Structure of the Eucharist: how and why

Scripture; John 12: 1-8

I decided not to say much about today’s Gospel, because we read a similar story very recently. Then, an unnamed sinful woman bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears.  She anointed his feet with precious ointment. Today, Mary does something very similar. I assume that Luke’s and John’s communities received different versions of the same story. Luke identified the woman as a sinner, who gate-crashed a dinner given by a Pharisee. John identified her as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. He also put the story into the context of the coming events of Holy Week, with Judas as the one who will betray Jesus.

Structure of the Eucharist: what we do, and why

Some of this material comes from an excellent Introduction to the Eucharist in the Book of Alternative Services (BAS), pp. 172-184. I’ll also describe where and why we at St. George’s deviate from following the BAS exactly.

The liturgy has three main parts. These are Gathering of the Community, Proclamation of the Word, and Celebration of the Eucharist. Most Western churches now follow a common structure for the Eucharist. That is a result of the commitment to ecumenism that occurred in the 1960s.

Gathering of the Community

This consists of a greeting, then an act of praise and the collect (prayer) of the day. The intention is to keep it simple. The normal greeting is the “Grace”.  The collect for purity cmes next, as an option. The BAS act of praise is the formal Glory to God in the highest. We replace it with a simple sung version (We sing of your glory), except in Advent and Lent, when we use Gather us in.

There are two problems. (1) Where do we put the Announcements? Some congregations put them immediately before the Eucharist.  To me, that is a terrible choice. It cuts secular concerns into the spirituality of the liturgy.  But if you leave the announcements to the end, people want to leave. So we put them before the liturgy starts.

(2) How do we include the children? There is a problem with having the children’s time at the end.  The inevitable question: “What did you learn in Sunday School today?” simply embarrasses the children. So we have the children’s time right after the greeting. Then we use the act of praise as a regathering hymn while the children leave for Sunday School.

Other minor deviations from the liturgy set out in the book

(1) We exchange the Peace as part of the children’s time, in order to include them. The BAS places it after Confession (because then we are ‘in love and charity with our neighbours’ — to use the old words). The Peace is our gift to each other, not just “Nice to see you.” It parallels the story in which Jesus sent the disciples out to preach on their own (Luke 10: 5).

(2) We all say the collect for the day (and, later, the prayers over the communion gifts and after communion) together, not just the priest.

(3) We use the “trial collects” put out by the national Church because the language is lighter and gender inclusive.

Proclamation of the Word

This is the first major part of the service — from the Scripture readings through to the Confession.  We use the Revised Common Lectionary for the readings.  This is a three year cycle. The full RCL comprises four pieces of Scripture (Old Testament, psalm, non-Gospel New Testament, and Gospel). At St. George’s, we usually omit either the Old Testament or the non-Gospel New Testament reading. We use the gender-inclusive trial settings of the psalms.

The homily

The BAS describes the homily or sermon as “the application of the Word of God to the pastoral needs of the particular community at the particular time and place.” We always relate the homily to the day’s Scriptures.  Although I would call them “Bible-based”, that term does not mean the same thing to everyone. Some preachers understand it as “putting Jesus into your heart.” Others emphasize sin and the need for salvation to avoid God’s judgement. Yet others stress taking the Bible literally, with emphasis on what God commands us to do and not do.

To me, an advantage of using a set lectionary is that it forces me to grapple with pieces of Scripture that I might otherwise avoid. One of my seminary professors was explicit: he said that if the Scripture is difficult, you must preach on it, otherwise you imply to your congregation that you agree with it.

The Proclamation of the Word concludes with one of the Creeds, the Prayers of the People, and the Confession and Absolution. For the first and the last of these, at St. George’s we take advantage of where the BAS says, “using these or similar words.” Thus we usually use a Trinitarian Affirmation of Faith rather than the specific words of the Creed. We often replace the formal Confession with other prayers of repentance. As I said recently, I see the confession as an encouragement to do better rather than to burden us with sinfulness. The various prayer leaders at St. George’s have different styles that bring richness to the Prayers of the People.

Celebration of the Eucharist

This is the other major part of the Eucharistic liturgy.  If “Word” is the intellectual part, then “Sacrament” is the experiential part.  The Eucharistic celebration begins with the Prayer over the Gifts. We offer (sacrifice, make holy) ourselves, the bread and wine, and the money for the work of the Church and the upkeep of the church building.

The Eucharistic Prayer

The Eucharistic Prayer is called the Great Thanksgiving. The first part remembers God’s greatness and God’s saving acts up to and including Jesus coming into the world. After the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy …), the focus switches to Jesus. In modern Eucharistic prayers, the images of Christ’s suffering and divine deliverance are divorced from the medieval and Reformation themes of substitutionary atonement (Jesus died as a payment to God for my sins). We offer ourselves as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  Unlike in older liturgies, we give thanks that we are worthy to stand before God.

All modern Eucharistic prayers include the remembrance of the Last Supper (anamnesis) and the calling down of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis). Their language is loose enough to accommodate a variety of interpretations of the meaning of the Communion.  Some people consider the consecrated bread and wine as a memorial (retelling of the Last Supper).  Others subscribe to a theology of transubstantiation, in which the read and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. Most Anglican scholars take an intermediate position called “Real Presence”.  This affirms that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, but without specifying details. The placement of the Lord’s Prayer right after the Eucharistic Prayer draws attention to the parallel between daily bread and the Eucharistic meal. In some seasons we at St. George’s place it instead as the culmination of the Prayers of the People.

Communion and after

At Communion, I always add words, seasonal where appropriate, to “The Body of Christ”.  My aim is to make the receipt of the bread more personal and not rushed (God’s fine dining not God’s cafeteria). I also pour enough wine that you can actually drink some rather than just letting it wet your lips.

The service ends quickly, with a prayer after Communion. (We always use the variable prayer rather than the longer set-piece.) The Doxology deliberately allows the children to participate (noisily) with percussion instruments such as tambourines.

The priests’s blessing is optional because we have already been abundantly blessed by receiving Communion. I like to include it because I have always found it very meaningful to receive the blessed by the priest. Finally, we are sent out into the world as ambassadors for Christ.