This is the fourth installment in a series on the sections of our weekly worship service. (See the June, July, and August editions of the Pastor’s Corner for the previous installments.) My intention for this series is to help you better understand not only what we do in our worship service, but also why we do it.
In the past 50 years or so, Lutherans have reclaimed the ancient practice of weekly Communion. Luther himself encouraged that practice, because it was consistent with his insistence that God is truly present in this sacrament, working in us by the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive our sins, to strengthen us in faith and hope, and to empower us for faithful living.
Having shared the peace of Christ with one another and collected the offering for the support of the congregation and our mission in the world, we move now into the “Meal” or Communion portion of the service. The major components of the Meal are the Great Thanksgiving – a series of prayers of thanks for all that God has done for us – and the distribution of the sacrament itself. This follows an ancient pattern which is present in Jesus’ own actions with his original disciples: he “took bread, and gave thanks; broke it, and gave it to his disciples…” This “gave thanks” would have been more than a simple “rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub.” It would have been an extended prayer recognizing God as the source of all our blessings. This is important stuff, and so we give it some time and some thought.
The Great Thanksgiving begins with a dialogue between the presider and the assembly, which sets the tone for the prayers that follow. You could think of it like the preflight exchange between a pilot and ground control. “The Lord be with you.” (Here the presider invokes God’s help in the coming prayer.) “And also with you.” (“Back atcha!”) “Lift up your hearts,” (i.e. “bring your whole self into these prayers.”) “We lift them to the Lord.” (“Check!”) “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” (another way of saying, “Let us pray,” or “cleared for takeoff” in the above analogy.) “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” (“Roger, here we go…”)
This opening dialogue is then followed by a prayer, chanted or spoken by the presider, which places our particular, local worship into a larger context. First, our prayer here is part of our ongoing prayer throughout our life; second it is tied in time to the particular focus of liturgical season; and third it is part of the worship of the whole church on earth, together with that of “the hosts of heaven.” And so we then move immediately to the song of the heavenly host, “Holy, holy, holy…” as recorded in the prophet’s vision of God’s heavenly court in Isaiah 6:3. It is customary for worshipers to bow at these opening words in recognition that, like Isaiah, we are coming into the presence of God in a special way in our celebration of Holy Communion. The words then quickly transition to verses of Psalm 118, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosannah!” (literally, “save us!) In Judaism, this was the entrance liturgy used at the temple during the festival of Passover, praising God for saving the Israelites. The early church applied it to Jesus freeing us from the power of sin and death through his crucifixion and resurrection. In the Gospels, this is what the crowd chants as Jesus enters Jerusalem, so it makes sense that now as Jesus comes to us in the sacrament we sing those very same words. A little later in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says this to the religious authorities of Jerusalem: “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This is why it has become customary to make the sign of the cross when singing these words in the Communion liturgy. It’s a way of saying, “Look, Jesus, I’m saying those words. I want to see you again. I want to meet you here in this meal.”
The Great Thanksgiving continues with the Eucharistic prayer, which recounts God’s saving work throughout history, culminating in Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, and remembering his instituting this sacrament with his disciples. It concludes by once again giving thanks to God, and praying for the forgiveness, life, and salvation that God has promised us through Jesus Christ.
The distribution then follows. I’ll say more about that and what follows next month.
+ Pastor Repp