Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lifting the Cup

In my last post I wrote about the “fraction,” that ritual act of breaking bread before the distribution of the meal to the people. It is seemly that its companion ritual act, the lifting of the cup, should receive similar consideration.

The breaking of the bread seems to draw the major amount of interest of scholars and others, while lifting the cup, overshadowed by the fraction, just tags along without much comment. Yet it does carry significance in its own right.

My Lutheran friend at the church I often attend, noted that, as is the case with the fraction, they do not lift the cup for fear of appearing to mimic the Lord himself, or having it look like the pastor is taking Jesus’ place. So for sure they would not hold the chalice up before the congregation while speaking the Words of Institution:
“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.”

As much as I agree with the Lutherans on not stepping into the role of Jesus in a reproduction of an ancient event, there are reasons to hold the cup up before the congregation after the Eucharistic prayer and before the meal is served.

For one thing, presenting the chalice to the people with a clear liturgical gesture indicates that this is a common meal. As the presider holds the cup at eye level or a bit higher, it is an offering to all, a sharing with all.

This gesture, of course, exposes the inadequacy of individual semi-shot glasses. No presider would ever minimalize the sacrament by holding up a tiny glass in this presentation gesture. When passed around to the worshippers in trays, the individual cups individualize the sacrament, scaling it down to a one-at-a-time rather than communal event.

Lifting the cup not only suggests a common sharing of the wine, but would indicate that the best means is for all to drink from the same chalice. Furthermore, pouring wine from a pitcher or decanter into the common cup strengthens the visibility of the ritual act of lifting the cup before the congregation.

Even that ever-increasingly-popular mode called intinction, the dipping of the bread into the common cup, gives some support to the communal quality of the meal. If small cups are to be used, then at least they should be filled for the communicant at the table from a common pouring cup (one with a lip that makes it easy and neat to fill the small mini-shot in the worshipper’s hand).

What gives the lifting of the cup power is the fact that it presents the blood of Christ as the sign and seal of the New Covenant, not a past compact of God with the people, but a present gift. In “remembering” what Christ has done in the shedding of his blood, that gift of Christ becomes present, immediate and intimate to the worshippers. The covenant between God and our selves is new now, offered to all.

The presentation of the cup visibly, and reinforced with words, not the Words of Institution, but words such as those provided in the Book of Common Worship (1993), lend a simple but powerful gesture to the experience of the Lord’s Supper.

Is the chalice raised before the congregation at Communion in your church? What is said, if anything? How do the people take the elements: common cup, intinction, pouring into small cups, small cups in trays, other?

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Fraction: The ritual act of breaking bread in the Lord’s Supper.

A while back it dawned on me that for some time I had not seen (nor heard reference to) the “fraction” in the Lord’s Supper at the Lutheran Church I often attend. So I started to pay closer attention to the places in the liturgy when the presider might break the bread for all to see—but I didn’t see it, and neither did my wife.

So, one Sunday after the service we politely confronted the pastor with a query, “Where was the fraction?” His answer was that there wasn’t one, because the Lutherans didn’t really do that, although sometimes they did.

Above all, they would avoid breaking the bread in conjunction with the Words of Institution:
“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.”

Such mimicry is considered inappropriate in that the presider would seem to usurp the place of Jesus. Also, the verbs “”took,” “gave thanks,” “broke” and “gave” are descriptive of what Jesus did, while “take” and “eat” are his commands for us to do. Some have indicated that it is furthermore inaccurate to break the bread as a symbol of the “breaking” of Jesus’ body, especially since the writer of the Gospel of John went out of his way to assure readers that no bones had been broken at the crucifixion in fulfillment of ancient prophecies (19:33-37).

This challenges a common practice among Presbyterians which is to do exactly what the Lutherans won’t do—break the bread visibly before the congregation using the text of the Words of Institution.

I’d agree with the desire to avoid what our Lutheran friends call “mimicry,” and the fraction should not take place with the Words of Institution. When we pretend to recreate the past, by so doing we invite the worshippers to take a journey into olden times and miss the present reality of sharing with one another the Bread of Life given to us by the Risen Christ. The same sort of problem exists when, for example, on Maundy Thursday the Table is set with twelve places to imitate the original meal in the upper room—it is liturgical nostalgia and the event loses its impact in the here and now.

Rather than being a script to accompany the rite of fraction, the Words of Institution are the warrant for our having this Table Celebration in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore their proper placement would be at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Sacrament, or possibly just before distribution of the elements. (The Words of Institution do not belong in the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer; when used there, they are a distraction.)

In any case, there should be a visible fraction. The main reason to break the bread is, of course, in order to share it and this should be made obvious to all present. In this sense the breaking of the bread to share is a visual sign of the giving of Christ’s body for each and all of us. It is helpful to mark the first breaking of the bread for distribution, and to do it for all to see.

This might be done in silence very effectively, with a simple invitation to the people to come to the Table. Or words (such as those provided in the Book of Common Worship(1993) might be used making the ritual act of fraction verbal as well as visual.

When and how is the Communion bread broken in your church? Do you use a single loaf to break, or is it already cut or broken before the service? Or do you use wafers? What is said when the bread is broken, if anything?

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Model Prayer

Once upon a time, if memory serves me well, the practice in the church I served was to pray the Lord’s Prayer at the end of what we called the “Prayer of Adoration” (also known as the “Prayer of the Day” or “Opening Prayer”).

That always seemed to me to be a reasonable placement for a model prayer that Jesus left with his disciples. Placed at the beginning of the service, the Lord’s Prayer set a standard for other prayers to meet.

Jesus was in good rabbinical form when he said to them, “Pray then in this way…” (Matthew 6:9-13), or “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:2-4). They wanted to learn how to pray, so he gave them a memorable example, a recipe for prayer with all the necessary ingredients.

Since the two versions we have of this brief prayer in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels show sufficient common traits to be kin, we can deduce that Jesus’ followers had already socked it away in their corporate memory. It was a model worth recalling as they sought God via more specific petitions.

Somewhere around the end of the first and beginning of the second century C.E., according to the Didache, the Lord’s Prayer was to be prayed three times a day. By then it had already become part of the daily prayer of the church, and its repetition established its reputation as the Model Prayer.

Somewhere along the way, however, in addition to modeling prayer, the Lord’s Prayer was inserted in the Lord’s Day worship at the end of the Eucharistic prayer. According to Gregory the Great (c.598 C.E.), the reason was that it was the Apostles’ custom to consecrate the sacrifice of the offering by this prayer alone, and it seemed inappropriate to say words crafted by a scholar and ignore what Jesus himself had handed down.

Also, I suspect, the petition of the Lord’s Prayer for “daily bread” must have resonated with the breaking and sharing of bread immediately following the Eucharistic prayer, and so it seemed meet and right to be recited then.

The BCW locates the Lord’s Prayer at that point, without comment, as did previous Presbyterian worship books. In the Daily Prayer services, the Lord’s Prayer is similarly placed at the end of the prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession.

This placement, universal as it may be, seems to change the character and usefulness of the Lord’s Prayer, in that it is given a specific, and more limited, focus than it might have as a model prayer. Its strong connection to the Eucharist zeroes in on the verbal coincidence of “bread” so that other possible connections for it all but fade away.

An argument can be made to locate the Lord’s Prayer at the very beginning of the service, perhaps as the concluding part of the Opening Prayer or Prayer of the Day. Such placement might strengthen the Lord’s Prayer as a model to give guidance and inspiration to all prayers.

Or, the Lord’s Prayer could be introduced briefly and then prayed in unison, with the Prayer of the Day inserted before the ascription, “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” (The ascription is actually not part of the Prayer as the Lord is said to have given it.)

Standing at the opening of worship, the Lord’s Prayer has a more directive posture and serves to make the people liturgically alert to all the prayers that follow.

In your experience, either on Sunday morning or in daily prayer, have you used the Lord’s Prayer at times other than as indicated in the BCW?