St. Paul wrote…..
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
(From the Daily Office Readings, Mar. 20, 2012, 1 Cor. 11:23-26)
On nearly every Sunday for more than the past two decades I have repeated these words of Jesus quoted by Paul, the “words of institution” in the prayer called The Great Thanksgiving. I have said them at weekday services of the Eucharist, at funerals, at weddings, at retreats, and at conferences. Not only have I said them, but I’ve heard them at Masses where others have presided. ~ I will probably be criticized for sharing here two “pet peeves” about the Eucharist, and I’ll be the first to admit that doing so is probably not in the spirit of the rest today’s reading from Paul’s letter in which he condemns judgment and division. Nonetheless, I share with you here my annoyance at the way people read the Great Thanksgiving.
Peeve No. 1 (as the one presiding): When I preside at the Altar (a free-standing communion table in my parish), it is my custom to speak the words as naturally as possible from memory, and to display the Bread and the Wine as the words concerning each are spoken. Looking out over a congregation of Episcopalians, however, I seldom see anyone looking at these Elements. What I mostly see are the tops of heads bent down, their owners peering intently into The Book of Common Prayer, following along with the words I suppose (and maybe waiting to see if the priest is going to make a mistake). ~ Although I am not a Roman Catholic, my approach to worship is very much informed by the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. In the document titled Sacrosanctum Concilium from that Council, the Roman bishops wrote that the laity “should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.” To me this suggests that, rather than following along in a text (like the BCP or some other litugical book or pamphlet), those present should be attentive to what is happening at the Table. All of those assembled ought to participate, to the greatest extent possible, in the processions, gestures, music, prayers, and actions that make up the whole of liturgy. Throughout the liturgy there are numerous moments which invite the congregant both to inner contemplative and prayerful participation, and to external and active participation, through vocalization, listening, movement, visual observation, taste, and (sometimes) smell. We miss so much if our noses are buried in the prayer book! ~ I have this recurring vision of Jesus and the Twelve at their Passover meal (let’s say it was a Seder although I recognize that may not be a valid assumption): Jesus at the head of the Table takes up the bread and instead of saying “This matzoh is a symbol of the bread of poverty and affliction our ancestors were made to eat when they were slaves in the land of Egypt,” he begins to say the words quoted above by Paul. He looks out over the table and all he sees are the tops of his disciples’ heads, their noses buried in their copies of the Haggadah. And the disciples, trying to read along, become confused, “Those words aren’t here!” They begin riffling through the pages, “Where is he? Why isn’t he following the text?” They don’t hear his next words; they miss what is happening; they miss the entire point! … Jesus weeps.
Peeve No. 2 (as one in the congregation): This complaint is directly related to the first. All too often when I am in the congregation and I look up to observe the action at the Altar, what I see and hear is a priest peering at the Altar Book (missal) and reading the words of institution as if he or she has never before laid eyes on them! Such a recitation reminds me of nothing so much as someone reading a recipe for the first time from an unfamiliar cookbook, or someone trying to make sense of one of those badly translated Chinese electronics owners’ manuals! C’mon, brothers and sisters of the presbyterate and the episcopate! These are Jesus’ own words when he changed for ever the nature and the meaning of the Passover meal! If we who stand at the Altar cannot breathe life and vitality into them, how can we expect our parishioners to take interest and participate actively? How can we expect our congregations to be vibrant and alive? My friend Bosco Peters, an Anglican priest in New Zealand, has written a book entitled Celebrating Eucharist (available for free online) in which he asserts that “it is part of the art of presiding – the way the presider uses gestures and voice – which draws in the whole assembly and involves them in this sense that this prayer is being proclaimed on behalf of all.” I agree! And we who preside can’t draw in and involve the people if we are peering through our bifocals and reading the Great Thanksgiving as if it were a banana nut bread recipe we’ve never seen before.
OK! I’m done. I’ve got that off my chest. I promise: tomorrow I’ll go back to offering exegetical meditations. Thanks for listening.