THE EUCHARISTIC LIFE Part 3: Preparing the table and praying the Eucharistic Prayer 7.3.18
Today I’d like us to reflect on the Offertory and the Eucharistic Prayer. The word offertory brings several contrasting images to my mind. In the church where I grew up the offertory was a formal procession of the two churchwardens (always male and immaculately dressed in suits) each with bags containing the collection, and carrying their wands. The collection was blessed, but neither bread nor wine was brought up. Our Sunday practice here of bringing money, bread and wine has become very common, as we sing a hymn. Meanwhile, in churches in Paris I have heard wonderful improvisation on the organ during the offertory. In my last parish we had a monthly all-age Eucharist, in which the offertory consisted of the collection, brought up by children, and then children brought everything else needed for God’s great feast: the altar cloth, candles, bread, wine, ciborium, chalices, bell, chasuble and so on. Then there was a brief but numinous silence before we began the Eucharistic prayer. The children stood round the altar until the communion was distributed. Yes, it was all a bit chaotic but it spoke of the chaotic lives we offer to God.
The offertory is prominent in our liturgies because it expresses something important about our daily lives and the Eucharist: it reflects our desire to bring to God elements of the whole of his creation. But paradoxically, and at another level, as Michael Ramsey noted, we come to God empty, hungry, needing to be fed. God does not depend on us or feed us in response to our gifts, but through God’s initiative and grace, and the offering of Christ upon the cross. Ramsey said that in this way the Eucharist renews Christ’s death and life within us.
At this point it may be helpful to remember that in the accounts of the last supper Christ can be seen to make four actions: he takes, gives thanks, breaks and gives. These steps are quite closely linked in the Book of Common Prayer but in modern rites they are more drawn out allowing us to reflect more deeply on their meaning.
Step one is the taking and placing of bread and wine on the altar while a hymn is sung, followed by appropriate prayer, and, where it is the custom, with incensing of the gifts and of the people.
Then we raise our hearts and minds to the Lord as the president and people offer the great Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, the second of Jesus’ actions. We begin with the preface, sometimes with a seasonal emphasis, in which acts of God are proclaimed. Then, in the anamnesis, the events of the last supper are recalled. And here we call upon the Holy Spirit, in the epiclesis, to make the gifts holy, mysteriously transformed by the presence of God in our midst.
This prayer can be expressed and understood in a great variety of ways. Thus, I have been at celebrations where the words of institution were said in a monotonous voice without any pause or manual actions, while at another the priest sang the preface, the choir sang settings of the Sanctus and Benedictus by Mozart, the bread was consecrated and lifted high before the people, surrounded by great clouds of incense, gongs and bells ringing, and finally a loud and extended flourish on the organ with all stops out. This was repeated when the chalice was elevated. However it is celebrated the Eucharist is one of the two dominical sacraments, firm instructions of our Lord.
In the book of Acts, Luke sees the life of Christ becoming the life of the church. Christ’s teaching, healing and self-giving love continues in our witness now. And it is in the Eucharist that we actively offer ourselves in the context of Christ’s life, summed up in the cross, as we are be caught up in bringing about the Kingdom.
This offering of ourselves is not just for Sundays but in the whole of our life. This is where we find strength to give our imperfect selves to Christ, as members of His body. This is where we pray that we shall live for Him and with Him and in Him, so that through us His loving arms may stretch wider and further into an embrace of all creation and history.
The Eucharistic prayer is about the conversion of our gifts and of ourselves, the reshaping of our minds, the uncovering of ourselves to become the people God created us to be. Paul said (2 Cor 5.17) that if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation. Within the Eucharist the direction, the situation, the light in which we are bathed, is new. Though the person is at one level still the same, the new creation is her or his relationship with God, renewed and alive once again with God’s love.
Chemists and physicists would say that after consecration the bread and wine are identical to their previous state. But I believe that they, and we who offer them, are mysteriously realigned, by identification with Christ and His self-giving love, so that He is experienced in them, and through them, as He can be experienced in and through us, His people.
So this realigning, this placing of people in a right relationship and setting with God and other people, is a work that leads to the revelation of the sacred, consecrated, converted and atoned nature of God’s people. It is, as John Hadley once wrote, like a work of art. There may be nothing special about a particular word, or series of musical notes, or brush marks of paint, but in the right setting, both object and setting are transformed. This is what God the artist does as our gifts, and ourselves, are consecrated. And our calling as God’s people, is to continue his artistic work.
In many cultures the work of poets, prophets, priests and artists has been linked. A priest is, or is like a poet, overhearing the voice of God, and relaying it as best as she or he can. The priest is, or is like, the poet (which means maker), placing the ordinary things of life in God’s hands, making them sacred, showing up their deeper and true nature. And as a scientist I would wish to add that science does something analogous. The ever increasing number of pieces of scientific knowledge is gradually revealing, in occasional transforming steps, something of complexity and the glory of God’s creation. As in all art and science, God’s transformation happens at unexpected times and ways, and more powerfully and more surprisingly than a poet or scientist may imagine. Priests, poets and scientists do not have the last word on their work. They do not understand its meaning fully. In every Eucharist we offer to God the glories, the puzzles, the mess, the poverty, the challenges of our world, all symbolised by the simplicity and fragility of the gifts of bread and wine. Out of this we can only be astonished by what God makes of this, even though we often fail to notice it.
Lastly, let us return to where we started today, the offertory prayers about the bread and wine we bring. As we think about the link between the offertory and the Eucharistic prayer, we might be helped by the words of a third offertory prayer:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have ourselves to offer, fruit of the womb and formed by human love. May we become the people of God.
So here today in the Eucharistic prayer we shall draw everything together in thanksgiving: the offering of Christ, the church and ourselves here, the needs of the world, together with the great company of the faithful who have gone before us. We shall ask that the power of the Holy Spirit will recreate, renew, enrich and re-shape the dryness and poverty of what we bring. Christ is here with God in love, and invites us into their embrace. We are here too, with the angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, all the people of God down the ages, as we sing or say Holy, Holy, Holy. At the end of the prayer we all say Amen, ‘the thunderous applause’, as Jerome put it. Amen.