Sunday 26 April 2020
The account of the encounter between the two disciples and the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus is one of the most vivid and interesting narratives in the gospels. When you listen to it, are you reminded of something else in the life of the Church?
Here we have disciples in company, listening to the scriptures being explained and sharing a meal with Jesus present among them. It is impossible for Christians not to see a parallel between this story as it unfolds and the Holy Communion Service which is so special to us. In Holy Communion, we break the holy Word of God in the scriptures and then we break bread and share wine, and in doing so, experience the presence of the risen Jesus in our midst.
This morning, let’s consider worship in general, and the Holy Communion Service in particular.
Let’s start by considering the word “worship”. What do we mean by it? We could probably fill a good size book in trying to exhaust what we mean by the word “worship”. In fact, many scholars have done just that. But if we wanted to come up with a useful working definition, we could say that worship consists in humans giving praise to a god.
This yearning to praise the gods does not come from the God of the Christian Bible though. There are many references in the Bible where our God shuns worship.
For example, Hosea 6.6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings”.
And Psalm 51.17: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
In fact, it is we humans who need to worship, rather than God needing us to worship.
Through our worship, we remind ourselves of the correct relations between God and us. We remind ourselves that in the words of St Augustine: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’
In our worship, we use symbols and actions and words and music and drama to express for ourselves our love and praise of the God who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all. Therefore, it is very important what we do and how we do it in worship. It should not just be wall-to-wall words appealing only to our heads. It should contain drama and colour and life appealing to the whole of our person. It needs to engage our bodies, our minds, our emotions and our spirits.
It is for that reason that we use sacred space, vestments, candles, music, symbols, and silence, in order that, in our worship, the whole of our personhood is involved in the praise of our loving God.
It is very interesting that a word that is closely associated with worship is “liturgy”. It is interesting because the word “liturgy”, in its roots, means “work”. Worship involves work -effort.
With those general thoughts about worship in our minds, let’s consider the Holy Communion Service. There are basically two major sections to the Service – the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Each of these two major sections is constituted by component parts. We symbolise this two-fold structure by the use of the two tables – the table of the Word, or the lectern, and the table of the Eucharist, or the altar. The action of the Service moves from one table to another. The linking position in the Service is the Presider’s chair. From this we should realise that the position at which things happen during the Service has significance.
Let’s look at the Liturgy of the Word first. We begin the Service by “Gathering in God’s name”. That might sound like a statement of the very obvious. But it is an important Christian concept. Christians have been gathering together on the first day of the week to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the very earliest times. “Gathering” has all of the connotations of individual Christians coming together with all that their individual lives involve, on this day, to be with other Christians. The elements that constitute the “gathering” are the procession of the ministers into the Church, the joining together of our voices in one in the Introit hymn, the greeting from the presider, the reading of a sentence of scripture drawn usually from one of the readings of the day. We then consider our failings in the living of the Christian life and express those sentiments in the Confession and the presider announces the words of pardon which God has for any who truly repent of their sins. We praise God in the words of the Gloria, except in the solemn seasons of Lent and Advent. Then the presider “gathers” all of this up in a special prayer set for the day – the Collect. Most of this “gathering” process takes place with the Presider at the chair.
Having prepared ourselves through this “gathering” process, we then listen to God’s Word from the sacred scriptures. The action now moves to the table of the Word. On a Sunday, we generally have three readings and a psalm. The first reading is usually from the Old Testament (although sometimes, it comes from the Acts of the Apostles), and the psalm is said as a response to the first reading and often has a thematic relation to the content of that reading. Often the first reading will have some thematic relationship with the gospel reading of the day. The second reading always comes from the New Testament, but not from the gospels. After the second reading, we stand and sing the Gradual hymn to greet the gospel and we remain standing for the gospel proclamation. This is done as a way of giving special prominence and respect to the gospels.
The sermon or homily then follows. It is meant to draw on the scripture readings to give some deeper insight into what has been heard. By way of affirming all that has been proclaimed in the readings, the whole congregation then recites the Nicene Creed as a statement of faith in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A range of our needs are then placed before God by way of intercessions, followed by the invitation to pray the very prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the prayer of the kingdom, the Lord’s prayer. And finally, the Liturgy of the Word concludes with those present sharing a meaningful sign of peace with their brothers and sisters to show that all that has been heard in the scriptures has moved the congregation to peace and unity within their ranks.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist then begins with the preparation of the Lord’s table. The bread and wine are brought forward and the offerings of the congregation are collected and brought forward. The presider then thanks God for the gifts that are the fruit of God’s goodness to us.
The presider then leads into the preface and the great thanksgiving prayer which is said over the bread and wine. The prayer recalls Jesus actions and words at his Last Supper when he left this memorial meal as an active symbol of his ongoing presence amongst his disciples.
The presider then breaks the bread in a conspicuous fashion. This makes the one bread available for many to share. It also calls to mind the incident in today’s gospel where the two disciples recognised Jesus in the breaking the bread. The congregation is invited to come forward and receive the sacramental bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
After Communion has been shared, we treat the consecrated elements of bread and wine with due reverence. They are no longer just any bread and any wine but elements that we have put aside for a special purpose, to remind us of Jesus’ constant presence with us in his faithful community. So any bread or wine left is consumed by the presider or, if it is required, some may be placed in the Aumbrey, the receptacle at the side of the sanctuary, to be taken at a later time to those who are unable to join in the service because of illness or incapacity. A hymn is generally sung as this takes place.
The presider then prays the postcommunion prayer and then follows a time for announcements about important activities of the parish that are coming up. The presider then blesses the congregation using a form of words that are appropriate to the season. The procession of the sanctuary party out of the Church follows as a final hymn is sung. The last action then is the dismissal of the congregation to go their way, loving and serving the Lord.
That is just a Cook’s tour of the Holy Communion Service. There are many deeper layers of meaning that it would take too long to address. The important thing for us all is to immerse ourselves in the drama of the event. The ritual and colour and flavour of the service are all meant to engage us totally in the most holy of tasks – the worship of our Lord and God.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen