Sunday, January 31, 2010

It's Your Choice

One of the nifty things about the Book of Common Worship 1993 is that it offers abundant choices throughout the liturgy.

A particularly important choice, to my way of thinking, is presented in the three places one might use the familiar “Words of Institution.”*

The instructions in the BCW introduction are terse, and not particularly helpful:
“The minister, or the one authorized to preside, invites the people to the Lord's table using suitable words from scripture. If the words of institution (1 Cor. 11:23-26, or Gospel accounts: Matt. 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20) will not be spoken at the breaking of bread or included in the great thanksgiving, they are said as part of the invitation.”
Clearly, as far as the rubrics go, it’s your choice.

Although, if you exegete the second sentence, you can surmise that the writers of the introduction have a preference for using the Words of Institution at the “breaking of bread.”
Second choice, then, would be in the midst of “the great thanksgiving,” and coming in last is “as part of the invitation.”

A lot of people would not get bent out of shape by this. “Any one of the three is fine, what difference does it make?”

Well, it does make a difference. The placement of the Words of Institution in the Eucharistic liturgy colors the mood of the meal.

Calvin, so I’m told, preferred the Words of Institution to be at the top, right at the beginning of the sacrament as a way of holding up the warrant that allows Jesus’ followers to have the meal. It is not just permission to have the meal, but Jesus’ command. So we do as we’re told.

The problem, I think, with having the Words of Institution at the top, as part of the Invitation, is that it makes a strong connection of the whole Sunday morning meal with the Last Supper. There is a dark tone to the meal. This undercuts the Easter celebration inherent in every Sunday observance, which is better served by using Luke 13:29 and Luke 24:30, 31 for the Invitation. The Eucharist is table fellowship with the crucified and risen Lord.

Inserting the Words of Institution into the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer is the second option offered. I’ve done it as written, but I find it difficult for a very simple reason. There is a shift that I find distracting to me as presider as well as pew-sitter. The Words of Institution seem more pertinent when addressed to the worshippers than to the worshipped One. Do we have to convince God that we have authorization to celebrate this Meal? It just seems out of place to say the Words of Institution in the context of this prayer.

So, we’re left with the last option, which I suspect was the first choice of the BCW compilers: the Words of Institution are said at the breaking of bread, what is called “the fraction.”
Now the images of that night of betrayal and Jesus’ arrest connect directly with our participation in the sacrament. It’s not only our obedience to his commands to eat and drink at this meal at issue here, but our obedience to all his commands to love and serve God by loving and serving our neighbors. Let us not betray him. The Words of Institution at this point also make clear the cost of following and obeying Jesus.

So, that’s my choice. Although I’m sure that arguments can be made for the other placements. On Passion Sunday, the Words of Institution would stand well at the beginning, just as at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday—and weaving the Words of Institution into the Great Thanksgiving might work best other times. It’s your choice. But make it thoughtfully.

One personal note here: Especially if you opt to use the Words of Institution at the breaking of bread, please, please memorize them—and please, say them with feeling. It is distracting to see the presider looking under his/her arm at the text as he/she is lifting the cup to offer it as the New Covenant sealed in Christ’s blood. It is depressing to hear him/her mumble in monotone just to get through it.

Where do you have the Words of Institution when you celebrate the Eucharist? Why?

*The Words of Institution as recorded in the Book of Common Worship 1993 are:

See 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Luke 22:19-20
The minister breaks the bread in full view of the people, saying:
The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread,
and after giving thanks to God,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take, eat.
This is my body, given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
The minister lifts the cup, saying:
In the same way he took the cup, saying:
This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it,
do this in remembrance of me.
Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord,
until he comes.


  1. I concur with your choice. I frequently use the liturgy from Lift Up Your Hearts, a three volume set (A, B&C) that incorporates the scripture readings from the Lectionary. However, I skip over the Words of Institution and save them for fraction and pouring. I also agree it's important to say the words while making eye contact with the congregation. You're right that we should mean it.

    Before I arrived, the congregation I now serve did not have a pitcher. I believe the breaking of the loaf (and please not a puny slice of bread!) and pouring of the cup need to be visceral. Risk spilling- it's okay. Our participation in the worship service is not just auditory. We need to engage our other senses.

    There will be times when "the body of Christ broken for you, the blood of Christ shed for you" is more real in the lives of those we serve. As worship leaders, we need to celebrate the Eucharist with as much joy and awe we remember feeling the first time we presided as celebrant at the table.

  2. Another goodie. And I am afraid that I completely agree with you on this one. Only one stipulation: If at the fraction, don’t do the breaking and pouring WHILE saying the words. That makes it more like mimesis (mimicry). If at the fraction, let the words first be said, coming from the heart, not from a printed page. Then after a few pregnant moments, let the breaking and the pouring be done in complete silence. I am certain that is what Calvin had in mind when he said that these actions should be done in the full view of the people (with the full dramatic action uninterrupted in ways beyond the simple visual), so that they might get the full impact of the breaking and pouring. And, take the breaking seriously, not with a loaf half cut through to make the breaking easier!!


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