An Instructed Eucharist

Given at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston, January 20, 1985


It's Easter again. Let's celebrate!

And I mean that. Sunday, the first day, the Lord's Day, is our weekly commemoration of the Resurrection. Beneath whatever other particular themes may be emphasized, the Sunday Eucharist -- every Eucharist, for that matter -- is an extension, an echo, of the great Paschal Liturgies of Easter. St. Augustine once remarked that all other liturgies are merely the repeatable portions of the Easter Vigil.

Through the Paschal Sacrifice -- Christ's life, death, and resurrection -- a Passover in which we all share by Baptism -- Jesus Christ has redeemed for God "from every family, language, people, and nation, a kingdom of priests to serve our God."

We, all of us baptised Christians, are that kingdom of priests, and while we set apart an ordained ministry to have specific functions among us, their priesthood is a kind of icon, a mirror in which we can see our own. And our priesthood is at bottom not our own at all, but a sharing in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ. It is as a gathered community of concelebrants sharing in Christ's eternal priesthood that we celebrate our Eucharist.

The Entrance Rite of the liturgy is the particular sign of the first of three ways in which Christ is really present in the Eucharist. Christ is present in the whole assembly of ministers and people. The Church, the Body of Christ, is the primary sacrament of Christ's presence in space and time.

When the priest who is to preside and the other ministers take their places in our midst, our assembly will be complete. The Body will be visible in its ordered fulness. The Entrance Hymn, our first corporate act in the mass, helps us become conscious of who and what we are as the liturgically assembled Body of Christ. Listen to St. John Chrysostom:

As soon as the singing of the song begins, all the voices are united and gathered into a harmonious canticle. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women, slaves and free, will sing the same melody . . . together we form one choir. There are no longer slaves, free, rich, poor, master, nor servant. The inequality which exists in the world has been pushed aside, forming a single choir with equal voices, earth imitating heaven. Such is the nobility of the Church.


At the end of the second century Tertullian wrote, "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes . . . we trace the sign [of the cross]." The sign of the cross, then, has a long history of marking beginnings, and so marks the beginning of our liturgy as we sing the opening acclamation. We recall our Baptisms when we were sealed with the sign of the cross, and our making it together shows our solidarity as members of the one body of Christ. There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, and one human race in which the mysteries of God are fulfilled.

On many Sundays and Feast Days, we add a Song of Praise after the acclamation -- usually, but not always, the Gloria in Excelsis. This hymn is not essential to the liturgy, but can be seen as a kind of exhuberent overflowing of our joy in the Lord.

The Entrance Rite then concludes with prayer. We exchange greetings ("The Lord be with you . . .And also with you") and then pray silently for a while, each praying in our own way that we may enter into the spirit of the day's liturgy. Finally, the priest who is presiding at our assembly gathers together our petitions in the Collect of the Day.


When families gather for celebrations, particularly if there are several generations present, they are likely to sit around for a while telling old family stories.

So it is with the Christian family, gathered for celebration. The readings we are about to hear are familiar family stories, retold to refresh our sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Their purpose is not really education, but community building, and in them we look not for this or that bit of information, but for the presence of God who has called our family into being.

After the first reading we observe a brief silence, letting the reading speak to us. Use the silence. Leave off fumbling around for your psalm sheets until the organ begins to play before the psalm. Let the silence be silence.

Then join in the responsorial psalm: it is an integral part of the liturgy, a meditation on the reading we have just heard, and helps us let it "sink in" to our minds and hearts.


The principal sign of the presence of Christ in the Liturgy of the Word, as important in its way as the bread and wine are to the Eucharist, is the Book of the Gospels. And so, it is carried with joyful festivity to the place where the deacon or priest will sing the text -- a kind of restrained "dancing with the Torah"

Since at least as early as the third century, the Gospel procession has been accompanied by the singing of "Alleluia!", an acclamation which is a transcription of two Hebrew words:`"hallelu", meaning "praise", and "Yah", an abbreviation for Yahweh. "Praise Yahweh!" In the Gospel procession it means, more precisely, "Praise God present in the Word!"

It is a shout of praise that swells up from the whole assembly, and the verse sung by the choir, pointing forward to the Gospel text, heightens our joyful anticipation of the Good News.


Normally, the Gospel proclamation continues in a sermon. The sermon is an integral part of the liturgy, and thus is no longer marked off as a "new beginning" with the sign of the cross. Since it is a continuation of the Good News, nothing intrudes between it and the Gospel. We simply sit down and the preacher begins.

The perfect model for a liturgical sermon is often said to be that preached by Jesus himself in the synagogue at Nazareth. Remember how he read the scripture passage: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . he has sent me to announce the good news to the poor . . . to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." Then he rolled up the scroll, sat down, and said, "Today, in your very hearing, this text has come true."

The sermon is the "today" of the Gospel, the proclamation that today the Word of God comes true, here and now, in Jesus Christ, in whom are all times and places.

For a sermon today, then, let's just think about today's Gospel and add to it, "today this text is coming true, here among us, right now."


The Nicene Creed or "Nicene Symbol", on Sundays and major feasts, is our response to the Gospel Proclamation and to the whole Liturgy of the Word. It is a song of joy in our God-given unity as we respond together in shared faith to the presence of Christ in the Word.


The Prayers of the People are among the oldest parts of the mass. In them the Christian assembly makes intercession before God for the needs of the whole world. This is a priestly ministry which belongs to all of us by Baptism, and so these prayers are sometimes called "The Prayers of the Faithful", of the Baptised.

Liturgy, like the Gospels, is concerned about the whole of life, about whole human persons in all those relationships that make up human life in the communities in which we live and serve. Gospel life is life lived in context; it is not served by withdrawal from life, but by its transformation.

An excellent model for the Prayers of the People can be found in the December 1984 issue of the Messenger, written by our Young People's Group at St. John's. Good liturgists start young around here! The liturgy and the gospels are indeed concerned about a world without weapons and nuclear war, about sex and drugs in the hallways, about housing refugees, even -- especially -- those whom the authorities don't like. The liturgy cares about food for the hungry and heat for our homes.

The deacon or other leader of these prayers, remember, merely asks our prayers for some general intentions. We do the praying. The particular petitions in these prayers ought to come out of the whole assembly; it is our priesthood which is being exercised, not just the ordained ministry's.

At the conclusion of our prayers, the presiding priest will gather up our petitions in a single prayer, offered in the name of the whole Church.


The Didache, a document from the first half of the second century, instructs Christians as follows:

On the Lord's Day assemble together and break bread and give thanks . . . if anyone has a quarrel with a friend, let them not join your assembly until they are reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled. For this is the sacrifice spoken of by the Lord: 'In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice.'
The Confession of Sin is a liturgical acknowledgment of our need for confession and reconciliation before we offer our gifts to God. It is not, of course, a substitute for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, nor should we forget that, even without a general confession, the Eucharist itself forgives sins.

As kneeling is the posture of penitence, it might be appropriate at some masses to kneel for the Confession of Sin, although the Prayer Book doesn't suggest it. But at St. John's we give precedence to the agreement of the Council of Nicaea: in order that all may be doing the same thing, let there be no kneeling in church during the fifty days of Easter or on Sundays throughout the year.

Now that's our standard, our custom, and we encourage it. But if your conscience tells you to kneel, as in all things, feel free.

The reconciliation that those who join the Eucharistic Assembly are expected to pursue is to be genuine and concrete. And the pursuit of genuine reconciliation will go beyond the making up of petty personal quarrels -- although it will include that -- it will also include taking a hard look at those relationships we have with other human beings by virtue of our participation in political and economic structures, and at those relations of production and exchange out of which we bring our bread and wine to the Eucharist. Are they just? Are they loving? Do they make for peace?


The absolution is a declaration that we are forgiven, we are loved, we are free. We are being reconciled, one with another. We prepare to make Eucharist as one body in Christ. "Since the love of Christ has brought us all together, let us then rejoice and be glad together, and let us love one another with sincere hearts."

Let us, with all around, with a hug, a kiss, a clasping of hands -- whatever we're comfortable with as a sign of unity and love -- offer one another the sign of peace.


From the earliest times, the sharing of possessions formed an integral part of the liturgy of the Eucharist. St. Cyprian castigated the well-off who thought they could participate in the assembly without bringing an offering to share with the poor. And Tertullian testifies:

Each of us puts in a small donation ... if we can ... This is, as it were, the deposit of kindness. For we do not pay out money from this fund to spend on feasts or drinking parties or inelegant blow-outs, but to pay for the nourishment and burial of the poor, to support boys and girls who are orphan and destitute, and old people who are confined to the house . . . It is principally the practice and application of such affection as this that puts a brand of disgrace upon us with certain people. 'See,' they say, 'how they love one another.'
Disgraceful! But we keep on loving one another and we bring our gifts of money and food to be given away as an essential part of our Eucharistic gatherings. Why?

As St. Ambrose puts it:

Everything belongs to God -- both the seeds and the seedlings that grow at his nod, and are multiplied for the use of humankind. It is God, therefore, who gives all things, and God who orders them to be shared with those who need them . . . this is justice: that we restore to the needy because it is God who gives.
Notice that for St. Ambrose (and the Fathers generally) it is justice -- not generosity -- for those who have to share with those who do not, and when that happens those in need are merely being given back -- restored -- what already belongs to them by right because it has been given by God. And if you think that doesn't put a brand of disgrace upon us with certain people, then you haven't been paying attention to what's going on in this country.

Whatever you may hear on TV, really orthodox Christians know, and our liturgy simply assumes, that everything belongs to God. It is God who gives -- everything -- for everybody. We can only give back.

That also is the meaning of our special gifts of bread and wine, symbols of all the food in the world, of the fruits of nature and the work of human hands. They will be returned to God in the Great Thanksgiving, to become the Body and Blood of Christ, the third way in which Christ is really present in the liturgy. In our offerings of bread and wine we are giving ourselves back to God -- all that we have, all that we have done, all that we are. We too will become the Body and Blood of Christ. Here is St. Augustine:

If you want to know what the body of Christ is, listen to the Apostle telling the faithful, 'You are the body of Christ and individually its members' [I Cor. 12:27]. If, therefore, you are the body of Christ and members of Christ, your mystery is placed upon the Lord's table: you are receiving your mystery . . . there you are on the table, there you are in the chalice.


Liturgy always has three components: it remembers the past, it proclaims what is happening in the present, and it looks forward in hope to the future. The Eucharist is at once a memorial of Christ's life and death, a participation here and now in his resurrection, and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet of the Reign of God. Be conscious of these three themes as we pray together over the bread and the cup.

We do pray together over the gifts. Even though most of the Eucharistic Prayer is said by the presiding priest alone, it is said in the name of, and as the prayer of, the whole assembly. This is why, in accordance with the older liturgical tradition, it is our custom to stand for this prayer, indicating that we are all active participants, concelebrants, of the one Sacrifice of Christ.

The Great Thanksgiving opens with a dialogue, in which all take part. The priest who presides continues with what has come to be called "the preface", but is really part of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, and we all join in singing the acclamation "Holy, holy, holy, Lord." It has been said that "if the congregation could sing only one song, it would be the Sanctus."

The Sanctus is the song of unity of the Eucharistic community. Clement of Rome writes:

Consider the entire multitude of angels who remain before [God] to do his will . . . ten thousand myriads stand before him, and thousands upon thousands serve him . . . And we, too, reunited through the communion of feelings into one body, cry out in one voice to God for an immediate sharing in his great and glorious promises.

We have sung with one voice the Great Amen, ratifying and making our own the words spoken by the President of our Assembly. Now we prepare to share the gifts over which we have given thanks, praying together in the words of Christ whose body we are.


The bread is broken that it might be shared, and in this broken bread there is a symbol of ourselves: "One body are we, alleluia, for though many we share one bread. Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread."


Listen once again to St. Augustine:

You are there on the table, you are there in the chalice . . . What you are receiving is what you are, the grace that has redeemed you: you subscribe to this when you answer 'Amen'. What you see is the sacrament of unity . . . In this way Christ our Lord showed us to ourselves, willed that we may belong to him, consecrated at his table the mystery of our peace and unity.
And so we come to the sacrament as a grace-filled people, singing with one voice and standing around Christ's table as a gathering of persons in community, friends of Jesus and so, friends of one another. We each answer "Amen" to the words of the ministers as we receive the sacrament. We become what we receive.


We sit for a while in silence to feed on Christ's presence within and among us.


Having prayed that what we have shared may bear fruit in our lives, our celebration is complete. We prepare now to be sent out into the world by the dismissal, to be in all our activities, together and separately, what we have become through our sharing of this sacrament, to work for the coming of Christ's reign in all the world, that it, too, may be lifted up to become Christ's body, united in the bonds of love and peace.


A description of the persecution of Christians in the fourth century includes the following:

Did you, contrary to the orders of the emperors, arrange for these persons to hold an assembly?

Certainly. We celebrated the Eucharist.


Because the Eucharist cannot be abandoned . . . as if a Christian could exist without the Eucharist, or the Eucharist be celebrated without a Christian! Don't you know that a Christian is constituted by the Eucharist, and the Eucharist by a Christian? Neither avails without the other. We celebrated our assembly right gloriously!

And so, God willing, let it be here, until sacraments shall cease, and all is accomplished, and we eat and drink together "right gloriously" in the Kingdom of God.


-- Ted Mellor

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