The Holy Eucharist:
A Guide to Participation in the Sunday Liturgy
Note: This is a slightly revised and updated version of a booklet first prepared for the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston, Massachusetts, where the author served as Liturgy Planning Coordinator. ©1986, 2003 by Ted Mellor. Permission given to reproduce for non-profit educational purposes.
The Holy Eucharist, "the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord's Day", is the heart of the life and work of the Christian community. Week by week we come together to hear and proclaim the word of God and to give thanks together, over gifts of bread and wine for God's goodness in all of creation -- in particular for the life, death, and resurrection of God's Son, Jesus Christ. Gathered together around his table, we share his body broken and his blood outpoured, and receive there a foretaste of the feast which awaits us in his reign.
Every Sunday is a feast day on which we recall our Lord's resurrection and our own liberation in him from the bondage of sin and death. Our celebration, then, is characterized by joy. It is rich and sensuous, with colorful vestments and hangings, with music, lights, and, often, incense. It is a tribute to the God who makes the sights and sounds of nature with its changing seasons and fragrances, and who creates and redeems our bodies as well as our minds and spirits. The beauty of our liturgy is not meant to be an escape from the sometimes drab and ugly surroundings of our everyday lives. Rather, it is a prophetic reminder that God wills beauty in all of God's creation and that, in God's time, "Earth shall be fair" and all of human life informed by that beauty and grace we now try to capture in our worship.
Our worship is carefully reverent and we are not without a sense of awe and wonder as we think about and enter those great saving acts through which God has entered and redeemed our world. At the same time, we are at ease in our Father's house, and our reverence is joined with a kind of relaxed enjoyment of the family meal our Lord has prepared for us. No one need feel out of place here, or worry too much about not "doing the right thing." There are times, in fact, when not everyone will be doing exactly the same thing. Most of the congregation may stand, but others kneel if their consciences direct them. This is perfectly acceptable, and while these notes may indicate at times that one posture or another is recommended, it is not our intention to insist on uniformity. It is enough that all see themselves as members of a worshipping community and avoid those kinds of self expression which spring from a sense of imagined superiority over the rest of the congregation.
For our worship is something we do together, not as a mere meeting of individuals, but as an organic body -- Christ's Holy Catholic Church assembled in this place. It is liturgy, the public work of the whole Church, in which each member has his or her own role to play. As the Book of Common Prayer instructs us, "the entire assembly participates in such a way that the members of each order within the Church, lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons, fulfill the functions proper to their respective orders." (p. 13).
The minister who presides at the Eucharist is a bishop or (more usually in a parish church) a priest who acts in the bishop's stead. He or she is often referred to as "the Celebrant", but a better term would be "the Presider" or "President of the Assembly." It is, in fact, the entire assembly that "celebrates" with their bishop or priest presiding in their midst. A deacon (or, in the absence of a deacon, another priest) may perform an assisting function. He or she reads the Gospel lesson, leads the Prayers of the People, prepares the table at the Eucharist, administers Communion, and dismisses the assembly at the end of the service. Another assistant, a lay person, may act as acolyte. He or she helps prepare the altar and vessels, sees that books and other needed items are at hand, and helps guide other ministers in the performance if their duties. Other vested clergy and lay persons assist the assembly's worship in various ways.
Lay persons also read the lessons which precede the Gospel in the Liturgy of the Word and others carry the people's offerings of bread and wine at the Procession with the Gifts. Musicians, cantors, and choir members are ministers who play an important role in leading and inspiring the assembly's song of praise.
Most importantly, the entire assembly are to be active participants in the liturgy, exercising their ministry as baptized members of Christ's Body (they are never referred to or expected to be an "audience"). It is the role of all particular ministers in the liturgy to serve and encourage the active, informed, and vocal participation of the assembly as a whole in its work of liturgy.
The service begins with an ENTRANCE HYMN or Psalm, during which the presider and other ministers join the assembly to begin the liturgy. The hymn, in which all join, is not only an act of praise to open the celebration, but also serves to deepen the unity of the people and to introduce the theme of the day's celebration. It sets a tone appropriate to that particular aspect of the story of our redemption which has been singled out for emphasis in the liturgy of the feast or season.
All stand, not only to sing the hymn, but also as an act of respect to the presider, whose priestly role in the liturgy is a kind of icon or image of the priesthood of Christ and of the priesthood we all share as baptized Christians. The incense that may be carried at the head of the procession was originally another mark of respect for the presider; today it serves to remind us of the fervor with which our prayers should ascend to God as we begin our worship. Upon arriving in the sanctuary, the ministers bow to the altar (ordained ministers may kiss it) and the altar may be censed. These marks of honor are meant to show our great love and reverence for the place where we meet our Lord himself, the table around which our entire life as a Christian people is centered.
An ACCLAMATION (Book of Common Prayer, p. 355) begins the introductory or "entrance" rite of the liturgy proper. The form of this greeting is typical of liturgical worship as a whole: the presider leads, the people respond, forming a single act of worship. Through the acclamation we call to mind the presence of God and express the singlemindedness of the Church which is gathered together. All may make the sign of the cross as an expression of the corporate solidarity of the Christian assembly. On many Sundays, a SONG OF PRAISE, often the hymn Gloria in excelsis (p. 356) follows. This is an ancient morning hymn in which the Church, now assembled, praises the Father and the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. While the Gloria has been a standard song of praise in the Western Church for many centuries, our Prayer Book permits a return to an older custom in which other songs of praise may be sung from time to time.
On other Sundays, especially in Advent and Lent, the jubilant Song of Praise is replaced by the more restrained Kyrie eleison or Trisagion. These are traditional words of greeting in which the congregation praises God and asks God's mercy as our worship begins. Using a very ancient form of SALUTATION (see Ruth 2:4), presider and people then greet one another (p. 357) and the presider calls the assembly to prayer. A period of silent prayer may follow, after which the presider gathers the people's petitions in the COLLECT OF THE DAY. This prayer may reflect the specific theme of the celebration or it may express more general concerns as the introductory rites are brought to a close. Here, as throughout the liturgy, the people's response of "Amen" -- "So be it!" -- indicates our willing desire to make the Church's prayer our own. This humble willingness to let our hearts and minds be conformed to the objective words and spirit of the Church's worship is a characteristic of liturgical spirituality, distinguishing it from other forms in which the words of worship are determined by the subjective thoughts and feelings of the individual worshipper.
From the point of view of liturgical worship, it is far better just to let oneself go and be carried along with the objective actions and words of the whole worshipping assembly than to be constantly concerned with whether or not one is "expressing one's true feelings" or "getting something out of" the service. Liturgical worship, by its very nature, teaches us to forget ourselves in the corporate effort for God's Kingdom, and to leave it up to God to provide for our individual spiritual and emotional needs. God will not fail to do this; through our regular participation in the liturgy, we will find ourselves being built up with others into a living body, our hearts and minds more and more growing into the likeness of the heart and mind of Christ.
All sit for the SCRIPTURE READINGS that form the heart of the first major phase of our worship. To emphasize that the First and Second Readings belong to the ministry of the laity, there are may be read by men and women wearing ordinary attire. Through the readings, God speaks to God's people. We hear the sacred story of our redemption, our spirits are nourished through the near presence of Christ in his word, and our zeal for the coming of God's reign is quickened.
A GRADUAL PSALM following the first reading is an integral part of our liturgy, through which we meditate on God's word, making it a part of our own lives. The Second Reading is followed only by a brief period of silence. Here, as elsewhere in the liturgy, the silence is itself an act of worship, in which we simply lift our hearts to God, feeding on God's presence, and rejoicing in God's goodness toward us. The silence reminds us that as there are times to be up and doing, so also there are times just to sit still and entrust our lives to God's loving care.
Towards the end of the silence, preparations are made for the reading or singing of the GOSPEL, the "Good News" of our salvation in Jesus Christ. The Gospel book may be carried in procession to the place where the Gospel is to be proclaimed. All stand as Cantors alternate with the entire assembly in singing an ALLELUIA or other verse, perhaps an echo of the spontaneous shots of "Alleluia!" which greeted the Gospel book in the basilicas of the early Christians. As the reading is announced, all may make the sign of the cross on forehead, lips, and breast, a way of asking that the words of our Lord be in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts. The Gospel book may be censed as a mark of honor to our Lord, whose presence in the Liturgy of the Word is symbolized by the book and the words of the Gospel itself
Reading or singing the Gospel belongs to the ministry of the deacon; if there is no deacon or assisting priest present it is done by the presider. Singing the scripture lessons (as well as the prayers of the liturgy) has its roots in ancient Jewish tradition; it was the universal practice among Christians until the development of the so-called "low mass" late in the Middle Ages. Music is not something "extra" we add to our worship. The liturgy is by nature musical; the feast of the Lord is celebrated in song and dance (graceful movement) as well as in words.
The proclamation of the Gospel is continued in a SERMON or HOMILY which follows directly upon the reading or singing of the scripture text. The homily properly takes its departure from some point in the readings or elsewhere in the liturgy of the day; it translates the Christian message into concrete terms, making explicit the ways in which God's word breaks into our everyday lives and speaks to our contemporary historical situation. The sermon is an integral part of the liturgy and the preaching of the word is part of the priestly ministry of the Church. Thus the presider at the Eucharist is normally (although not invariably) the preacher of the sermon.
The NICENE CREED (p. 358), a hymn rejoicing in the riches of the faith which is ours, in an appropriate response to our hearing of the word of God. It is also a great communal affirmation of that faith as we prepare to make Eucharist together. A bow at the words "by the Holy Spirit . . . and was made man" honors the great gift of the Incarnation in which God did not hesitate to share our human nature and condition, in order that we might share in God's.
There may, at times, occur a brief break in the liturgy after the Creed. Often special Occasional Services, such as the thanksgiving for the birth of a child, the admission of a catechumen, or the blessing of some person or object take place at this point in the service. The inclusion of these special observances in our Eucharistic liturgy speaks of the centrality of the Eucharist to all that we are and do. It points also to our interdependence as members one of another within the Christian community. What happens to each of us is a matter of intimate concern to all -- there is no event in our lives, however "personal" it may seem, that does not find its fullest meaning in the life of the community as a whole.
The time following the Creed is also an appropriate place for the congregation to be informed of particular needs to be prayed for as the liturgy continues.
The rites which follow the Creed form a kind of transition leading from the proclamation of the Word (and our response to it) into the celebration of the Eucharist itself. In the PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE, the entire people of God begins to exercise its role as a Royal Priesthood, lifting up the world and its needs to God. The deacon, whose ministry it is to 'interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world' (p. 543), or another leader asks the congregation's prayers for various objects. While the form may vary (pp. 383-93), opportunity is provided for the people to mention their particular concerns, and they are encouraged to do so as an exercise of their own priestly vocation. At the conclusion of the prayers, the presider may unite the petitions of the whole Church in an appropriate COLLECT.
Except on certain major feasts, the Eucharist proper is preceded by a communal CONFESSION OF SIN and ABSOLUTION p. 360). (Although kneeling for the confession and absolution is a common practice, it is also entirely appropriate to stand, especially on Sundays, the weekly Feast of the Resurrection.) We preface our Offering with a realistic acknowledgement that our unity as the Body of Christ is frequently broken on the human level through offenses committed against God and our neighbor. We know that our bread and wine, often despite the best of personal intentions, are products of a disordered and sinful network of human relationships. The life and labor which we offer to God in our gifts is not all that it could be; it needs the loving touch of God's forgiveness (pronounced in the Absolution) to 'make it right'.
Our restored unity finds joyful expression in the EXCHANGE OF THE PEACE. After responding to the words of the presider (p. 360), ministers and people greet one another in the name of the Lord. There is no prescribed way of doing this; an embrace, a clasping of hands, a kiss on the cheek -- whatever we feel comfortable with is acceptable. Nor is it necessary to wait for the ministers to come into the body of the church; we should feel free to greet one another on our own initiative. Our greeting of one another (and not just our special friends!) is a visible sign of our reconciliation in Christ and the rock-bottom unity of his holy people, the Church making Eucharist as one body in him. The time of the Peace is an especially appropriate time to welcome visitors and new members of our assembly.
The sacrificial meal celebrated in the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the OFFERTORY. The presider may read an offertory sentence (pp. 376-377) after which (or in place of which) the choir may sing an ANTHEM or other hymn. More than a 'concert piece' to accompany the collection of pledges and gifts of money, this anthem is an act of worship, offered by those skilled in the ministry of music on behalf of the entire congregation.
In a real sense, however, the celebration of the Eucharist has begun long before the Offertory proper, out in the world in our homes, workplaces, and communities -- wherever we labor to bring in the Reign if God in the world. Out of our life and labor we bring to the liturgy our gifts of bread and wine. In some celebrations, members of the congregation may bake the bread and provide the wine to be shared by all. In others, each of us may take possession of a small piece of bread as we enter the church building, claiming it as a symbol of ourselves and placing it in a common vessel to be merged with the corporate offering of the whole body of Christ. We may, if we can, also leave there a gift of food or a small donation of money to feed the hungry, in symbolic exchange for our share of the offered bread and wine.
Then, at the PROCESSION WITH THE GIFTS, members of the congregation bring the people's gifts to the altar. All stand as the gifts are carried through the assembly and a HYMN is sung.
The people's gifts of bread and wine are treated with great honor; as offerings of the life and work of the Body of Christ in the world they are, in the deepest sense, the offerings of our Lord himself. Even though the hymn may contain no explicit reference to this offering, the hymn forms a real part of the procession of the gifts and the preparation of the table, uniting the voices of all in a common song of rejoicing and praise appropriate to the feast or season. The people's gifts of bread and wine are received by the deacon or priest, who prepares them and places them on the altar. Donations of money and food may be placed near the altar as a sign of their dedication to Christian purposes; it is the bread and wine, however, which will be offered to God in the Great Thanksgiving which follows. In the 'life-giving bread and genial wine' we see signs, not only of ourselves, but also of the fruits of nature, transformed by human labor, and of all God's bountiful creation, returning to be perfected in God from whom they took their origin. We remember that the earth is the Lord's and that all its resources belong to God to be used as God ordains.
As a preparation for and a symbol of the holy sacrifice about to be offered, the gifts, the altar, and the presider and people may be censed. The sweet-smelling smoke permeating the church honors the presence of Christ in his gifts and in his people. A sign of his paschal sacrifice is seen in the burning away of the grains of incense; consumed by fire, they fill all things with their presence.
The washing of the presider's hands which follows (in part a survival of the ceremonial washing which preceded every meal in ancient tradition) is both a practical measure and a reminder of our own need to be inwardly clean as we approach the holy mysteries.
Standing in the midst of the people of God gathered around God's table, the presider leads them in the GREAT THANKSGIVING over the gifts of bread and wine. For the second time, priest and people greet one another, saying, 'The Lord be with you . . . and also with you.' 'Lift up your hearts' (SURSUM CORDA) is an ancient liturgical formula directing the people to stand. Through our response, 'We lift them to the Lord,' we signify that we are on our feet, ready to participate fully in all that follows. The people's permission to proceed is sought and granted ('Let us give thanks . . . it is right . . .') and the presider sings the praises of God in a PREFACE, giving thanks to the Father for his work in creation and his revelation of himself to his people. When appropriate, the Preface may also recall before God the particular occasion being observed.
All join in the singing of the SANCTUS (p. 362), a hymn common to Christians in virtually all centuries and places, an ascription to God of the holiness and power which are God's by right and which heaven and earth join in proclaiming. The BENEDICTUS QUI VENIT, an addition to the original Sanctus, echoes the cry of the crowds as our Lord entered Jerusalem before his Passion.
The EUCHARISTIC PRAYER continues, using one of several different forms which may be varied in accordance with the theme of the feast or season. Though the presider alone sings or reads the prayer, he or she in no sense replaces the people. The entire congregation remains attentive to the words of the presider, participating in spirit in the prayer offered in the name of the whole Church of God. Standing, the posture of active participation, was historically the universal posture for Christian (as well as Jewish) liturgical prayer, and is today being restored as the norm throughout the Church. Some members of the congregation may be more comfortable with the more recent Western custom of kneeling for parts of this prayer and are free to do so. All should bear in mind, however, that kneeling in no way expresses a greater reverence or deeper devotion to the sacrament than standing does. For these purposes, both postures are entirely equivalent.
In the Eucharistic Prayer we give thanks to the Father particularly for the redemption of the world through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son, Jesus Christ. We recall the words of our Lord as he broke bread and gave the cup to his followers: 'This is my body . . . this is my blood.' The people respond to these words with an act of faith and hope, joining the presider in recalling the savings acts of God in Christ and looking forward to the coming of God's reign on earth. Offering Christ's gifts to God, we pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon them and upon ourselves, that in our sharing of these gifts, we may be partakers of the body and blood of Christ. As we do all these things, our gifts are received by the Father; they, and with them we, are united to the sacrifice of the Son, made present among us in the sacramental meal. Through the word of prayer, as Justin Martyr taught, the food over which thanksgiving has been offered become the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.
The prayer reaches its climax in a final Trinitarian ascription of praise to God, at the conclusion of which the entire assembly joins in singing the GREAT AMEN. This doxology, during which the gifts are held high in a gesture of offering to God, and the people's 'Amen', through which we identify ourselves not only with the words but also with the objective events of the paschal mystery here made present, are the high point of this phase of the liturgy. After the 'Amen', all may bow deeply in silence for a space in honor of the great mystery taking place in our midst.
Our Eucharistic Prayer completed, we prepare to share the banquet spread before us by singing together the perfect prayer taught by our Lord. No prayer but the LORD'S PRAYER seems appropriate to us now as we stand ready to share the Bread of Life and the Cup of Everlasting Salvation.
The presider then breaks the bread, a sign that all are to be equal sharers of the one loaf which is the Body of Christ, and a period of silent reflection may follow. The CONFRACTORIUM, a verse said or sung responsively by the presider and people, proclaims the Paschal Feast of the Lord. A frequent Confractorium is the verse 'Christ our Passover' (p. 364), but some other hymn or anthem may be sung in place of, or in addition to, this verse. (The hymn ANGUS DEI [p. 364], a petition addressed to our Lord present in the sacrament, is often used.)
Holding the bread and cup in view of the people, the presider proclaims them to be 'The Gifts of God for the People of God', inviting the Christian assembly to share the feast prepared for it. As all are part of the holy people whom our Lord invites to his super, no baptized Christian, from the youngest infant to the oldest member, is excluded from his or her share in the family meal. Visitors who are baptized communicants of other Christian bodies are welcome to share the Eucharist with us, as we work and pray that Christ's Church may be one.
Our HOLY COMMUNION is a communion not only with our Lord, but also with one another. As we share his body and blood, the bonds of unity which hold the Church together in him are strengthened, and our union with him becomes the means of his redeeming work. In our common meal we partake even now in the fulfillment of that work, the heavenly banquet we will share in his future reign. Although in the recent past many Western Christians received Communion kneeling and some Episcopalians continue to do so, the more traditional posture for sharing the sacrament is standing. (The rubric directing the people to kneel in previous editions of the Prayer Book has been removed in order that the traditional posture might be restored.) Standing symbolizes that we are no longer slaves but daughters and sons of God; buried with Christ by baptism, we have been raised by him to share in his resurrection. A pilgrim people, we eat our Passover meal in haste, in order more speedily to be about the Lord's business in the world.
Our holy joy as we share this festive meal may find expression in a COMMUNION SONG. As all join in the singing of the antiphons or in the verses of a simple hymn, we manifest our love for one another and for the holy gifts that make us one. Some may continue to stand after we have received our share of the gifts and returned to our places. This is a gesture of courtesy to others with whom we are sharing a common table; we wait with them until they, too, have eaten, returning to our private concerns only after the entire liturgy is ended.
Then all may sit in silence for a space, reflecting on the goodness and grace shown by God in the precious gifts we have shared. Sometimes a COMMUNION HYMN may be sung after the silence. In a POST COMMUNION PRAYER (p. 365, 366) we pray that we who have been fed in this holy sacrament with the body and blood of our Lord may now go forth to do the work God has given us to do, to love and serve God in all aspects of our daily life and labor in the world. A DISMISSAL HYMN continues this theme, urging us on in our common mission and pointing us toward the consummation of that mission in the Reign of God redeeming and transforming all of creation. The hymn may also recapitulate the theme of the day's celebration, recalling to us particular aspects of the witness we are to bear as we prepare to leave God's table.
After brief announcements of events important to the assembly's life, the presider may bid the people 'Godspeed' by giving them a BLESSING, and the deacon or priest dismisses the assembly. The singing of the DISMISSAL, which in one sense brings our worship to an abrupt conclusion, in a deeper sense merely sends us on to continue the same liturgy in another way. In all our work for God in our families, relationships, workplaces, and communities -- wherever we labor to transform the world in accordance with God's purposes -- we carry on the work of liturgy.
Our liturgy will not end until the promised time when, all things having been put in subjection under God's Christ, we are brought together with all the saints into the joy of God's eternal reign.
This guide is a compilation from several sources and is particularly indebted to the Commentary on the American Prayer Book and The Liturgy Documents listed below. Both are highly recommended to any who would share with understanding and commitment in the Church's liturgical life. Leonel Mitchell's Praying shapes believing was not available to me at the time this guide was first compiled, but is a superb resource for those who wish to learn more about the liturgical riches of the Book of Common Prayer.