Instructed Eucharist

On Sunday, April 3, 2016, members of all three NPEM churches gathered for an instructed Eucharist.  We walked through the ordinary liturgy that we use each week, pausing from time to time to hear a bit more about what we do and why we do it.  This page contains the instructions that were read.  The text was written by the Rev. Andrew D’Angio White, drawing from many sources, including the work of the Rev. David Bateman found here, and the work of the Rev. Titus Presler, found here.

Introduction and Actions

The purpose of today’s instructed Eucharist is to describe the details and reasons behind different parts of our service.  Throughout the service, we will pause to hear more about each part of our liturgy.  The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that the Holy Eucharist is the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day.  We gather to hear and respond to the Word of God, to pray for ourselves and others, and to take, bless, break, and give the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word meaning “Thanksgiving.”  Our service is also known as the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper.
While a bishop or priest is required to celebrate the Eucharist, all of us gathered participate in the liturgy – a word which means “the work of the people.”  A priest or bishop may not celebrate the Eucharist by him or herself; rather, the celebrant represents the people at the altar, and presents Christ to the people in the Word proclaimed and in the Body and Blood of Christ.  All of us gather to offer ourselves to God in the liturgy, and to be strengthened by God’s presence.
Since we worship God with our minds, our voices, and our bodies, many people participate in the liturgy with particular gestures or postures, such as bowing, kneeling, or making the sign of the cross.  No one is required to make any gestures, but you are always invited to participate in the way that most helps you to participate in worship.  Here are some notes on the postures and gestures you may see or experience in church:

Many people stand when we are praising God in the service – either with a hymn or with a part of a prayer.  We also stand when the Gospel is read out of respect for the words of Jesus.  Many also stand when we pray the Prayers of the People.  During the Easter season, it is traditional in many places to stand throughout the Eucharistic Prayer as a way of praising God for the Resurrection.

It is also customary to kneel for prayer.  Many choose to kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer following the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”).  It is also customary to kneel to ask for forgiveness – though in the Easter season, we do not say the Confession.  Of course, if kneeling causes pain, sitting or standing is preferred.

We usually sit when we are being receptive – that is, during the reading of Scripture and the sermon.  Again, if standing or kneeling cause pain or discomfort, sitting is preferred.

We bow to show reverence to a holy place or object.  A solemn bow, bending at the waist, is a more formal way of reverencing.  Some offer a solemn bow at the altar as a way of recognizing God’s presence there.  It is customary in some places to offer a deep bow during the part of the Nicene Creed which mentions the Incarnation (“For us and for our salvation … and was made man.”) or during the first part of the Sanctus.  A simple bow or inclination of the head is a customary way of showing reverence when the name of Jesus is mentioned, when the Cross passes by in procession, and at the beginning and end of the Gospel reading.

The Sign of the Cross
We often make the sign of the cross (touching our forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, and chest again) to remind ourselves of God’s blessing on us.  It is a way of physically reminding ourselves of Jesus’ love for us on the Cross, and of how we are joined with God in our Baptism.  Many do so at the beginning of the service at the opening acclamation, when the bishop or priest pronounces the absolution after the confession, at the mention of the resurrection of the dead in the Creed, when we pray for the departed in the prayers of the people, at the mention of Jesus in the Sanctus (“Blessed is he who comes…”) before receiving Communion, and at the final blessing.

At the announcement of the Gospel, many trace three small crosses with their thumb on the head, the mouth, over the heart.  Traditionally, this goes with a prayer “God be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.”

Genuflecting is kneeling briefly on the right knee, then standing again.  This action is usually reserved to show reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.  It is appropriate, if you choose, to genuflect when approaching the Aumbry where the Sacrament is kept, when leaving your pew to receive Communion, and again when returning.

First Instruction: Vestments and the Entrance Rite
(Following the Prelude)

Before we begin our service, it’s time to get dressed.  Members of the choir often wear long blue or red robes that closely resemble academic gowns.  People assisting with the service who are not priests or deacons often wear albs – long white vestments that remind us of the purity of Baptism – over regular clothing.  Both the celebrant and the deacon wear albs, as well.  The albs are secured around the waist with a rope belt called a cincture.  A deacon then wears a stole – a long scarf – over the left shoulder as a symbol of the authority and responsibility given at ordination.  A priest or bishop wears a stole over both shoulders.  The celebrant may also wear a chasuble over the stole.  The color of both stoles and chasubles depends on the season of the year: white for Christmas, Easter, and other services of joy and thanksgiving; purple for Lent and Advent, seasons of penitence and preparation; red for Pentecost, ordinations, and services associated with the Holy Spirit; and green for the long growing seasons after Pentecost and Epiphany.

Vestments are important not because the people wearing them are more special than anyone else, but because they remind us that the people wearing them have a particular role in our service today.  In a way, vestments hide the people who wear them, so that the focus of the people may be on God and not the minister.

Once everyone is dressed, we begin the service with the Entrance Rite.  We sing a hymn as the various ministers enter the church and take their places.  This is followed by the opening acclamation, a reminder of why we are here, which changes in the Easter season.  In our churches, we then say together the Collect for purity, asking God to help us be ready for worship.  After this, we sing a song of praise, often the Gloria.  The Entrance Rite concludes with the Collect of the Day, which “collects” all of our prayers with words that touch on the themes of the day.

Second Instruction: Liturgy of the Word
(Following the Collect of the Day)

Our service is divided into two main parts: the liturgy of the Word, and the liturgy of the Table.  We now come to the beginning of the liturgy of the Word.  Each week, we hear three readings from Scripture: one from the Old Testament, one from the Letters (or Epistles) in the New Testament, and one from the Gospels.  Readings are arranged on a three-year cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by churches in many denominations.  In the Easter season it is traditional to hear from the book of Acts rather than the Old Testament, since the book of Acts tells the story of the first days of the Church.  Following the reading of the first and second lessons, the reader says “The Word of the Lord,” to remind us that God continues to speak to us through the Bible.  We respond, “Thanks be to God,” in gratitude for God’s presence in Scripture.

Between the readings, we say (or sometimes sing) together a Psalm, a piece of poetry from the Old Testament.  Often the Psalm connects thematically with the other readings.  The book of Psalms was the hymnal of early Judaism as well as of the Church.

Following the second reading, we stand and sing a sequence hymn to prepare for the reading of the Gospel.  While all Scripture is the Word of God, this third reading is given special importance because it relates stories of Jesus, the Word made flesh.  That is why we stand, rather than sit to hear it, and why it is read from the middle of the congregation, rather than from the front.  It is the role of a deacon to proclaim the Gospel, but since all priests are first ordained deacons, a priest may read the Gospel if there is no deacon.  Sometimes, the celebrant gives the deacon a blessing before the Gospel procession, to ask for God’s help in proclaiming the Good News.

Third Instruction: Sermon, Creed, and Prayers
(Following the Gospel)

Now that we have heard the Word of God proclaimed in Scripture, it is time for us to respond.  The first response comes in the sermon, given by a bishop, priest, or deacon, or by a layperson who has been specially trained and licensed to preach.  The purpose of the sermon is often to relate what we’ve heard in Scripture to our lives as individuals and as a congregation.  Today, these instructions take the place of a sermon.

The whole congregation’s response to the Word of God proclaimed in the readings and sermon is a confession of faith in the Nicene Creed.  The Nicene Creed was written in the fourth century in order to put in order the fundamental beliefs of the Church.  The Creed sums up what Christians believe about God and the world.  It’s important to remember that it begins not “I believe,” but rather “We believe.”  We join our voices with Christians throughout history and around the world when we say these words.  And if we, as individuals, struggle with our faith, we can trust that other voices are speaking for us.

Following the Creed, our response to the Word of God directs our attention outwards in prayer.   While there are many different ways to pray together, we always pray for 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, and for the departed.  The Prayers of the People are concluded by a collect, said by the Celebrant.  Ordinarily, we then say a Confession of Sin, confessing before God and each other the ways we have individually and collectively missed the mark.  However, during the Easter season, we omit the Confession, focusing instead on the grace that God gives us in the Resurrection.

Fourth Instruction: The Peace and Offertory
(Following the Prayers of the People)

The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the sharing of the Peace.  Having heard the word of God, and responded with a statement of faith and with prayer for the world, and (ordinarily) having prepared ourselves for Holy Communion by confessing our sins, we show the fruit of all of this work by sharing with one another the Peace of Christ.  This is far more than a simple “Good morning;” in sharing the Peace, we acknowledge that we are reconciled to God and one another in Christ.  Some share this by a handshake, others by a wave, or even a hug or kiss.  What matters is that we are greeting one another in the name and peace of Christ.

Following the Peace, the Celebrant calls us to prepare for the Liturgy of the Table with an Offertory Sentence.  This is taken from Scripture or the Prayer Book and invites us to bring our gifts of bread and wine, money, and our whole selves, now that we are prepared, before God’s Altar.  A hymn is sung as the gifts are brought forward.

Fifth Instruction: The Offertory and the Great Thanksgiving
(Following the Offertory Hymn)

We come now to the Liturgy of the Table.  This central part of our liturgy may be divided into four parts: Taking, blessing, breaking, and giving.  These are based on the four actions of Jesus at the Last Supper, when he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples.  We have already taken the gifts to the Altar in the Offertory.  Now, the deacon prepares the table just as we might prepare a table at home.  A cloth is spread, enough wine and bread are placed on the table for all, and the plate and cup are set out.  In our churches, we use a fortified wine which will not spoil, and so the deacon dilutes it with a little water.  We use special wafers that leave very few crumbs, but any simple bread will do.

The priest then leads the congregation in the second part: giving thanks or blessing the gifts.  Using one of the Eucharistic Prayers approved by the Episcopal Church, we tell the story of God’s love for us throughout history, culminating with the gift of Jesus.  At Grace Church, throughout the prayer, bells are rung to draw our attention to what is going on: at the Sanctus, after the priest repeats the words of Jesus about the bread and the wine, and at the very end of the prayer.  We are drawn into the story of God’s saving love for us in Jesus.  We pray that God would make these gifts of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood, and we also pray that God would make us into Christ’s Body, given for the world.  At the end of the prayer, the congregation says “Amen,” which means “Let it be so!”  The celebrant makes a solemn bow towards the Bread and Wine, now Body and Blood.

Following the Lord’s Prayer, the celebrant moves to the final action of breaking the Bread.  The largest piece of bread, often called the priest’s host, is broken in a visible way so that everyone can see and remember.  As Christ’s Body was broken for us, the Bread is broken in order to feed us.  The celebrant invites the congregation to receive Communion, before sharing Communion with other ministers at the altar.

Sixth Instruction: After Communion and Dismissal
(Following the Communion hymn)

We have heard and responded to the Word of God in the Liturgy of the Word, and we have been fed with the Body and Blood of Christ in the Liturgy of the Table.  Now, the table is cleared, and we are sent out into the world.  The deacon’s task is to clear the table, just as we would at home.  Because the Bread and Wine are consecrated, we do not simply throw them away.  Any remaining bread or wine is either consumed or placed in the Aumbry to be used to bring Communion to those who are unable to attend church.  The light next to the Aumbry is always lit as long as the Sacrament is present.  The communion vessels are rinsed to ensure that not even a crumb or a drop of God’s gift is wasted.

Following Communion, we say together a brief prayer in thanksgiving for the gifts we’ve been given this morning.  It’s customary for the celebrant to bless the congregation before the final hymn.  The final word in the liturgy is from the deacon, who dismisses us, sending us out into the world.  The dismissal is a reminder that we gather not just to be strengthened and fed, but to go out and serve others.  The liturgy is over, but the work of the people continues.