We have now moved into ordinary time – green time – the Sundays after Pentecost/Trinity when we read through one of the gospels (this year it’s Luke) and try to grow in our Christian faith.
I’m proposing to spend time looking at the service of Holy Communion / Eucharist / Mass (yes, that’s not a common Anglican term but it is worth thinking what its root is).
What is in the service, why it’s there, what the pattern, the shape of the service is.
I’m going to start at the beginning – The Gathering (or, in the 1984 service, The Preparation):
Before we even start the formal worship I usually stand at the front and bid you welcome – it is a way of drawing attention to the fact that we are about to begin.
Hopefully you have already been gathering your thoughts: what of your life since your last communion do you want / need to bring before God, what do you need to leave at the door as a distraction from worship?
Gathering / preparation should actually begin before we leave home. As a child I was taught that we come to church with a Bible, a Prayer Book, a penny and a handkerchief! I was also taught that we should come prepared with something to say ‘Thank you’ for, something to say ‘Sorry’ for, and someone to pray for.
So, having prepared, we gather. As we greet each other, we are not just a collection of individuals who happen to have come to this place at this time for our own private reasons, we gather as a community, the body of Christ, members one of another. We gather for communion.
That has two implications:
1) that if we are at odds with someone – and especially if that someone is a church member – we should make every effort to mend the relationship before we get into the church building. Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23,24)
2) our attendance should not depend on individual whim or convenience. When one is missing, the whole is lacking. (But of course, you know that – you are here!)
Of course, it isn’t always possible for people to get here, and some are actually housebound. But they are still part of the body – so it is a joy to me that we are beginning to grow a ministry of Eucharistic Ministers who can do pastoral visits and take home communion.
So, there is all that to think about before we’ve even said a word of the service!
The opening words of the service is the president greeting the people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
That is not just a formula. It is a reminder that the One who welcomes us here is God. He is our host. We are invited to His table.
This year we read through Luke’s gospel and it is Luke who shows us Jesus as a frequent party-goer. One of the great images of the Bible is that of the feast, especially the wedding feast. It’s there in the old Testament, it’s there in the parables, it’s there is the visions of the Book of Revelation.
“One of the most basic, but often overlooked, symbols of the Christian faith is a table. Think of almost any church you have been into and you will find one. Sometimes it is very grand, high and lifted up and bedecked with candles; sometimes it is plain and unadorned. But it is there for a reason. It signifies one of the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith: that we are welcome; that in the words of Jesus on the night before he died, ‘there is a place prepared for us’ (see John 14.2). In Jesus, God has done everything that is needed for us to enjoy eternal life with him. That being welcomed into the life of God is symbolized by the table. It is also a foreshadowing of the banquet of heaven itself.
We gather around God’s table and in God’s presence. We don’t need to invite God to join us. He is already here waiting to welcome us.” (quoted from the Pilgrim Course Booklet on The Eucharist)
Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” So, we will start the prayer of Thanksgiving with the words: The Lord is here!
As God is our Host, we are come into a holy space. We are not alone here, we are in the company of angels and archangels all the company of heaven (as the prayer of thanksgiving reminds us later in the service). We are drawn into the worship of heaven.
Remember that this is called a service because it is a service we give to God. Worship is part of our service, it is not something we do only when we feel like it. “It is our duty and our joy at all times and in places….”
And, we need to enter worship with a good attitude so, after those words of welcome we pray the collect for purity, or one of the newer introductory prayers.
So, those few words at the beginning of the service say so much. They remind us we gather as a Christian community, sharing our joys and sorrows, our failures and success, our sickness and our health. They remind us that it is God who welcomes us. They prepare us for our gathering around Word and Sacrament, for receiving healing, instruction, inspiration, spiritual sustenance, until the service ends and we are sent out to live and work to God’s praise and glory.