Instructed Eucharist Part 3: the Holy Communion

This week we begin the second half of our liturgy, the Holy Communion. We will look at the Offertory, Prayer of Great Thanksgiving (or Consecration), Fraction, and Communion. “Eucharist” is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” which characterizes the entire second half of our liturgy. “Liturgy” comes from the Greek laos, meaning “the people”, and ergon, meaning “work”. It means, “the people’s work”. The basic pattern of the Eucharist goes back to the earliest years of the Christian Church. When we celebrate the Eucharist, therefore, we are tied to those who have gone before us in the faith – the Body of Christ, the communion of saints.

The Offertory – It is not too much to say that you understand the meaning of the Holy Communion to the extent that you understand the significance of the Offertory. “As we move from the Word to the Sacrament, the focus is giving.” It is ritually the self-offering of the people, individually and corporately, to God. There are three possible parts of the Offertory: the musical offering; the offering of money; and the offering of bread and wine. All actions happen around the setting of the table.

The hymn or anthem sung presents symbolically our individual creative skills and talents to God. Music is made; and composer, organist, and singers all share the gift God has given each to God’s praise and for the enjoyment of others.

Our individual alms offerings represent the giving of ourselves, recognizing that all we have is a gift of God’s grace. In the early church food and clothing were brought for distribution to the poor of the parish and community. The represented truth is the same. We are called to be good stewards of God’s Creation and acknowledge our dependence on God.

The offering of the bread and wine are a corporate offering. Grain and grape represent all of creation and its transformation to bread and wine represents humankind’s capacities for labor and inventiveness as creatures made in the image of God.

All three offerings are outward and visible signs of our statement: “All things come of Thee, O Lord; and of Thine own have we given Thee.

The Great Thanksgiving – In the Middle Ages this prayer title appeared after the Sanctus. It now begins with the Sursum Corda, an invitation to the people to “Lift up your hearts” to the Lord. “For at that most awesome moment we must indeed raise our hearts high to God, not keep them intent on the earth and earthly matters.” (Cyril of Jerusalem, 4th cen.) With the Celebrant’s “Let us give thanks to our Lord God” and the congregation’s response “It is right to give Him thanks and praise” it is made clear that the Eucharist is being offered by the celebrant for the people with their assent.

There are eight forms of the Eucharistic prayer in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) – two in Rite One (using “thee and thou” language dating its origins from Thomas Cranmer and the first Anglican Prayer Book in 1549); four in Rite II (contemporary language); and two in “An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist (abbreviated forms, pp. 400-409). At St. Mary’s we rotate rites and prayers by season so all services can experience the full richness of our liturgical tradition.
We are currently using Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer B found on page 367. It follows the common structure adopted by the First American Prayer Book of 1789 following a Scottish model. Thus, after the Sursum Corda, we give thanks for Creation and Creator. There is a short insert that refers to the Proper Preface for the season or day. (BCP pp. 377-382) We then join Creation in praising God with the Sanctus, “Holy Holy Holy”. It may be sung or said and its words derive from Isaiah 6:3. Originally part of the synagogue liturgy, it has been part of the Christian liturgy since the 4th century.

The prayer of thanksgiving continues praising God for the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus and acknowledging our salvation. We recognize that suffering and death are a part of this life but they are not the end. This leads to the telling of the story of the Last Supper. Its institution is an act of anamnesis on our part. That is, when we “do this in remembrance” we understand that we share this act of the memory with all those who have come before and that, as the celebrant speaks the command, “Do this…” we understand it as Jesus’ extolling us to remember his death and resurrection through sharing the bread and cup . This narrative is the climax of the Great Thanksgiving. In Prayer B we summarize his command: “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, and we await his coming in glory” – past, present, and future connected.

The epiclesis or Invocation calls upon the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine so that by the Spirit’s transformative power, the congregation can be fed and continue to grow as the Body of Christ. A doxology praising the Trinity ends the prayer and leads to the Lord’s Prayer wherein we ask for “our daily bread” and reiterate that our worthiness to receive is predicated on acts of forgiveness.

The Fraction – The fraction is the act of the breaking of the bread so it can be shared. In the Jewish tradition bread that has been blessed must immediately be broken and shared. Jesus repeats this act at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), revealing himself to his disciples. While the bread is broken in silence, an anthem is then either said (“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast”) or sung. The Agnus Dei is not said or sung in Prayer B but it also refers to Jesus as the Paschal Lamb.

The Communion – The congregation is then invited to the table to share the consecrated bread and wine. If one receives in only one kind – the bread or the wine – one has fully received the sacrament.