Liturgy means “the work of the people.” As we worship God, we are inviting God to change us. We are giving God some space in our lives to make a difference, to transform us into the persons that God always intended us to be.
The first Christians called it “the breaking of the bread” because it was as Jesus broke bread with the disciples that they recognized his presence in them. In those days, the meal was probably more like a potluck supper than a solemn ritual. As time went by, it became impractical to arrange for a full meal for all the church members every week. The sharing of bread and wine became a separate action with prayers that took a more established form. By the middle of the second century records of prayers have been found that are still familiar to us:”Lift up your hearts; We lift them to the Lord, and Lord, have mercy” to name a few.
The service clearly has two parts - the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Table. The first part of the service is called – the Liturgy of the Word begins with the Opening Acclamation, the Collect for Purity and a Hymn of Praise. The Opening Acclamation varies with the seasons of the church year. We are now in the season after The Epiphany and the Trinitarian acclamation is used for all seasons except Lent and Easter. The Collect for Purity is based on Psalm 51 and it “sums up” or collects the elements that make a truthful worship. It asks God to cleanse us so we can offer truthful worship. It has been around since the 1549 BCP. It frames us so God can form us through the Eucharist. We ask God to help us focus so that God can work in our lives. We use the Hymn of Praise – the Gloria, that brings us together in an act of praise.
In Episcopal churches, our posture is part of our participation. So I invite you to stand for the opening hymn and the procession into the church. We stand out of respect, and you might want to bow as the cross passes you. The central symbol of our faith is the cross. In the cross, we see the presence of God entering into suffering, identifying with it, and transforming it. Some people make the sign of the cross at various times during the service. There is no hard and fast rule, but it is a matter of personal piety. To many of us, making the sign of the cross is a humble silent prayer used to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice and also to remind us of the cross we are called to bear. The cross has become a sign of victory over evil, over death. We do well to remind ourselves of this as often as possible. Some folks also bow their heads at the name of Jesus as another sign of piety and honor.
Each reading contributes to the picture of how God relates to humanity. From the Old Testament, we learn how God has been revealed within Judaism. The psalms invite us to recognize our different moods - from rage to jealousy as well as praise and joy; as we sing or say the psalm we are invited to trust that God understands those moments of confusion and happiness. This practice of using a psalm after the Old Testament reading goes back to the middle of the fourth century. The epistle (which means “letter”) helps us discover the impact of Christ on the early Church. In the Gospel, we are invited to see and experience in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God made manifest.
Often the Gospel is read from the middle of the congregation, symbolizing the good news (which is the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”) that has come into our midst. Some folks make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, their lips and their hearts in an effort to prepare our minds, voice and heart to receive the word of God. Through the tradition of the triple cross, we are asking the Lord to bless our minds and our hearts that they will be open to hear the Gospel, so we might proclaim through our lips the good news of Jesus to all of the world. It's a wonderful tradition to remind us that the words of the Gospel — which are about the life.
After hearing about the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, we are now ready for the proclaimed word (which is the sermon). Following the Propers of the Day, the biblical readings assigned for this day, we have the response to God’s Word proclaimed in the form of the Sermon, Nicene Creed, Prayers of the People, Confession and the Peace.
After the sermon, we observe a time of silence and then we are invited to stand and reaffirm our faith in the words of the creed. A creed is a statement of the Church’s belief. The one used here is the creed formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. It tells the story of the Holy Trinity revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Creed says who we are by binding us to the historic Christian faith. It states what we as a church believe, even as our individual understandings may grow and change over the years.
When we come into God’s presence with our prayers, we respect God’s presence by standing or kneeling. At the prayers of the people we pray together for the Church and the world. Our prayers will flow into confession. Like so much else, this is no substitute for our private confession to God of our self-centeredness and brokenness. You will notice that there is a period of silence before we begin the corporate confession. That is the time for each of us individually and privately to offer our sins to God. When the confession begins it is our community acknowledging that our lives have not been worthy of all that has been done for us. Every week we are invited back to bow the knee and acknowledge we have messed up and repent once again.
When we greet one another “in the name of the Lord.” In doing so we acknowledge Christ in those all around us. The peace is an ancient Christian practice suggested by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:20. Being at peace with each other is a Christian obligation. We are invited to be at “peace” not just with those around us, but with everyone we have run into throughout the week. We should use this opportunity to resolve to work harder to be at peace with those we find difficult. It is also important to be at peace with all those in our past who have hurt us. It is so easy for us to live with unresolved hurt, but in the symbolism of touching the hands of others you are invited to release the pain and hurt that is part of the past. This moment of peacemaking comes immediately before the offertory (the moment when we give of ourselves to God). Jesus instructs us to make sure we are at peace with those around us before bringing our gifts to God (Matt. 5:23-24).
After the Peace, and the announcements we move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Table, Holy Communion. After shaking hands, the priest will take a sentence from Scripture and invite us to offer back to God what God has so generously given us. God has given us time, talents, and treasures, which we should give back to God. It is an opportunity to make sure that we are not allowing ‘things” to dominate our lives. It is an opportunity to reflect on what we are doing for God.
The second part of the service, the Liturgy of the Table is centered on the bread and wine at the altar. Now we are being invited to the table. We begin with the Offertory, during which our gifts of money are collected, and bread and wine are brought forward. The money is the tangible sign of our daily work; it represents the first fruits of our labor. We give back to God in gratitude for what we have already been given.
All of these elements are placed on the altar as symbols of our offering all of our lives to Christ. St. Augustine once said, “See that bread and wine? That is you. You are there on the altar.” And just as in the Eucharist bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, so we, in this Eucharist, ordinary as we are, become Christ’s Body.
The Eucharistic Prayer begins with the “Sursum Corda” (literally, lift up your hearts). This dialogue between the priest and the people continues through the prayer. There are two other moments when the people break in: first, the Sanctus (holy), where we join the distinguished company of heaven and sing praise to God; and second, the memorial acclamation, where we remember the saving work of Christ.
When it comes to the words of institution, we remember the act (which means “invocation”), the priest asks God the Father to send the Holy Spirit to enable the Divine Word (the Son) to embody the elements of bread and wine so that they are to us the “body and blood of Christ.” This is a miracle. God is providing us with a resource to enable us to live differently-to live as God intended.
Out of joy and without fear we can utter the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. Then the priest breaks the consecrated bread, a symbol of how brokenness can be the key to life. Then we can come forward to receive.
We experience what life is for, what life could be, and what someday, by the grace of God, life will be. We share this feast and leave the Table with our hearts and lives ready to serve God for another week. We are now at the still point of our turning world—God’s love for us in giving us Christ and, through him, a new life. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.
We are coming to the end of this service of thanksgiving. In this prayer, we bring the themes of the service together and prepare for another week of service in God’s world. The priest will send us out with a blessing- a practice that was included in the 1549 prayer book. And the priest or the deacon will dismiss us- sending us to live transformed lives of grace and love in the world.
After we say the Post-communion Prayer of Thanksgiving, we receive a blessing, and we are dismissed. We have been fed by Christ, we have been made one with Him and with each other. Now we are sent back to our lives and our world, to be Christ to those around us and to serve Christ. “Become what you eat,” St. Augustine said. And so we take the love and peace we have received here out to do our part for the serving and healing of our world. We go out into the world to be the hands, and heart and feet of Christ. As Bishop Frank Weston said:”We cannot worship Jesus at the altar if we do not serve him in the streets.”