About the Eucharist

Almost all Christians celebrate the Eucharist.  In the Orthodox Church it is known as the Divine liturgy; in the Roman Catholic Church it is the Mass; and in many Protestant Churches it’s the Holy Communion or Lord’s supper.

The easiest way to begin is with the very word itself: Eucharist, and if there’s one most important thing to remember, this might simply be it. The word Eucharist means “to give thanks.”

The word itself is a Greek word—in fact, a verb—Eucharista, “to give thanks.”  And so, we should perhaps think of it as an ACTION VERB, as if to say, “I eucharist” or “We eucharist”, or “We give thanks.”

For the Holy Eucharist is something we do, something in which we actively participate. (It’s not like a musical concert, for example, when we are the audience and we come to passively listen to or see a performance.)

We are the performers, and the “audience” so to speak, is God.  And the most basic action that we are doing overall, is to give thanks.

You’ll notice that the very last words that the people say in today’s Eucharist sum this up.  The deacon says, “Let us bless the Lord”, or “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the spirit”, or some other dismissal, and the people respond, “Thanks be to God.”

The Procession

Episcopalians love to process!  The procession reminds us that the People of God, throughout time and history, are moving towards the Kingdom of God—following the cross of Christ, and bringing the light of the Gospel into the entire world.  It also reminds us that our religious life is a spiritual journey that leads us, like the Israelites, and like Jesus’ disciples, from the familiar to the unknown. The cross always reminds us of Jesus’ triumph over death, and most worshippers make a small “bow” as it passes in honor and reverence.

The ministers of the liturgy wear special articles of clothing, called vestments.  These cover our ordinary clothes and remind us that the Church belongs to no particular time or place because it is universal and historic. They also keep us from paying attention to what people are wearing. Eucharistic ministers (lay and ordained) all wear an alb, which is a white or natural-colored tunic, reaching from the neck to the ankles and gathered at the waist by a rope, or cincture.

Ordained persons (Bishops, priests, and deacons) also wear a stole, a long narrow band of colored fabric, the color depending on the season of the year.  The presiding priest, or the Celebrant (one who celebrates), may also wear a chasuble over the alb and stole, a kind of poncho.

After we process while singing the processional hymn, the first thing we do is to “acclaim” something, with the Opening Acclamation, (p. 355 BCP) depending on the season. Generally, as in the Jewish tradition, we say blessings on God:  Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And the congregation completes the proclamation:  And blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever, Amen.  (In Easter season, “Alleluia, Christ is risen”, and in Lent, “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.”)

The Collect for Purity

We then ask God to prepare us for our worship through the prayer known as the Collect for Purity.  These words remind us what a wonder and blessing it is that God, who knows us completely, still loves us totally and unconditionally.

It is also a practical preparation for prayer.  (A Rabbi once was asked, “What do you do before praying?” “I pray,” he replied, “that I might pray properly.”

We follow this prayer with a hymn of praise, known as the Gloria. This is a festive “canticle”, which is an ancient hymn of praise consisting or either scripture or Latin poetry.  (In Lent, the “Kyrie”, or “Lord, have mercy”).

The Lessons & Sermon

These include a reading from the Old Testament, a reading from one of the 150 Psalms, a reading from one of the New Testament Epistles (Letters), and always a reading from one of the four Gospels. We always stand for the Gospel.

The Prayer Book gives us the Lectionary, which prescribes the Lessons for the day.  The beauty of the Lectionary is that it allows us to hear virtually the whole Bible—both Old and New Testaments—over a three-year cycle.  We cannot focus on only the parts of the Bible “we like or are comfortable with.”  We are challenged to deal with the difficult and uncomfortable parts as well.

The sermon is the preacher’s best attempt to help “make sense” of the scriptures you’ve just heard in light of the everyday experiences of God’s people. Sermons most frequently place a special emphasis on the Gospel.

The Nicene Creed

Our response to the proclamation of the Word includes the recitation of the Nicene Creed, prayer and confession of sin.

The creed stands for what the church believes.  To recite it is to confess our faith in Christ as the Church has always held it and continues to hold it.  We believe with the church, and therefore we confess faith in the words “We believe.”

The Prayers of the People

Prayer is an essential part of the Liturgy of the Word.  The Prayers of the People are intercessions for the “whole state of Christ’s Church and the world.”  (pp383). They include prayers for the universal church, the nation, the welfare of the world, and the concerns of the local community, for those who suffer or are in trouble, and for the departed.

In several of the forms, we are each encouraged to add our own thanksgivings and petitions—either silently or aloud.  By voicing our concerns aloud, we enable others to join in praying with us for our specific concerns.  Prayers of Confession are almost always included in a service of Holy Eucharist. (Always in Lent, and usually not in Easter Season.) We confess our sins as we confess our faith.

In the Absolution which follows, the priest pronounces God’s forgiveness of sins to all God’s children.  The priest makes the sign of the cross as a reminder of the sacrifice made when Jesus died on the cross.  Many Episcopalians respond by “signing themselves” with the sign of the cross, as an affirmation of the gift of forgiveness they have received.

The Great Thanksgiving

Following the Announcements, the Celebrant, will call us to enter into the Next Act of our drama, the Liturgy of the Table, by calling us to make an offering.

As the altar is being set, our Greeters will pass offering plates among you to receive offerings of money.   The money is a symbol of our lives, for without it we would not be able to sustain our lives.  It represents our whole being:  who we are, what we do, and what authority we bear in the world.  All of this we offer to God.  It will be placed on the altar beside the bread and wine.   In this we are being laid on the altar.   As Christ becomes present on the altar in the bread and wine during this next act of worship, we are on the altar next to him, in subservience to him in the form of our monetary offering.

The monetary offering and the bread and wine are presented to God.  We rejoice that he has accepted us and made us worthy, in Christ, to come into his presence.

The Offering has been made.  The Eucharist is about to begin.  In the prayers that follow Christ will come to us on the altar, veiled in the Bread and Wine.

This prayer is often called the Eucharistic Prayer.  Remember, Eucharist is a word that comes to us from the Greek language.  It means Thanksgiving.  Therefore, we also call this prayer the Great Thanksgiving.

This great prayer begins with responses between priest and people called the “Sursum Corda” which is Latin for “Lift up your hearts.”  We lift our hearts to the Lord, concluding this ancient greeting with the “Sanctus:”  “Holy, holy, holy.”

The Sanctus is very ancient hymn of praise, dating all the way back to Isaiah’s vision in the temple when he saw the seraphim and the cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant, and heard them singing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.”   This is the hymn we will all hear one day when we, too, enter into the everlasting temple in the Life of the World to Come.

The Sanctus concludes with the words said by the pilgrims in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday:  “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the Highest!”

The Great Thanksgiving prayer that follows is the most ancient of our Christian Faith ….besides the Lord’s Prayer.    In many forms throughout the centuries, it always has several elements in it.

  • It always has a retelling of the story of our salvation., sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.
  • It always has a recitation of Christ’s words of blessing of the bread and the wine during the Last Supper.
  • It always has an invocation of the Holy Spirit to be upon the bread and wine, that they may be the body and blood of Christ, and upon us that we may recognize and receive Him in them.

Finally, the Great Thanksgiving ends with a hearty AMEN. It is called the Great Amen.    It is, you will notice, always printed in large type in the Prayer Book.  That is to remind us to say it with energy.  It is our way of giving assent to what is taking place.   “Amen,” really a Hebrew word, means “So be it for me, too!”

Another reason for the large writ AMEN is an ancient one.  From earliest time, individuals would immerse themselves in private, sometimes very vocal, prayer during the Great Thanksgiving, especially during the many centuries when it was said in Latin.  The Great Amen would call them back to the corporate worship.

We now continue our drama with the Sursum Corda and the Great Thanksgiving.

The Lord's Prayer and Elevation

The prayer that follows now is the oldest prayer of the Christian Faith.  It is the Prayer that our Lord himself taught his disciples to pray.   Christians have been saying this prayer during every act of worship since the beginning of Christianity.   In it is summarized the relationship we have with God the Father through Jesus Christ.   There is no better way to conclude our prayers before coming to the table to receive our Lord in the bread and wine than in the prayer he taught us to say.

Now the Priest will elevate the sacrament and an invitation is made to the people.

Blessing and Dismissal

The chalice is empty.  The wine and bread have been consumed, or reserved for use later with the sick and a shut-in.

It is almost time for us to go back into the world to be the bearers of Christ to all people in all places.   But before we do, we pause to say “thanks” for the blessing of God’s love in Christ, and to ask for the Holy Spirit to be with us as we go…and to guide us in spreading the good news of his love,…   and to minister his love to all that we will meet in the days to come.

Following this brief prayer, the Celebrant will reiterate God’s love for us with a Blessing.

Following this blessing we will sing another Hymn of praise, for it is always with Praise that we should go forth into the World.

The very last event of our worship will be a “dismissal.”   It is altogether appropriate to respond to it with enthusiasm.  Filled with the presence of Christ, encouraged by the Word and fellowship, we are ready to go out and win the world for Christ.


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Saint John’s Episcopal Church
3245 Central Avenue | Memphis, Tennessee 38111
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