The third section of our worship is the Meal – the Feast of Life. There are more metaphors and allegories for the Meal than I could possibly name. The primary one is Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. The Feast of Life is a lyric from Marty Haugen’s song “Within the Reign of God” and it makes reference to Jesus as living bread.
For Lutherans, the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) is one of two sacraments (physical sign of an unseen promise), the other being Baptism. In the Eucharist, Lutherans recall the saving acts of God through Word, bread and wine, and are connected with Christ and with Christians of all times and places. In this sacrament we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ. An explanation of that is for another blog post. Or maybe another ten blog posts!
The “Meal” begins with collecting an offering for the work of the church. When I am cantoring, this is where I will offer music that expands on the readings or something in the sermon. In a formal liturgy – for example, on a festival day – when the collection is brought forward, the gifts for the table would be brought forward as well – bread and wine. During the fall, we sing a response as the gifts are brought to the front (“Through bread and wine refresh us, that we may be filled with love”). Our prayer over the gifts is one from the organization Bread for the World (http://www.bread.org/) and is one of my favorites. “Open our eyes, ears, and hearts to hear and see you already at work in the world.”
The prayer structure that follows is complex and has several sections; collectively it is called the “Great Thanksgiving”. For our liturgy this fall, we include the Dialogue (“The Lord be with you…”), the Preface (“It is indeed right…”) and then a setting of the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy Lord. God of power and might…”) by Ray Makeever.
After the Sanctus we move to the Eucharistic Prayer. In its fullest form this recalls aspects of God’s salvation of God’s people throughout time. For the fall, we are using a simpler version that calls to mind Jesus’ love for us all. The Words of Institution are the one part of the whole rite that really must be included – they are taken directly from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and constitute the consecration of the elements of bread and wine. From The Use of The Means of Grace, the ELCA’s statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament:
“43. The biblical words of institution declare God’s action and invitation. They are set within the context of the Great Thanksgiving. This eucharistic prayer proclaims and celebrates the gracious work of God in creation, redemption, and sanctification.”
The prayer is concluded by the entire assembly praying the Lord’s Prayer together. We use the King James translation of that prayer, which is set out in Matthew 6:9-13.
As communion is distributed, we sing a modern, jazzy setting of the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God. This is the traditional text for the breaking of bread at Eucharist, and is found in John 1:29. We may follow this with hymns or instrumental music. Our prayer after communion gives us words to thank God for the meal, “bread for the journey,” and to commit to being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Again from The Use of The Means of Grace:
“54. As a means of grace Holy Communion is that messianic banquet at which God bestows mercy and forgiveness, creates and strengthens faith for our daily work and ministry in the world, draws us to long for the day of God’s manifest justice in all the world, and provides a sure and certain hope of the coming resurrection to eternal life.”
Eucharist is the foretaste of the feast to come that we hear described in Isaiah 25:6-8:
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.”
As some of you know, my husband Michael died in April of 2012 after a long battle with cancer. Late in the evening of the day he died, I sent an email to a large list of family and friends to let them know he was with God. One of my colleagues sent me this reply:
“At 11:37 a.m. yesterday we were gathered around the Lord’s Table. Michael would just have been welcomed to the far side of the table (as I think of it) as we received Christ’s body and blood. An honor we did not know we were accorded.”
The table of the Lord unites people of all times and places. Christ invites us all to that table.
As they say in Italy: “Mangia, mangia!” Come and eat!