, nearly shouted by the congregation. Make sure you proclaim this “AMEN” with lots of vim and vigor. It is our agreement with what has been said. Many liturgists consider this to be the peak and pinnacle of the entire Eucharistic Prayer.
- The Lord’s Prayer: This is the prayer taught by Jesus. We say it in unity with him (Matthew 6:9-15). The Communion is the divine answer to the words: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
- The Fraction or the Breaking of the Bread: Jesus took the bread at the Last Supper, and he broke it. We do this as a symbol of his death on the cross for us. At this point, the bread has become the Body of Christ, and so this breaking of Christ’s body reminds us poignantly of the sacrifice Jesus made for us in his death.
- Silence: After the bread is broken, silence will be kept. This is one of the only places where The Book of Common Prayer orders silence. We might constructively use this time for spiritual preparation to receive Eucharist, perhaps repeated the words of St. Thomas when he realized he was seeing Jesus Christ himself, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28).
- Invitation: “The gifts of God…” this is an invitation to all baptized Christians to come to the meal that Christ has prepared for us, confessing that we cannot live by bread alone, but need the Lord. This is affirmed when we say, “Amen” after receiving the bread and wine. Everyone in the congregation is invited to come to the table. Those who do not receive Holy Communion are given a blessing by the priest.
- The Post-Communion Prayer: This is our way of saying “Thank You” for what God has given us. Leaving before this is like leaving a dinner party without thanking the host.
Going Forth with the Story
- The Blessing is given by the bishop (when present) or the priest, conferring God’s blessing on those gathered. Because it is Trinitarian, we can make the sign of the cross here.
- Dismissal: We are sent forth into the world to do the work of the Kingdom, heeding the words of the Great Commission of Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20). We have gathered as a community, we have worshipped, we are absolved, nourished, healed and empowered, now we go. We respond to whatever is said at the dismissal with the words, “Thanks be to God.” (The double “Alleluias” are reserved for the Easter season, but single “Alleluias” are appropriate during Ordinary time. Of course, no “Alleluias” during Lent.)
- In the words “Thanks be to God” we give thanks for not only the worship we have experienced but for Christ’s abiding presence in our lives as we go forth into the world to do the work he has given us.
- The Postlude is a seasonally appropriate musical conclusion designed to send us into the world to “Love and serve the Lord.”
- Regardless of form or style in the Eucharistic service, Jesus Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. In worshipping as Christians have worshiped for hundreds of years, we too hear God’s word in scripture; we too offer our prayers for our community and our world; we too offer our gifts to God; we too are nourished by Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood; and we too know the transformation of God’s saving grace at work in our lives. Thanks be to God, indeed.
Much of this guide comes directly from pages 41 – 67 of the book Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs and Practices (Cincinnati OH: Forward Movement, 2018) by Scott Gunn & Melody Wilson Shobe.
The Collect for Purity
The 14th century English Mystical treatise titled The Cloud of Unknowing begins with the following prayer:
God, unto Whom alle hertes ben open, and unto Whom alle wille spekith, and unto Whom no privé thing is hid: I beseche Thee so for to clense the entent of myn hert with the unspekable gift of Thi grace that I may parfiteliche love Thee, and worthilich preise Thee. Amen.
Some trace this prayer back to St. Alcuin of York (735 – 804) who may have written it for the consecration of Charlemagne, reminding the great king of the greater King from whom no secrets are hid, including any clandestine political motivations behind the religious ceremony.
The prayer can be found in Latin in the Leofric missal, an illuminated manuscript from the 10th and 11th century, named after Leofric, the Bishop of Exeter. It is also listed in the Sarum Rite (again in Latin) among the prayers said privately by the priest before Mass. Established by St. Osmond the Bishop of Salsbury (d. 1099), the Sarum Rite served as an adapted Roman Rite to be used in the Salsbury cathederal and throughout the Salsbury Diocese. The Sarum Rite or Use of Salsbury spread in popularity throughout England, inspiring the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing to translate it into his Middle English.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (d. 1556) dipped into the Sarum Rite as a resource in constructing his 1549 Book of Common Prayer and plucked this jewel of a prayer, writing it as:
Almightie God, unto whom all hartes bee open, and all desyres knowen, and from whom no secretes are hid: clense the thoughtes of our hartes, by the inspiracion of thy holy spirite: that we may perfectly loue thee, and worthely magnifie thy holy name: through Christ our Lorde. Amen.
Influenced by Reformation theology and the belief in the priesthood of all believers, Cranmer decided to make the prayer into a communal one to be prayed by all who are gathered for worship, not just the priest. Today, the prayer, known as the Collect for Purity, is prayed towards the beginning of the Eucharist service in nearly all Anglican rites throughout the global Anglican Communion. Episcopalians pray the prayer as written in the 1979 Prayer Book:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hymns of Praise
During times of celebration, we might sing “Glory to God in the highest” or Gloria in excelsis Deo (p. 356). Many parts of the service have Latin names, because when they were introduced, Christians were speaking Latin. It’s perfectly fine to use the names from our own language! In any case, Gloria in excelsis Deo is inspired by the Gospel of Luke when the angels sang at Christ’s birth. This hymn of praise is meant to join our voices with the angelic witnesses and to enlist our voices in praising the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
We might sing the Trisagion, or thrice-holy hymn, which is at least 1,500 years old. Much like the Kyrie eleision, this hymn is about imploring God’s mercy.
During seasons or occasions when we focus on our sinfulness and our need of God, we might say the “Lord, have mercy” or Kyrie eleison. Like the Trisagion, the Kyrie is actually a transliteration of a Greek word, not Latin.
The exact details of origin for these three hymns are not as important as the fact that in our regular Sunday worship today, we are praying as people have prayed for centuries or even millennia.
“The Lord Be With You”
This ancient greeting is known as “Dominus Vobiscum” which is Latin for “The Lord be with you.” It became an official church salutation in the sixth century, when the Council of Braga in Portugal decreed that bishops and priests should salute the people with “Dominus Vobiscum” and the people respond, “Et cum spiritu tuo,” which means “And with thy spirit,” a response that we continue to use in Rite I. Although its ecclesiastical use probably dates back to apostolic times, its use as a greeting is even older still.
In the book of Ruth, Boaz greets people with these words (Ruth 2:4); and, in the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, “The Lord be with you” (Luke 1:28). Mary’s response to this greeting is fascinating. The text says, “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). I like to think that if Mary had been an Episcopalian, she would have been less bewildered by this greeting and would have responded, “And also with you” or “And with thy spirit.” Instead, she pondered what sort of greeting this might be. In Greek, Gabriel’s greeting is “ha kyrios meta soo,” which translated literally is “The Lord with you,” The Lord “meta” you. Now prepositions in Greek are packed with multiple meanings. “Meta” can mean “beside, with, along with, after, among, or behind.” So it would not be too much of a stretch to translate the phrase as “The Lord is within you,” which would be especially appropriate for Mary since tradition understands the time of the Annunciation as the moment of conception, which is why Annunciation Day is celebrated nine months before Christmas Day. So we can understand this greeting (The Lord be with you) as a profound proclamation of the Incarnation.
Every time we say this to one another we are making a bold assertion of the Presence of God here and now, among us and within us. We are proclaiming the Incarnation within each of us, in what one Collect calls “the mansions of our hearts” (BCP p. 212).
Prayers of the People
From ancient times, it has been customary for gathered Christians to pray for their own needs and the needs of the world. So it is that when we gather for Holy Eucharist, we too pray for not only those things that are important to our local community or to ourselves but also for the whole world. The Book of Common Prayer specifies a list of concerns for which we invariably pray:
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. 383)
We may pray using one of the forms in the prayer book, or perhaps a member of the church will have written prayers. But whatever words we use, we pray for the church and the world. If you would like to read the six suggested forms for the Prayers of the People, they can be found on pages 383 – 395 of the prayer book. The Prayers of the People may be led by a lay person or deacon, one of the few moments in our liturgy where the priest participates rather than leading. (Scott Gunn & Melody Wilson Shobe, Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs and Practices, p. 59-60)
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus teaches about the importance of reconciliation prior to making our offerings to God. He 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” (5:23-24). Because of this teaching, the church began the custom of passing the Peace of Christ before we make our offerings to God and receive the Holy Eucharist. The priest announces, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” We respond in words—often people will say, “And also with you.” Then we respond by action, sharing a sign of Christ’s peace. In our day, this is usually a handshake, but the ancient practice was a chaste kiss on the cheek. A hug is also a traditional and venerable way to pass the peace; many who pass the peace with a hug gently grip the arms of the other person near the shoulder. This preserves the symbol of a sign of peace while avoiding bodily contact that could make some people feel uncomfortable.
Too often, the passing of the peace becomes a controversial free-for-all in which friends catch up on weekend news. There is spiritual danger in this danger, because we neglect the opportunity for reconciliation at our own peril. When we pass the peace, we should make a special point first to share peace with those from whom we are estranged. A second priority is strangers or guests. Only then should we greet friends, because we have no need for reconciliation with them. In other words, the Passing of the Peace is for reconciliation, not for catching up with our buddies.
It is poignant to see a first-time guest in a congregation standing awkwardly while people who know each other well chat at this moment in the liturgy. At precisely the moment when all should be reconciled, we divide into insiders and outsiders and neglect our guests. In our world of estrangement and division, we need every bit of practice at reconciliation and unity we can muster. (Scott Gunn & Melody Wilson Shobe, Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs and Practices, p. 60 – 61)
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”
These are the opening words of Thomas Ken’s Common Doxology, which we sing after saying, “All things come of thee, O Lord. And of thine own have we given thee.” A “doxology” is a short hymn of praise to God. The word is comprised of the Greek words doxa which means “glory” and logia which means “saying.” Some churches choose not to include the Common Doxology at this point in the service due to its potential to take attention away from the Great Doxology, which the priest prays at the end of the Eucharistic prayer as the bread and wine are elevated and the following words are spoken: “All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ. By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever.” After these words, the entire congregation says the Great Amen. Many liturgists argue that the communal saying of this Great Amen is the peak and pinnacle of the entire Eucharistic prayer, when the bread and wine become fully consecrated by all of us. So remember to always say the Great “Amen” with lots of vim and vigor!
Although I agree that the Great Doxology and Great Amen stand as the spiritual summit of the Eucharistic prayer, I am not convinced that the Common Doxology necessarily has to rob them of their importance. In fact, I believe the Common Doxology can help prepare our hearts to pray the Great Doxology just as the Great Doxology prepares our hearts to pray the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” By including three doxologies in the Liturgy of the Table we allow ourselves to be, in the words of St. Paul, transformed “from glory to glory” to glory (doxa)! (The three doxologies being Thomas Ken’s Common Doxology, the Great Doxology and the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer.)
The most frequent command in all of Scripture is “Praise the Lord” so I would rather err on the side of praising God too much rather than too little during our Sunday morning worship. And if one way of praising God happens to be with the words of a beloved Anglican bishop and to the tune of one the best known melodies in the Christian tradition, then that’s all the better! So let us continue to praise our God from whom all blessings flow…
When I elevate the bread at the altar, I pray a prayer that my Jewish grandfather taught me: Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha olam, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, which means “Blessed are you, Lord God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
The prayer reminds me of Sabbath gatherings around challah bread and a Seder meal in which my father had to change his shirt three times because he kept spilling and staining his clothes with wine. The prayer reminds me of the ancient Israelite priests who would bring the holy Show Bread out of the temple three times a year and show it to the children of Israel, saying, “Behold God’s love for you!” And the prayer reminds me of a first-century Jewish mystic who likely prayed the same blessing over the bread when he told his disciples, “This is my Body.”
For me, the prayer holds all these memories, along with deep gratitude for the loving labor of the farmers, millers and bakers who embody the grace of God by helping to bring forth life-giving nourishment from the earth. Finally, the prayer reminds me how fortunate we are to have a God who has chosen to reveal his love and life to us, and invites us to participate in that love and life, by offering us honey-sweet, vitamin-rich, earthy, scrumptious bread.
When I elevate the wine at the altar, I also pray the ancient Hebrew blessing over wine: Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha olam, borei pri hagafen, which means, “Blessed are you, Lord God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates fruit from the vine.”