Lord's Supper

  • Agnus Dei - Lamb of God

    In my second post of this series, on Confession, I mention the Agnus Dei for its use of the Latin phrasemiserere nobis which means "have mercy on us." 
    This portion of the liturgy is sung immediately before the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. It is an interesting placement for these words considering it is inspired by John the Baptist's words immediately before he baptizes Jesus (baptism being another sacrament). 
    These final words that we vocalize before receiving forgiveness are repetitive, yet profound. We name Jesus as the Lamb of God (just as John the Baptist does). We acknowledge that He takes away the sin of the world (just as John the Baptist does). We ask for His mercy. We ask for His peace. That mercy and that peace is grounded in the reality that Jesus is the one who takes our sins away. He takes away the sin of the world on the cross. He takes away the sin of all those gathered around the altar as they partake of His body and His blood for their forgiveness.
    These final words spoken before the meal begins are like the music that is played to introduce an baseball player or a professional wrestler. These words and this music introduce Jesus as He comes down and dwells with us in bread and wine. The Agnus Dei is Jesus' entrance theme. 
    And much like Jesus, it is gentle, humble, and powerful. And it leaves us with what we ask for - His mercy peace.
  • Distribution

    We finally come to it, the distribution of the Lord's body and blood for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. Some would say that the entire service up to this point has been leading up to and preparing us for this moment of reception.
    The Lord's Supper is properly called a meal, a banquet, a feast. It is the moment of eating of eating and drinking we have been looking forward to. 
    Imagine preparing a Thanksgiving meal for your whole family. You've sent the invitations. You've gotten the RSVPs back. You've planned out the meal and looked up the recipes. You ordered more place mats, plates, and forks. You got a special gravy boat for the occasion. You've bought the food. You've cooked the food. It's on the table. It has been blessed by prayer. The food is on your plate, on your fork, on your tongue, and it is delicious. It's what you've been waiting for.
    One of the things I love about the architecture of most church buildings is that their communion space is often a semi-circle or semi-rectangle (if that's a thing). There is an insinuation that the space for those we commune with extends beyond the borders of our buildings. The Lord's Supper is a celebration that extends beyond time and space. As we commune with each other, we commune with those throughout the world and throughout time that have received Christ's body and blood just as we are receiving Him. It is a boundless fellowship, a limitless communion.
    It reminds me of the Pixar filmCoco. In this film, a family is celebrating Dia de Muertos orThe Day of the Dead. Part of the celebration of this holiday includes putting out the favorite foods of those ancestors who have passed away. Toward the end of the film, there is a scene in which the audience can see both the living and the dead dining together. 
    This picture of dining in a great banquet with the saints who have gone before us is reflective of the Lord's Supper. 
    As we partake of this meal, as we participate in the body and blood of Christ, we do so in the same way that our parents, grandparents, and ancestors for centuries have done. We do so as our children, grandchildren, and descendants for centuries will do. Time and space are transcended in this meal as Jesus' once for all forgiveness is given to us again and again.
    So the next time you receive Christ's body and blood for your forgiveness, look up to the cross, look around to your neighbors, look at the wall and remember the dear, departed saints who have gone before us and participate in this banquet's fare alongside us.
  • Offertory

    After the offering has been taken, the congregation sings a song that seems to serve two purposes. Firstly, it expresses thanksgiving for the gifts God has given us. Secondly, it marks the transition from The Service of the Word into The Service of the Sacrament.
    At First Lutheran and at many other Lutheran churches there are a few options for the Offertory. The first draws from Psalm 116 asking "What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?" (the expression of thanksgiving). It also says, "I will take the cup of salvation" (at least a serendipitous allusion to the Lord's Supper).
    The next option draws from Psalm 51. This gets at the preparations for the Lord's Supper as it asks God to create clean hearts within us and to renew our spirits. 
    The next option asks God to "let the vineyards be fruitful." Such a statement asks God to make good on His promises to bless those who have poured out their full tithe (Malachi 3:10). But, like the first option, there is Lord's Supper language as we ask to "be fed with the bread of life" and for God to "grace our table" and "give us a foretaste of the feast to come."
    In this way, the offertory serves as an interlude, a transition. We respond to God's Word and promises by offering sacrifices to Him. These are not sacrifices of bulls and sheep and goats that are supposed to atone for sin, but rather sacrifices of a different kind. Sacrifices of thanksgiving that are the first fruits of the abundance God has given us.
    Simultaneously, we are preparing to celebrate the Lord's Supper where we recall Christ's sacrifice for us - His body and blood, given and shed, for us and our salvation.
    The offertory is like halftime in a way. Halftime is a time to review the first half, and prepare for the second half. You review what went wrong and right in the first half. You make adjustments and go forth with a game plan into the second half.
    In worship, the first half is the Service of the Word. The second half is the Service of the Sacrament. The offertory responds to the first half and prepares our hearts for the second half. The offertory says thank you to God's Word of Law and Gospel (what went wrong and what went right), and marches into the second half with full confidence in the victory of Christ that is passed down to us week after week.
    Calling it "Halftime" in the hymnal probably wouldn't fly, but I like it.
  • Pax Domini - The Peace of the Lord

    This brief moment in the liturgy is the place where I hear the most mistakes in the congregation, no matter where I have attended or led worship. 
    The pastor says or chants, "The peace of the Lord be with you always."
    And the congregation wants to say or chant "And also with you" or "And with thy spirit" but alas! The correct response is simply: "Amen."
    (People are thinking of the Salutation which says "The Lord be with you." "And also with you.")
    In many congregations, this moment passes quickly and we're straight into the Agnus Dei. But there are some congregations where a wonderful practice still exists - the sharing of the peace.
    I can't remember the last time I was in a congregation that passed the peace at this point in the service and not before the opening hymn or Invocation, but I am a huge fan of this placement of the passing of the peace. 
    The Lord's Supper is all about unity, unity with Jesus and unity with those who participate in the Lord's Supper with us. Being at peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ is unity. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus isn't being hyperbolic. He's encouraging people to travel 160 miles round trip to reconcile before bringing their gifts to God in Jerusalem. How much more important is reconciliation and peace before communing together, before uniting ourselves to Christ and each other in the Lord's Supper?
    This peace of the Lord which passes all understanding (not just human understanding...all understanding) is bestowed in this brief liturgical moment. This peace is amplified and spread from the Lord to His people and through their relationships. 
    This moment in the service is like the moment when the nine members of Fellowship of the Ring are chosen at Rivendell inThe Lord of the Rings. Members join from five different races of Middle Earth for a common purpose. They unite themselves in fellowship. And Lord Elrond tells them, right before they set out on their quest, "May the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine upon your faces!"
    Such a blessing is merely a shadow of the blessing we receive as the peace of the Lord is bestowed on us and shared among us as we set out in the truest Fellowship: the Lord's Supper.
  • Post-Communion Canticle

    After we receive the Lord's Supper, we sing in response to this wonderful gift of God. Such singing is reflective of the song Moses and the Israelites compose and sing in Exodus 15 after they are saved from the Egyptians, crossing the Red Sea on dry ground. Such singing is reflective of the song Deborah and Barak sing in Judges 5 after they defeat Jabin and Sisera.
    And such singing is reflective of one of the options for the post-communion canticle, the words of Simeon after he meets baby Jesus in the temple. Simeon says, and we often sing:
     "Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).
    After Simeon sees Jesus, all is well. After we receive the Lord's Supper, all is well. 
    It is a moment of intense relief and joy. A burden (all our sin) is lifted from us that is so freeing, we feel like we can finally breathe again. It reminds me of that moment in The Lord of the Rings when the ring is finally destroyed, and Frodo says, "It's gone! It's done!"
    Our songs in response to God's marvelous actions continue to echo Moses, Deborah, and Simeon. 
    As another version of the Post-Communion Canticle puts it:
    "Thank the Lord and sing His praise; tell everyone what He has done."
  • Prayer of Thanksgiving

    The Prayer of Thanksgiving immediately precedes the Words of Institution (or Lord's Prayer, depending on which setting of the Divine Service you are using). This is a prayer that prepares the congregation for the reception of the Lord's Supper. In this prayer, the congregation prays for forgiveness, renewal, and strength.
    This prayer is essentially a mealtime prayer on steroids. It's a moment of being gathered together, a moment of recognizing God's mercy and grace, a moment of preparation for the gift we are about to receive.
    I imagine the Prayer of Thanksgiving to be like that moment on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning as you sit ready to open the first present. The air is filled with excitement and anticipation. You are more prepared than you ever been to receive this gift in front of you.
    Of course the Christmas gifts we receive may be glorious or disappointing. But we are never disappointed by our Lord. His gift of the Lord's Supper always delivers forgiveness, life, salvation, renewal, strength. It is a gift we can always count on and be thankful for. 
  • Preface

    As we turn toward the Service of the Sacrament, we re-begin in a way with words of greeting as the pastor says:
    The Lord be with you.
    And the congregation responds:
    And also with you.
    And with thy spirit.
    These words stand as a foreshadowing of what is about to happen. The Lord is coming down to be with us. The Lord is coming down to be truly present in bread and wine. The Lord is coming down to forgive our sins in His holy Supper.
    Of course, the Star Wars franchise has stolen this sentiment as people are always saying, "The Force be with you." But notice it is said almost entirely as a goodbye in that world. It is a blessing, a benediction. 
    As we say "The Lord be with you" we are not offering a mere wish, some superstitious expression of protection. We are saying something very real. We are speaking to a personal God on behalf of other people, asking this personal God to be with and dwell with others. 
    The impersonal Force of Star Wars is nothing compared to the personal God who came down from heaven and was incarnate for us. He lived among us, healed us, proclaimed good news to us. He suffered and died for us. And He is risen from the dead and ascended on high for us. He promised after His resurrection and before His ascension to always be with us. Our proclamation of "The Lord be with you" is not a wish. It is a reminder that this is reality. The Lord is with you. And soon within the service He will come to be with you in a real and tangible way as we eat His body and drink His blood.
  • The Words of Institution

    For nearly 2000 years the church has celebrated the Lord's Supper, a wonderful gift that Christ has given to us. Yet, how the church has chosen to celebrate the Lord's Supper has varied greatly. The church in Corinth around 51 AD had some issues in their celebrations. They had home meals to accompany their services, but the wealthy among them got to feast on all the food, including the elements of bread and wine, while the poorer among them were left with nothing at all and often went home not only hungry, but without having been given the Lord's Supper. 
    Paul shares with them that this practice is not good, and then he reminds them what he had taught them when he planted their congregation. In that reminder, Paul shares the words of Jesus that we refer to as the "Words of Institution." These are the words that Matthew, Mark, and Luke also share as they write their Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. 
    What I find fascinating is that Paul likely writes these words of Jesus down and sends them to the Corinthians before the Gospel writers compose their books. This teaching was passed down as an oral tradition before the New Testament was even composed.
    Not every congregation throughout time and space has included the Words of Institution in their celebrations of the Lord's Supper. Some liturgies from the first few centuries of the early church include other ways of celebrating this sacrament. These ways are not more or less valid that what we do today. 
    The Words of Institution are not magic.  They are not an incantation that turn bread into Christ's body and wine into Christ's blood. The Words of Institution are primarily Jesus' words of promise, words that He speaks in the first celebration of this meal, and words that we echo and repeat when we celebrate this meal. In these words Jesus promises His presence in the meal, a new covenant made by His blood, and forgiveness of our sins.
    Our use of the Words of Institution is a bit like a the words a starter uses at a track event. Each time, the starter uses the same motions with the same words. One arm up - "on your marks." Both arms up - "get set." Gun fires. Race ensues. 
    Likewise when pastors speak the Words of Institution, we use the same words each time. We bless the bread and wine with the sign of the cross. And the celebration ensues.
    The difference obviously is that those race directions were not passed down from God Himself. It's not like God officiated the first race and used those exact words. But Jesus Himself does preside over this meal and leads us in a way that we can celebrate it together again and again, always receiving the benefits He promised from the first celebration. 
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