Texts: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
Obviously, we know that this is not the same kind of meal as when we gather around the dining room table eat out at a restaurant. Even the youngest among us know that this meal is something different than what we do three times a day at home. What sets this meal apart and signals that it is separate and different is the liturgy, which literally means “the work of the people.” The liturgy—the things we do in this space and at this time—are a sign to us that this is no ordinary meal, but that something special is happening here. Our whole worship service is built around this meal, to help us recognize what the crowds could not.
Because the liturgy is so old, it can sometimes be a bit esoteric. We go through the motions, saying the words and singing the songs, without really knowing what we are doing or why.
That changed for me in college, and what changed it was Holy Communion. In my confirmation class, I was taught that, unlike the Roman Catholics, we don’t believe that the bread and wine physically change in any way, and yet we also believe that Jesus is present “in, with, and under” the physical elements. I do not believe that the molecules of the bread and wine are changed or rearranged, that they remain bread and wine. Nevertheless, as I would sit in worship, I knew I still felt the presence of God in this meal. Eventually, I began to feel that it was appropriate for me to bow in reverence to the bread and wine, even though they were still bread and wine. I can’t explain why I felt compelled to do this, it just felt right. All of a sudden, all these empty gestures and hollow pieties began to feel right somehow.
In seminary, I began to learn how the words we hear and the responses we read and songs we sing all point us to Christ’s mysterious presence among us in the unchanged-yet-different bread and wine, if we take the time to pay attention. It’s kind of like finding a single person across a crowded room; we may not be able to recognize them unless they are pointed out. That is what the liturgy does; it points out to us—all of us—where Christ is and helps us to recognize him.
The communion liturgy begins with a physical sign of human relationship: people greeting one another, hugging, shaking hands, touching one another, sharing with one another the peace that comes from God. Next, we return to God a portion of what God has given to us. This includes money, but also time, service, respect, reverence, joy, and other things; among them, bread. God gives us our daily bread, some of which we give back; and when we do, God takes it and gives it right back to us. But when we receive the bread back from God, it is not the same gift we offered before: God takes it and transforms it. This is what God does with all the gifts we offer. They all come back to us transformed by God’s life-giving presence.
Next, we pray over our offering, then pray over the meal. The dialog and preface help us focus on what is happening. Using call and response, the presider and the congregation together tell the story of what God is doing in this meal. We respond using pre-written dialog. I used to think this was an empty, meaningless ritual, but what it does it unites us. At the table, we are transformed from a collection of individuals into a single community across time and space, receiving this meal together. Not only are we united with one another in the room, but we lift our voices with all those who ever have or ever will use the same words, even in different languages.
Then, the presider speaks or chants the preface, which recalls God’s work in the world through Jesus. Some prefer to speak the liturgy, others prefer to sing. I personally prefer singing the liturgy because it underscores that this is something extraordinary. Muslims and Jews never read their holy texts: they always sing them because to sing them lifts them above common discourse and highlights the beauty of the message they contain. For the same reason, I like to sing the liturgy: it is a reminder that this is a thin space where heaven and earth are coming together.
Our prayer over the meal has three parts. In the first part, we remember how God has delivered God’s people in the past, the prayers God has answered, the faithfulness God has shown us. All these remembrances culminate in the life of Jesus. This brings us to the second part of this prayer: the Words of Institution. As we speak to God, God speaks back to us in the words of Jesus, reminding us why we celebrate this meal. Like the stories you might share around the dinner table or at a family picnic, this is a story that has been handed down through generations upon generations. It makes this prayer a two-way conversation, just like at dinner.
Finally, after remembering Jesus’ deeds and words, we pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon this meal and upon us, and to accomplish in this meal what Jesus intends for us.
After the Eucharistic Prayer, we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This song has two parts: the first recounts Isaiah’s vision in the temple, the hem of God’s robe filling the room and six-winged seraphs flying around singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD.” Then, it shifts to a scene from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.” As we sing, we proclaim God’s holiness—God’s utter and complete separation from the evil and unclean things in this world—and then we remember that that Holy One sent Jesus to overcome that separation by living among us.
Much like the habit I picked up in college of bowing in reverence to the elements, lately I’ve adopted another habit. Many of my seminary classmates from Pennsylvania would bow during the first part and rise during the second. It is a way of putting oneself more fully in the song: as I sing with the seraphs “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord,” I realize like Isaiah did how unworthy I am to stand before God’s holy presence. “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have beheld the LORD, the God of hosts!” But during the second part of the song, I rise, remembering that the angel touched the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, and Jesus came to eat with sinners, and in this meal, God comes to me—even me—and makes me worthy. I bow during the singing of this song to remember how special is what is happening here.
The last part of our communion liturgy is the first song we sing during communion distribution, the “Agnus Dei.” As we well know, agnus dei means “Lamb of God.” The words of this song remind us of the words of John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John was not speaking of a lamb offered as a sacrifice for sin, but the innocent lamb which was slaughtered on Passover, its blood used to mark the doorposts of God’s faithful people and its flesh used to strengthen them for their escape from slavery in Egypt. That lamb gave its life so that God’s people might live in freedom; we sing this song now to remind us that Jesus did the same.
Whether I am presiding at the sacrament or sitting in the congregation with the rest of you, everything that I do during this meal I do to underscore that something important and beautiful is happening. It’s not because I feel obligated to do it, nor because the rubric says I should, nor because I think there is some sort of magic in the act. All of it is to point beyond the physical things that are happening in front of us to the things that God is doing that we might not be able to see. Along with the liturgy, during communion I try to point out the presence of Jesus in our midst so that others might be able to recognize him.
I share this with you so that you might have a greater understanding of why we do what we do; and so that, whatever habits or images you might have of this meal may help you, too, to look beyond the bread and wine and recognize the flesh-and-blood Jesus in our midst.