General Introduction

Before there was a New Testament or creeds as we know them, Christians gathered together for worship very similar to today’s form that we know as Holy Eucharist. As we read in Acts, Christians gathered together for the ‘breaking of the bread and the prayers’. The drama of the Holy Eucharist has from the days of the early Church been the central event in Christian worship and provides a pattern for Christian living. It is designed to teach us, feed us, and inspire us.

But worship may not always be inspiring or meaningful. It may seem confusing, boring and repetitious. In our worship, there is much ritual and intentional pattern, but ritual without meaning becomes idol worship. If a pattern is not understood, it adds nothing. A narrated service helps make clearer and more obvious the drama which is taking place. With understanding we are better able to know and experience God’s presence in our worship.

The Eucharist is the only service Jesus himself instituted and commanded us to continue. Eucharist means “thanksgiving” — and we give thanks for God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ. The service is also called “Holy Communion” because it is a principle way of communing with and having fellowship with God. It is called the “Lord’s Supper” because its focus is the meal with Jesus Christ. It has origins in the meals the disciples had with Jesus, especially the Last Supper and Miracle Feeding of 5,000. Every Sunday is a “little Easter” because every Eucharist is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. We celebrate — because our worship should be joyful thanksgiving.

We call this our liturgy – which means “work of the people”. Everyone has a role in the service – you are people gathered for worship – a congregation, not an audience. We are a celebrant community – offering praise and thanksgiving. The priest cannot celebrate alone. Eucharist is always an event done in community, and at least two people must be present. But to take it further — God is the primary actor. When we are gathered — two or three or more in His name — God in the Holy Spirit is with us. God is working in us and through us.

The service is divided into two parts: the liturgy of the Word of God and liturgy of Sacrament. This balance reflects our understanding of how God communicates with us, both through Word and Action: in Scriptures, and in the Word made flesh; in the Word preached, and in the bread and wine.

preparing for worship

Before the Processional, it is appropriate to spend the time in quiet preparation for worship. Many people say a prayer immediately upon entering their pew. Read the lessons or the words to the opening hymn. Or simply quiet the rush and noise from the world outside and make the transition to the “real world.” Silence is an integral part of worship. God spoke to Elijah in the still small voice — it takes silence to hear God sometimes. Silence is used throughout the service so people can reflect on what they’ve heard, offer silent prayers, and prepare for encountering the living God. Preparing for worship in silence, we can be ready to worship when the organ hits the first note of the processional.

At the entrance of the Ministers, with or without a processional hymn, it is customary for the people to stand. It is also customary to bow in respect to the Cross as it passes in procession. Music has the function of covering movement. But it has a much deeper meaning. Singing together is a means of involving and unifying the congregation.

Entering Worship: Ecountering God

The Processional Hymn unites the entire congregation: leaders, choir, and everyone else... in song and procession. As people find a common tone and words, they are being formed into one unified body from all the various places from which they came. They are "processing" because they are people following the cross of Jesus Christ for this work of worship. Following the Processional we enter into praise and acclamation. 

An acclamation states briefly what we are assembled to do. First, we are here to “bless God” – second, we are here to “bless his kingdom”. — Many people find it meaningful to make the sign of the cross at this point to affirm these blessings and accept the blessing personally.

The Collect for Purity follows the acclamation. In it we are reminded that God knows us through and through. We ask the Holy Spirit to cleanse and inspire us and make us worthy for entering into worship. This is preparation for entering the presence of God. 

The “Gloria in Excelsis” (or Glory to God) is an ancient morning hymn which states the two-fold objective of the Christian liturgy – to glorify God and to communicate his peace to his people. In some seasons we sing other songs of praise, but they always serve the intention of recognizing God as our creator and redeemer.

The celebrant then formally greets the assembled congregation with an ancient Jewish type of salutation, “The Lord be with you”. The congregation responds: “And also with you.” We say it so routinely – all the time. Yet, it is powerful language. “The Lord be with you.” — and we have called God into our presence. It is audacious — and yet, we know it is true because Jesus promised he would be with us, when we meet in his name. So when you use that to gather attention – remember what you are doing — calling God into your presence.

Next is the Collect of the Day. This is a short prayer which collects the overall theme found in the readings of Holy Scripture for the day and focuses our attention.

From the bible: Holy Scripture informs

The biblical material and the preaching are at the heart of the Liturgy of the Word. You will probably hear more Scripture read week after week in the Episcopal Church than in most any other Church. We use four readings from Holy Scripture – normally a lesson from the Old Testament, a psalm, a passage from the Epistles of the New Testament, and then a passage from one of the four Gospels. In the early Church psalms or hymns were sung between the Scripture lessons from a step – we call this hymn the “gradual” from the Latin word “gradus”, which means step. The Old Testament lesson and the Epistle are most appropriately read by lay members of the congregation. After each lesson the reader declares it “The Word of the Lord”, and we respond “Thanks be to God.”

The Holy Gospel is not read primarily for instruction, but so that we may, in a sacramental manner, hear Jesus speak to us through His own words. Because the Gospel is “Good news” intended to be brought into the midst of the people, we have a Gospel Procession, bringing the book of the Gospel from the altar to the nave to act out the coming of the Good News, and we stand to acknowledge the presence of Christ in His Holy Word as we receive the Good News. All should turn so they face the reader of the gospel.

Many centuries ago it became a custom to make the sign of the cross on the forehead, on the lips, and on the chest at the beginning of the Gospel. This is a way of acting out our wish to think about Christ, to talk about Him, and to carry His Good News in our hearts.

Sermon, Creed, Prayers and Confession

Now that Scripture has been proclaimed, the job of the sermon is to break it open – in the sense of exploring its meaning and application in daily life.

After we have heard God speak to us and had some application for our own time, it is time for us to respond. The congregation is invited to stand and join in professing the faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. The Creeds were originally used at Baptisms to summarize the story of salvation and what we believe about God. We say “We believe…” remembering that we are joining ourselves to the great heritage of the Holy Catholic Church down through the centuries. This heritage is vaster, richer, and more mysterious than any one of us understands, but we share it with all who have gone before and commit ourselves to it.

In the last paragraph of the Creed the sign of the cross is made when we say “resurrection of the dead”. This sign is a physical expression of our intention to be marked as a person of faith and hope in the power of the resurrection.

Being the people of God carries with it the great responsibility of caring for others. We begin to accept this responsibility in the intercessory prayers. As we pray for our neighbors, the Church, and our nation, we are not only asking God to work in this world, but also offering ourselves to help in any way we can. If you want to know the mission of the Church, read the prayers of the people. What we pray for, we should be willing to work for. We burn Isaiah’s words into our hearts, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”

In the General Confession, we confess our separation from God, from others, from ourselves. This separation is sometimes caused by things we have done wrong, — and more often – by things we should have done and didn’t. We then receive absolution of our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ. God forgives our sins, accepts us, and strengthens us to meet the future.

The sign of the cross is used by many at the time of the absolution as a physical indication of their acceptance of God’s forgiveness.

The Peace

The Peace is like a hinge, tying together the two halves of the liturgy. We have heard God’s truth in Scripture, Sermon and Creeds, which often confronts us. We have confessed our sins, been forgiven, and are now reconciled to God and our neighbor. In the peace, we act out the fact that we are now cleansed, reconciled, and made into One Body – the Body of Christ. We can only have that unity because God is remaking the broken people who entered the door into new people. In the first half of the service – we have been re-made into new people and into One Body. So the Peace, one the oldest rituals of the Church, expresses that reality.

Then – as Christ’s Body – we are ready to go the Table to celebrate the Sacrament of communion.

The Peace may be expressed by words of greeting, by a handshake, or by an embrace. This is a joyful moment in the liturgy, but it is not merely that. It is not the friendly greeting given over the coffee pot, or introductions to newcomers. Our primary purpose in the Peace is to give and receive the greeting of the Risen Lord who brought, and still brings, the blessing of His peace to His followers.

Take, Bless, Break, Give - The four Actions of the Great Thanksgiving

After the Peace, we move into the second half of the service, the Liturgy of the Table. The change is made visual by the movement of the celebrant. Now, the celebrant moves to the altar, focusing our attention on the meal around the Table.

There are FOUR great actions in this second half of the liturgy, each mirroring our Lord’s actions at the Last Supper. Our Lord first “took” bread and wine; second, He “gave thanks” for or “blessed” the bread and wine; third, He “broke” the bread; and, fourth, He “gave” the bread and wine to his disciples to eat and drink. Take – bless – break – give.

The first action, the “taking”, is usually called the Offertory. The offering is always bread, the basic element of all meals, and, wine, the age-old beverage of human society. These stand for all food and drink. It is most appropriate for members of the congregation to bring the bread and wine forward at the Offertory to show that this food and drink are presented to God as expressions of our own daily life and work. Bread and wine begin as God’s gifts to us in wheat and grapes. The final product represents what we do with God’s gifts — the combination of God’s gifts and our industry. Our tithes and offerings of food for the hungry are collected and offered to God with the bread and wine. Originally many people brought the actual fruits of their labor. Today money symbolizes our work. All is set upon the table — symbolizing our lives. All we have and are is offered to God to be blessed, broken, and given to the rest of a hungry and thirsty world.

At the Offertory, a little water is mixed with the wine. This is an ancient custom going back to Jewish times. The original purpose of it was simply to dilute the wine. It also can signify humanity mixed with divinity in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Setting the table for the Holy Meal

Our Lord took bread, and then wine, and gave thanks over them. So, in the Christian liturgy, after the bread and wine have been “taken” and placed on the altar, we move into the second action, the “Thanksgiving”.

When we “lift our hearts unto the Lord” we are lifted out of time and space into the Divine Presence. In the Sanctus – Holy, Holy, Holy, — we share the vision of St. John of the heavenly banquet.

The words of The Great Thanksgiving summarize the history and future of salvation. The story of the Last Supper, the resurrection and hope for new life are stamped on this bread and this wine. We discover the Risen Lord really present with his people. From him, we ask the blessing of the Holy Spirit, not only to make bread and wine the signs of his presence, but also to transform us as well to be signs of his life in the world. We remember the past in a way that it becomes true in the present and prepares us for the future.

Certain ceremonial actions are appropriate during The Great Thanksgiving. Many persons find meaning in making the sign of the cross at the words “Blessed is he who comes In the name of the Lord” in expression of their desire that he come into their lives. Again, the sign of the cross may be used at the words “Sanctify us also” to express our desire to be sanctified in body and spirit.

While the celebrant speaks for all of us in the prayer of thanksgiving the entire congregation affirms all that is said with a heart-felt “AMEN.” at the end. You’ll notice it is the only AMEN in all caps in the entire service. Speak it with conviction. Please stand now for the beginning of The Great Thanksgiving.

Lord's Prayer and Holy Communion

The Lord’s Prayer is both a conclusion to The Great Thanksgiving and an introduction to the Breaking of the Bread. The Breaking of the Bread is the third action of the Liturgy of the Table. It remembers Christ’s suffering and death, He being broken on the Cross. Because the Breaking of the Bread is an act, and not a set of words, it takes place, or a least begins in silence.

We come now to the fourth and final action of the Liturgy of the Table, the ‘giving”. Following the triumphal acclamation, “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us…”, the priest invites the congregation to come forward with the words, “The Gifts of God for the People of God”. The sacrament is administered with one of two brief sets of words. Each communicant should respond “Amen.” to the sentence of administration when taking the elements, the bread or wine, into his or her mouth.

Out into the World

In the conclusion of the service a post-communion prayer gives thanks for making us part of Christ’s body and feeding us — and commits us to mission as disciples of Christ.

A priest may pronounce a Blessing after the prayer. When there is a concluding Blessing, it is customary to make the sign of the cross as an indication of our reception of God’s Blessing. Then we process into the world. We leave the church building to go out and be the Church.

Some say the dismissal following the processional is the most important moment in the service because it calls for the People of God, having been fed and formed by the Body of Christ, to go out through the doors of the Church to be the body of Christ in the world.

Worship which stops short of ministry is sterile and ultimately becomes idolatry. Only in the world can the fulfillment of God’s will be made complete. There – what we celebrate in liturgy becomes realized in life. There – the world is changed to become more and more the Kingdom of God.