|The Holy Communion|
Why this service? Why this service of Holy Communion? All those years ago when I was first touched with the power of the Lord's Supper, I caught a glimpse of something beyond the words and actions of the service itself. There is a particular image that is most appropriate to express what I mean. Imagine the church building as a stage and we the worshipers, players in a drama. The coloured lights that flood onto our stage through the stain glass windows, blind us to the audience sitting beyond. Only rarely do the house lights dim, and it is then we can see beyond the stage to an audience of unbelievable grandeur. A people without number, and in the centre, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lord. The Ancient of Days upon his thrown, The Mighty Ones, the Elders, Angels in attendance. What a glorious sight? What a wonderful audience? Just watching us and applauding our imperfect performance.
That is why I am very particular about the use of church buildings. You see, they serve as a stage for a Divine drama so powerful that no other use can be given to them.
What of the drama itself? The drama of the Communion service is the drama of human existence. Or more particularly, of regenerate human existence. It is the story of the Bible - from Kingdom lost to Kingdom gained, from bondage to salvation. It is the story of the dispensation of this age which begins with a people cast from Eden and ends with a people feasting in the presence of God almighty.
Originally the drama was celebrated, or if you like enacted, intoned, empathized with, in the Passover meal. In that meal the Children of God would remember they were once slaves in bondage. Set free, they wandered in the desert and were led to a land flowing with milk and honey. All done through the mighty hand of their living God. So they ate, and for that moment they were that people of long ago, protected from the Angel of Death, prepared for the journey. In that eating they communed, they fellowshipped, they became one with that bondage people, freed and tasting of their promised land.
As Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal on the night before his crucifixion, he took bread and wine, they ate and drank, and he said, "Do this in remembrance of me". New symbols for the new Exodus. New symbols for the new salvation. We slaves of sin released from our bondage by his death and resurrection. We pilgrims on the way, seeking a better land. Eyes lifted upward following our master. Fighting the powers of darkness. Ever upward, ever onward, toward that glorious moment when we will taste anew the wine of eternity and share it with Jesus. So we eat and drink. So we look back and believe. So we look forward and rejoice. As we eat and drink we share with all who believe, and all who rejoice, in every age, in every moment. Yet more importantly, we share with that supper in eternity when we eat and drink anew with Christ. When we do it now, it's just as if we are doing it then. The drama accesses the reality.
For those lucky enough to worship in a church with stain glass windows, the stage is flooded with images to remind us that what we do is not independent, isolated, locked in time. About us are the images of the saints of the church who were slaves as we were, who journeyed as we do now, who await the coming of the day as we do right now. Then there are the images of that drama in the life of Christ himself. And this service images that drama.
The structure of the service
How does the Anglican service of Holy Communion work? How do we do it in such a way as to play out the Divine drama and so access the reality of the heavenly feast? Consider the Communion service itself, particularly the new revised order common throughout the Anglican communion (eg. in Australia, the 2nd Order). This is not the classic BCP service, but it does work well.
We begin by getting to church in time for personal devotions before the service starts. The centre of that meditation should be on the Collect of the day so that when the minister says it in the service we are able to flesh it out - give it substance. You see, liturgical prayers serve to give us a framework upon which to hang our personal thoughts. They compact our prayers, enabling us to cover the whole range of personal prayer from confession, intercession, thanksgiving....
The service begins with a hymn of praise and by us greeting each other. We are here to do this together. It gives me the horrors when we start out with a "G'day, How are you all today?", and then somehow lurch into the "The Lord be with you". The greeting is the ancient Christian greeting and we should say it as a greeting and mean it.
Then there is a prayer of preparation. How often is this prayer just rattled off? Yet it is a most solemn prayer, preparing our heart and mind for the task ahead. Actually, it is a nice prayer to sing.
The Commandments follow, either the "ten words" or the summary. Here is the beginning of the drama. As we read the law we are reminded that we are slaves to sin - in bondage. There is not one commandment we haven't broken. We may not have murdered, but we have hated. Our righteousness is but filthy rags and we have no hope in us. This is why the saying or singing of the kyrie elesion, "Lord, have mercy....", fits well the flow of the service at this point. And it is again why it is best to say the Confession and Absolution here, rather than later in the service. We sum up our rebellion in the Confession and then, proclaimed in the Absolution, we hear of our wonderful release from our Egyptian bondage. No longer slaves, freed in Christ.
The Gloria in Excelsis follows naturally as a praise for God's mighty hand in our salvation. In BCP (The Book of Common Prayer) this hymn is used at the end of the service and so expresses our joy at having reached the journey's end. Nothing wrong with that, but the revised position is better.
So the journey begins, and who will guide us through the desert toward the promised land? Where is the pillar of cloud and fire? Here then is the ministry of the Word - three readings, a Psalm, we then consider a prophetic word from the ministers of Christ, and finally confess our faith in what we have heard.
We then struggle with the enemy and the walls of Jericho fall down. We struggle in prayer. We pray the prayer of faith. We put ourselves in the line. We wrestle in prayer and the victory is ours. So we come before our coming Lord. We come in the prayer of Humble Access. In meeting Christ we meet each other, for it is in the love of the brotherhood that Christ is made manifest to us. So we greet each other with the greeting of peace.
We now come to share in the bread and the wine. First, we hear the words of the Great Thanksgiving. We affirm the person of our Lord and God, and we hear again of his death and resurrection on our behalf. Jesus died and rose again for us, and in him we die to sin and rise to new life, thus we share the glory of eternity even now. We hear again Jesus' words of institution where he asks us to remember his body given and blood shed, to remember, in the symbol of broken bread and a cup of wine, his sacrifice on our behalf. We are asked to remember and believe. Eating and drinking represents our believing. As we remember we eat and drink, we renew our faith in the sacrificial death of Christ on our behalf and the offer of his resurrection life to all who seek. Thanksgiving is our only response for the joy of heaven which is ours through Christ.
The drama concludes and another week extends before us. A final word from the scriptures, a prayer and a determination to struggle on for Christ; of service rather than self satisfaction. A Hymn of praise and we go in peace. The curtain closes. The Divine drama concludes, and we go out to live it day by day, until we play our part when next we meet.
Believers gather to worship the living God, to praise him, thank, pray too, confess, and hear him. Adoration is the business of Christ's gathered people. We gather to meet with Jesus, and in that meeting we adore him. The most intimate moment of adoration is when we share in the Lord's Supper. We act out the journey from death to life, focusing on that moment when, with a mighty and an outstretched arm, the Lord gained our redemption - he set the prisoners free. So we eat and drink and remember of the suffering and glory of Jesus, and again we renew our faith in his person and work.
The Anglican Prayer Book beautifully presents the New Testament Passover. It is not the only way to share in the Lord's Supper, but it is a Biblical way of great beauty, one worth preserving for generations to come.
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