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Understanding the Communion Service
The following is a scripted “instructed Eucharist” prepared by Jane Hale while she was serving as seminarian at St. John’s, Vernon. It is hoped that it will provide you with a better understanding of our Sunday worship.
Typically, when Episcopalians gather for public worship on a Sunday, we have a service of Communion, also known as the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We do this because this is the way Christians have worshiped since the earliest days of the Church. When Jesus instituted the first Eucharist at the Last Supper, he commanded all of his followers to continue the practice. It is the clearest, strongest way we know to offer thanksgiving to God, to tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and to be in community with God and one another with Jesus at our center.
Episcopal worship is structured, and it uses The Book of Common Prayer as its source. The texts and patterns of worship in the prayer book are derived from the earliest surviving texts of ancient Christian worship, updated and expanded as times and circumstances have changed. The common words of the prayer book express our most deeply held beliefs, keep us connected to the timeless elements of Christian tradition, and allow us to participate as more than just listeners. It is important for us to remember the Eucharist is not something that only a priest does; it is something we do together. A priest cannot celebrate the Eucharist alone; there must be at least one other person. What the priest does is represent us to God at the altar and to represent Christ who feeds us with the strength of his Body and Blood in the form of Bread and Wine.
A Eucharistic service has two main parts. The first part is known as the “Liturgy of the Word.” The word liturgy means the work of the people. In the Liturgy of the Word we gather in the Lord’s name, proclaim and respond to the Word of God, and pray for the world and the church. We do this, not as a group of spectators watching a group of performers, but as the people of God acting together, each with their appointed part to play.
The first part of the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Word is very ancient. It comes to us from a time before the birth of Jesus. The Jewish people came together to hear God’s word, to sing songs, and then pray together. Remember, it was Jesus who gave us the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper and Jesus was Jewish.
We begin with the gathering rite. Now that we are assembled in one place, those people who have designated roles in the service enter in procession while we all sing praise to God. The procession allows everyone to take their appointed places, while at the same time helping the service begin on a note of dignity and reverence.
The service usually begins with a procession to the altar or the holy table which has been prepared in advance by the Altar Guild. Like our dining table at our own home when we are having a special dinner, there is a cloth spread over the table, and there are candles. Here the candles remind us that Christ is the Light of the World coming into our lives. If there are two candlesticks on the altar, we are also reminded that our Lord is both Human and Divine, both perfect Man and perfect God.
The procession also reminds us that the People of God, through time and history are moving toward God’s Kingdom – – following the Cross of Christ, and bringing the Light of the Gospel into all the world. Try to think of these things during the procession, remembering that we are all part of God’s family the Church.
The ministers – – that is the clergy, acolytes, Eucharistic Ministers, and choir members, wear vestments. Vestments cover our ordinary clothing. This reminds us that the Church belongs to no particular time or place because it is both universal (in all places) and historic, (belonging to no specific time). The lectors and intercessors, those who read the lessons and prayers… often wear ordinary clothes. This is to remind us that we are all called to minister and share in “the priesthood of all believers.”
As the procession enters, the congregation stands. This helps all of us to remember that we are all participants in the Eucharist, offering God our prayers and praise together as one family. [All stand and sing the opening hymn]
When all in the procession have taken their places, we begin our service by praising God, and by asking him to make our thoughts pure, and to fill us with his love.
RITE I ONLY. This is followed by the reading of Christ’s summary of the Law, stating simply our obligation of love for God and for each other.
Next we ask God’s mercy on us all by saying together the KYRIE, a very ancient prayer “Lord, have mercy”, or else we say or sing together a song of praise such as the GLORIA which is printed in our Prayer Book, or other appropriate songs.
The celebrant now leads us in a special prayer. This short prayer is called a COLLECT because it collects or gathers our thoughts for a particular time or season of the Church’s year.
In the next part of the Liturgy of the Word we sit in order to listen to readings from the Bible. It is our custom to stand, sit, or kneel at different parts of the service. Most of these postures are optional, but we find them useful in helping to worship with our bodies and not just our minds. Typically, we follow the biblical Jewish and Christian traditions of standing to praise God and to pray, sitting in order to listen, and kneeling in order to express penitence or devotion. If you have a physical condition which makes any of these difficult, you are always welcome to adopt a more comfortable position. You may also notice that some people engage in various acts of personal devotion, such as bowing or making the sign of the cross. These also are optional, used by some in order to enhance their individual experience of worship.
We use a fixed pattern of scripture readings, called a lectionary, which allows us to hear most of the Bible within a three-year period. This makes sure that nothing important is left out, and that preachers don’t overlook some passages in favor of others.
It has long been a tradition among Christians that lay people read the first lessons from the Holy Bible. Lay ministers remind us that we all take part in the worship of the Church. At the end of each lesson the reader says : “The Word of the Lord.” To which we reply: “Thanks be to God.” We all participate in singing or saying the psalm together. The Psalms are the ancient hymnal of the Jews, and Christians have always used them.
The final reading at a Eucharistic service is always from one of the four gospels. Christians have long given special importance to the gospels because that is where we hear directly the words and actions of Jesus. We express this importance by having an ordained minister do this reading, and by standing when we listen to it.
On most occasions, there is a “Gospel Procession”. The Gospel Book is carried into the nave or center part of the Church. Often, we sing a hymn as part of our Gospel Procession. The Gospel Procession may be led by a crucifer and candles. The Gospel Procession teaches us that it is our responsibility to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ into the entire world.
A sermon or a shorter teaching called a homily follows the Gospel. It usually explains some of the teachings in the Gospel and other lessons.
Today this instruction will take the place of the sermon.
After the sermon, which is always based on at least one of the scripture readings, we conclude our response to God’s Word by standing and saying together the Nicene Creed. This summary statement of Christian belief was adopted by the undivided church in the fourth century and is one of the oldest texts of Christian worship. The word CREED means belief. They remind us of all the different way and how much God loves us as his children.
In the last portion of the Liturgy of the Word, we pray for the church and for the world, and make our final preparation for the Communion part of the service. Our prayers always include the entire universal Church—past, present and future— the nation, the welfare of the world, the concerns of the local community, those who suffer or are in trouble, and those who have died. We usually use a pattern of prayer that allows everyone in the congregation to make responses. The names of persons who are in need of our prayers are added and there is usually an opportunity for us to speak out loud the names of people and concerns we especially want to pray for.
When the prayers are concluded, we ask God’s forgiveness for those things we have done and left undone. Confession is a very important part of prayer whether we do it privately or in church with others. We all need God’s forgiveness, and we know that God will forgive us when we come to him in faith and love and true repentance. After all have made their confession, the Priest says the words of ABSOLUTION, or forgiveness, assuring us that God has forgiven all those who have made a sincere confession of their sins.
The first part of the service is now completed by The Passing of the Peace. We greet one another joyfully in the spirit of friendship and reconciliation and in the love of God, exchanging the PEACE with one another. THE PASSING THE PEACE is a very ancient way for people to greet one another. Jesus taught us that we should love one another as sisters and brothers, and that we should forgive one another as God forgives us. When the celebrant says: “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” everyone responds: “And also with you.” Then we share God’s peace with one another, as Jesus shared his Peace with his disciples after his resurrection.
The Eucharist or the Great Thanksgiving begins with the offertory sentence which reminds us that all we have is God’s gift and that we are offering his gifts back to him.
We begin the Liturgy of the Table, or Holy Communion, by accepting the people’s offerings of bread, wine, money, and other gifts. These are called oblations. Bread, wine and money offered at the Altar represent our lives, our work, our recreation, our families and our community. In other words, we offer to God all that we have and all that we do. This is called STEWARDSHIP. Since there are no words being spoken at this time, it is also a good time for an offering of music, such as an anthem from the choir. The preparation of the bread and wine on the altar is one of the traditional roles of the deacon, if there is one present. Either leavened or unleavened bread may be used. We use actual wine just as Jesus did and as he commanded us to do. A little water is generally added to reduce the strength of the wine and to symbolize the water that poured out of Jesus’ side after his crucifixion. We typically use vessels made from precious metals or ceramic as a way of honoring the importance of communion. We use linen cloths on the altar or holy table in ways which are very similar to the way in which you might use linen or other special napkins and tablecloths at a fancy dinner party.
The word Eucharist means to give thanks. In every communion service Christians tell the story of God’s creation and God’s saving act of redemption by the sending of Jesus. We focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus which is the heart of the Christian faith. We listen to his oldest recorded words at the Last Supper with his disciples, in which he commanded us to continue the tradition he was beginning. You will find the clearest expression of the meaning of communion by listening carefully to the words of the service.
The one who presides over Eucharist is always an ordained person known as a presbyter or priest. In the earliest centuries of the church, the bishop, or chief pastor, would always preside, but soon the church grew too large for one person to do this. So the bishop ordains and delegates priests to celebrate the Eucharist in each local congregation
Before the Eucharist begins, an acolyte pours a little water over the priest’s fingers. This reminds us that we should all come to God’s altar with clean hands and pure hearts. It has long been the custom for the head of the Jewish household to wash his hands in a similar way before the prayers at the Passover meal. Jesus probably did this at the Last Supper.
The Holy Table or Altar having been prepared, the Eucharist continues with “Lift up your heart” – – the “Sursum Corda”. This is followed by the “Sanctus”, the ancient hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy,” followed by the “Benedictus”: “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord…” reminding us that our Lord does come to us in the Holy Communion, and that he is made known to us in “the breaking of the bread.”.
As the words and action at the altar unfold, they do so according to a four-fold pattern first used by Jesus when he miraculously fed the multitudes with bread and fish, and also used again at the Last Supper. First he took the bread. Then he gave thanks over the bread. He broke the bread, and finally he gave it to the people. As we involve ourselves in the drama of communion, together we remember what happened in such a vivid way that this memory is brought right back into the present moment.
In a very real way, the Holy Eucharist is a drama. It reenacts the offering of Christ and makes it real in our lives. Whether we “feel” Christ’s presence or not, He is with us, according to God’s promise.
At the first Eucharist and in those of the early Church, it was necessary to break the loaves or cakes of bread so that they could be distributed for Communion. For many this breaking of bread has a special meaning: it has become a reminder of the breaking of our Lord’s Body on the Cross. To symbolize this brokenness, the celebrants breaks the bread saying “Allelulia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” … to which the people respond: “Therefore, let us keep the feast, Allelulia.”
Through all of our prayers, we believe that God has now transformed the bread and wine so that Christ is truly present in them. Together they are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – the traditional definition of a sacrament. Every baptized Christian is encouraged and invited to receive communion by coming forward near the altar. The ushers will guide you. You may either stand or kneel. The celebrant will first bring a wafer or piece of bread to you, placing it on your outstretched hands for you to eat. Then a Lay Eucharistic minister will bring round the chalice of wine. It has always been Christian practice to drink communion wine from this common cup, and you may do so by grasping the chalice at the bottom and tipping it slowly. Though there are no recorded cases of any illness ever being spread through the common cup, we recognize that some may prefer not to drink from it for various reasons. You are welcome to receive the bread only (and not the wine), or to have the minister dip your bread in the chalice and then place it on your tongue, or to take your piece of bread and dip it yourself into the chalice. After you have received communion, you may return to your seat.
The deacon (or priest) clears the altar in much the same way as you might clear your own table after dinner, removing the dishes and cloths and eating or storing any leftovers. In church, we generally consume any leftover bread and wine immediately. Some is also reverently put aside to carry to those who have not been able to attend the service, and consecrated communion may be left in the Ombrey, where the light of Christ burns above it continually.
The celebrant then leads everyone in saying a post-communion prayer, followed by a hymn and a closing procession. The final act of our common worship is the dismissal, which formally closes the worship with a call for us to go as Christ’s servants out into the world. It reminds us that the purpose of worship is not simply to encourage and build ourselves up, but for all of us to be empowered and sent forth as ministers of Christ.