The Holy Eucharist: An Instruction for the Curious

The Holy Eucharist: An Instruction for the Curious


This commentary is designed to explain, in part, what we do in the liturgy and why. Because we come from a variety of backgrounds and religious training, we don’t all have a common understanding of what liturgy is about. Some of us have been Episcopalians for life, others have only recently discovered this denomination. Regardless of our backgrounds, why we do what we do in the liturgy is often a mystery.

We emphasize “doing” because worship is first of all an act or action. It is not primarily an “experience,” although we often hear people talking about having had “a beautiful worship experience.” This is a fine sentiment, but it partly misses the point. Scripture commands us to worship God, but you cannot command an experience. Like love, which is also commanded, worship may be attended by exalted feelings, but the thing itself is the act of bringing laud and honor to the Most High.

Our word “liturgy” is an expression of this sense of worship as an act. If we translate the Greek roots literally, liturgy means “the people’s work.” And this work of the people is to lift up themselves, their substance and their praises, as an offering to God in response to the gifts God has given us. This is the basic “stuff” of our worship together. As Augustine of Hippo put it, we love God because God loved us first.

Our worship together is then shaped by the fact that we are Episcopalians, that is, members of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. Episcopal comes from the Greek episkopus (ee-pis-ko-pus) meaning overseer. The English translation is “bishop.” The general term refers to the fact that we are governed by leaders whose authority we trace back to Peter, the first bishop of the Church.

The Episcopal Church is a branch of the Anglican Communion, the group of world-wide churches whose roots are traced to the Church of England and its various colonies. We say that we are both Catholic and Protestant, and that we practice a via media (vee-uh mee-dee-uh), a middle way.

As Anglicans, we are a liturgical tradition, meaning that we follow a fixed order of worship, like our Roman, Orthodox, and Lutheran brothers and sisters. The structure of our worship is extremely important to us. This is laid out for us in The Book of Common Prayer, which was first published in 1549.

Since its publication, the Prayer Book has been revised many times, both as customs have changed in the various countries of its adoption, and as new scholarship has caused us to rethink how we do worship, but its basic principles and elements have been carefully preserved. We Americans are currently on our fourth revision of the Prayer Book, now almost 50 years old. The Prayer Book contains many of the Church’s texts for public worship, together with creeds or statements of belief, forms for prayers and private devotions, and certain educational materials such as the Catechism. With each of these come certain rubrics.

Rubrics are brief rules or instructions that govern how the liturgy is to be conducted. They help to bring order to the structure and content of our worship and ensure that no matter what the differences of local color may be, the basic pattern of Anglican liturgy is the same throughout the world.

At the center of the Prayer Book is the service we are about to examine, called “The Holy Eucharist.” In the words of the Prayer Book, The Holy Eucharist is “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major feasts.” The word eucharist means “thanksgiving” in its original Greek. We use this name because no matter what season we may be in the whole service is an expression of thanks to God.

The Structure and Elements of the Worship Service

The Holy Eucharist follows a two part structure that contains a seven-fold pattern of liturgical actions. Together these unfold the entire drama of salvation: in the first part, The Proclamation of the Word of God, we hear the story of God’s presence throughout history as it is told in the Bible. In the second part, The Celebration of the Holy Communion, we share the meal that Jesus commanded us to make to remember him.

Each part has its own symbolic focus: the lectern for the Word of God and the altar table for Holy Communion. A third focus, the font, serves as a constant reminder of our baptism, since it is by baptism that we are brought into the Church, the household of God and the fellowship of Christ. A fourth focus is the people themselves, gathered for worship.

A variety of elements, in multiple possible combinations, may be added to these essential basics: music, lighting, incense, pictures, costumes and colored hangings may all play a part. While the structure of The Holy Eucharist is fixed and so does not vary greatly from place to place, the method of conducting the service may range from the very plain to a great emphasis on ceremony and splendor, depending upon the preferred style of the community.

  • Candles may be used in procession and to ornament the altar; these have no particular theological meaning but are a sign of festivity, much as they are in our homes. The same may be said for flowers.
  • A cross always leads the opening procession and may stand above or behind the altar; it is the visual reminder of Christ’s participation in and elevation of our humanity and is the sign with which we are marked at baptism.
  • Many churches decorate the altar and lectern with colored hangings that change with the seasons of the church year. In the order they appear these are: blue, for Advent; white, for Christmas, Epiphany and Easter seasons (as well as marriage, burial, and baptism); purple, for Lent; red, for the feast of Pentecost and various other days in the church year; and green, the color of the season after Pentecost.
  • Whatever their style, almost all Episcopal churches use a choir and instrumental music to accompany parts of the services. The congregation will also sing hymns and often parts of the service as well. A word about the choir. We may sometimes see the choir as “up there singing to us,” “making things nice,” or even “entertaining us.” And it is true that beautiful music is a blessing and adds to the activity of worship. It is also true that the choir generally sits apart, but it is still of the congregation. The particular ministry of the choir is to provide leadership in the choral worship of God. We should always remember that by singing together, as a congregation, with or without a choir, we send our voices and petitions to the Lord. Singing is a form of prayer.
  • Participants in the service include first and foremost the gathered congregation, the Body of Christ, many of whom then take additional roles according to their gifts and interests. These may include being choir members, liturgical dancers, readers, prayer leaders, eucharistic ministers (who assist with the distribution of bread and wine), and acolytes.
  • A variety of costumes or vestments distinguish several of these roles. The basic liturgical garment is the alb, a full-length tunic with narrow sleeves. It is usually white, to represent the purity bestowed in baptism upon those who clothe themselves in Christ. It is generally worn with a cincture, a simple rope belt.
  • Over the alb, clergy with particular functions at the Eucharist traditionally wear other kinds of vestments. The priest wears a chasuble, the ancient symbol of presidency at the Eucharist. A stole—the long narrow band that is the proper insignia of office for ordained ministers—is worn by both priests and deacons. The drape of the stole distinguishes the two: around the neck for priests, to represent the yoke of Christ; over the left shoulder for deacons, as a sign of their servanthood. Both chasuble and stole reflect the colors of the liturgical season.
  • Sometimes congregations have another vested minister, a verger or master-of-ceremonies, who wears a black gown and over-tunic and carries a wand or verge as a symbol of his or her function.

The Liturgy of the Proclamation of the Word of God

1. We gather in the Lord’s name. In the Anglican tradition as we enter the church and take our seat in the pew, we acknowledge the cross with a slight bow of the head. We may kneel or sit in prayer, centering our thoughts on God’s presence and bringing our whole presence to God in turn. We may make the sign of the cross (forehead to sternum, left shoulder to right) as a reminder that we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

During most seasons the service proper begins with a musical offering, during which we sit in silent meditation and prepare ourselves for the act of worship.

The Entrance Rite. This begins The Proclamation of the Word of God. The Church, the people of God, is gathered now, and we begin to enact here, in this building, with this congregation, what is true on an infinitely more vast and timeless scale: that the Church here on earth, together with the Church in heaven, moves in its worship up to the place of God’s dwelling.

The liturgical ministers enter the church, following the cross of Christ: first will come the choir, then assistants at the altar such as acolytes and eucharistic ministers, then the verger, then the priest. But all of us in the congregation, and all of the people of God everywhere, are “in” the procession as it moves toward the altar, singing with angels and the saints of all ages.

A call to worship may precede the entrance procession or it may follow once the ministers have taken their places. The priest, who presides at the eucharist unless the bishop is present, addresses the congregation and we respond. This brief exchange contains the whole purpose for our worship and sets the tone for our liturgy. While the placement and the actual words may change during some seasons of the year, the idea—our joyous offering of thanks to God—is always the same.

A Song of Praise comes after this, frequently a hymn or the “Glory to God in the Highest,” one of the oldest of Christian songs. Notice that there is almost nothing about our own feelings and experiences in this offering. This is important. We set the tone for our liturgy by ascribing worth to God, not by telling each other about our experience. Activities such as fellowship, testifying, sharing, or teaching come later in the service.

The Collect of the Day concludes the Entrance Rite and introduces the Liturgy of the Word. The word “collect” is short for a Latin phrase meaning “prayer upon assembly,” and it “collects” the people together in worship. It begins with a mutual exchange of greetings followed by an invitation to prayer. From the first Sunday in Advent through the first Sunday after Pentecost, the collects are usually related in a thematic way to the gospel of the day. Throughout the long green season of the other Sundays after Pentecost (roughly from June to December) the collects are general prayers, and may or may not relate to the appointed lessons. This may be said by the whole congregation or by the priest alone, in which case the people respond with the first of many “Amen’s,” meaning “So be it.”

2. We proclaim and respond to the Word of God. Following the collect come readings from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. This public reading is a part of our inheritance from Judaism. In the early Church, as Christian writings began to emerge—particularly Paul’s letters and the gospel memoirs—the Church read from these as well as from the Hebrew Scriptures. Gradually, readings were set according to a yearly cycle that celebrated the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

Today we follow a lectionary, a fixed schedule of readings with a three-year cycle. On most Sundays and major feasts there are ordinarily four opportunities to read and hear the Word: a reading each from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalms, the letters of Paul or the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospels. As we listen to the Word proclaimed in the lessons, we hear the God who spoke to Israel and to the early Christians speaking to us now. Through this Word, God’s will for our lives is revealed. After each reading we pause to reflect on what we have just heard.

The reading of the gospel is the high point of this section of the liturgy. It may be read by a deacon, whose ministry is to be a servant of Christ. In the tradition of the Church, this reading is attended by marks of special honor. There may be a procession, accompanied by lights and incense, and music is frequently played or sung. The procession enacts the idea of Christ himself speaking his words to his gathered people in their very midst. We all stand for the procession and reading as a mark of respect. Some may also make the sign of the cross on their head, lips, and heart to signify their obedience in thought, word, and affection to the words about to be read.

The sermon comes after the gospel reading, and continues the service of the Word. The sermon generally comments on what has just been read and may relate the lessons of the day to the situation of the congregation or to current events. The sermon may take many forms—instruction, reproof, warning, consolation—but it should always remind us of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. A short moment of silent reflection follows the sermon.

We respond in faith to what has been proclaimed in the lessons and sermon. First, we affirm our faith, using the historic formulary of the Nicene Creed or some other Affirmation of Faith. First drafted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 of the Common Era, this venerable statement proclaims the Church’s historical teaching about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church itself. Although our personal understanding and acceptance of these beliefs may vary, we stand and repeat this oath of allegiance together with our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the centuries and around the world. Once again our liturgy unites us in praise of God’s greatness and glory and in wonder at God’s great love for us. During the Creed, some may follow the Anglican custom of bowing at the words that describe the Mystery of Christ’s Incarnation.

3. We pray for the world and the Church. As part of our response to the Word of God and in obedience to Christ’s commands, we now pray for the world, for the Church, for the local community, for our parish, for any special needs that we know of, and for the dead. We also give thanks for all that God has given us. These prayers are intended as the common offering of all the gathered. For this reason we are encouraged to stand for the prayers, a symbol that as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, we all share in Christ’s priestly ministry of intercession.

The prayers generally include a confession of sin, although this may be omitted at times of special festivity, such as during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. (It may also come at the beginning of worship, as a preparation for the whole service.) The confession begins with a moment of silent reflection on our particular faults, but the language itself speaks of “we,” not “I.” As with the liturgy that has preceded the confession, the emphasis is on our corporate worship and on our common human failings and separation from God, rather than on our individual weaknesses. This is because the Episcopal tradition emphasizes the collective and common experience of faith—a community in Christ. Once we have made our common confession, the priest pronounces God’s absolution in the name of Christ, making the sign of the cross. Some may sign themselves at this moment to bodily receive this healing affirmation upon themselves.

4. We exchange the Peace. This concludes The Liturgy of the Word. The Peace is more than just a modern notion of warm, fuzzy fellowship. It is a practice that dates to the time of the New Testament, and is a sign of the reconciliation established by Jesus between God and God’s people. It acts as a link or bridge between The Proclamation of the Word of God and The Celebration of the Holy Communion, offering us an opportunity to make peace with our neighbors before coming in unity to the Lord’s Table. It is first exchanged ritually, between the presider and the congregation; then all greet one another in the name of Christ.

The Liturgy of the Celebration of Holy Communion

We have heard and responded to God’s holy word and the focus of our worship now moves to the altar. There are three basic actions or sections to this part of the service. Because we have all been raised by Jesus Christ and made priests to God like him, we are encouraged to stand throughout this part of the service, in recognition that we are all participants in the liturgy, rather than spectators.

5. We make Eucharist. The collection and presentation of the people’s gifts to God (the bread and wine and other gifts) begin this part of the service. Often at this point in the service there is music. This too is an offering, but it also has a practical purpose, which is to “cover” the various actions taking place. A collection is taken; the deacon or an acolyte assists the deacon or priest in preparing the altar with the necessary linen, vessels, and book; the acolyte washes the priest’s hands, a symbol of the purity of heart with which she or he properly approaches the Great Thanksgiving. When all these things have taken place, representatives of the people bring the bread and wine, money and other gifts to the altar.

The “Great Thanksgiving” refers to the body of the eucharistic prayer. There are many versions of this prayer, but all share the same basic structure. As we might expect, the rite has Jewish roots in the prayer of thanksgiving chanted over a cup of wine (the “cup of blessing”) at the conclusion of formal meals. This was pronounced by one person in the name of all, but only after receiving the consent of the people to do so. The content of the prayer embraced thanks and praise to God for creating the world and for redeeming Israel and making them God’s people. It also included petitions for God’s continued protection and mercy. Those present signified their agreement with what was stated in the prayer by saying “Amen,” “So be it.”

These same basic elements characterize our eucharistic prayers: thanks and praise to God on the one hand, petition on the other. The contents, however, are now thoroughly Christian. The primary focus is God’s mighty act in Christ, through whom all creation came to be, and in whom we are saved and made heirs of God’s covenant; and the petitions we make are for the Church, especially that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it may be transformed by participation in the mysteries of the bread and wine and strengthened for service in the world.

The sursum corda (sir-soom kore-da), an exchange of greetings between priest and congregation, introduces the great Thanksgiving. We announce that we “lift up our hearts” in readiness. The priest’s response, “Let us give thanks,” is the request for permission to proceed in the name of all who are present. Our response is our consent: “It is right to give our thanks and praise.”

The prayer first acknowledges God, then all proclaim God’s holiness, power, and might in the Sanctus, which means “Holy” in Latin. This great hymn of praise can be traced back to the 8th Century BCE and the prophet Isaiah; in his vision it is sung by angels before God’s throne. Then we greet the one who comes to us in the sacrament of the bread and wine with the words of the Benedictus, Latin for “blessed”, recalling the words shouted by the people as Jesus entered Jerusalem. You may see some accompany these words with the sign of the cross to symbolize union with Christ.

The Prayer of Consecration and the Institution Narrative follow, still within the body of the Great Thanksgivng. In the Prayer of Consecration, all of God’s great and loving acts of creation and redemption are recalled, leading up to the gift of God’s son, Jesus Christ. In the Institution Narrative, we recall the acts and words attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper. This is often followed by a congregational response called an “acclamation,” which serves to tie our praise of God to past, present, and future. After this, the priest asks God to accept our offerings, to bless them and us with the Holy Spirit, and to perfect them in mystery so that Christ may be present among us in the bread and wine.

A doxology of praise concludes this prayer, as the priest raises the consecrated bread and wine as an offering to God. We then add our voices in assent by joining in the concluding phrase or simply ending with the Great “AMEN.” (The Prayer Book prints this response in capital letters to encourage us to give it emphasis!) A flourish of bells adds a ceremonial underlining to our praise.

The Lord’s Prayer may come next if not said earlier in the service. Then, in silence, the bread, the Body of Christ, is broken. Practically speaking, it is divided so that everyone can have some. Symbolically, the Fraction is an acted memorial of Christ’s self-giving love and a reminder that through his brokenness we are made whole.

6. We share the gifts of God. After the bread is broken comes the Fraction Anthem, in which we once again proclaim our belief in the reality of what has taken place with a response. This may be the exultant “Alleluia! This day heaven comes down, we are one with our God,” or the more penitential “O Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world...”, or some other variation on this theme.

The communion itself is initiated with the priest’s invitation. At Gethsemane, all who seek a living relationship with God in Jesus Christ, from the youngest baby to the most venerable elder, are encouraged to be part of this celebration and to receive communion. We go to the table rejoicing, confident of God’s mercy and love. Communion is both a personal and a corporate experience. The bread and wine are offered to each of us in turn, yet we gather not as individuals alone but as fellow members of God’s household, the beloved daughters and sons of God.

Posture varies for receiving communion: The Prayer Book gives no instruction on how to receive communion. Some congregations choose to stand—the ancient posture for receiving communion, and a sign that we are indeed “made worthy to stand before God,”—others may kneel, representing our humility before the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice. In either case we are asked to respond to the offer of bread and wine, now filled with the presence of Christ, with another heartfelt “Amen.” As the congregation comes to the Lord’s Table, the choir may sing a meditative anthem to prepare us for the feast we are about to receive. Communion hymns may also be sung. These hymns are an opportunity for all of us to lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving.

Healing prayer is offered during communion on most Sundays at Gethsemane. This is an ancient practice in which we may receive laying-on-of-hands and prayer for our own return to health and wholeness or on behalf of another.

The Post-Communion Rite

7. We go forth to our work in the world. At the end of communion, the altar is cleared and all join in a prayer of thanks for what God has done for us in these holy mysteries. We also ask for strength to go and do God’s will, acting out what we have celebrated and received. This is usually followed by a final blessing or prayer from the priest, a closing hymn and recessional, and the dismissal (said by the deacon when present) that sends us forth into the world. The brief, abrupt character of the dismissal stresses the urgency of being about God’s work in the world.

Following the service the organist plays a “postlude,” which is part of her or his offering to God. It is customary, therefore, to leave the church in silence if we must leave, or to sit and listen quietly to the music.

Questions? Please speak to Fr. Theo if you have any questions about this instruction or would like to learn more. We hope that this has been helpful to you, either broadening your perspective on Episcopal ritual or reminding you of what you may have already known but forgotten. Above all, remember that liturgy is “the people’s work,” and that the measure of what we get is what we put into it.

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