The excerpt below is the narration of the Introduction from an Instructed Eucharist I wrote for the Diocese of New York. An Instructed Eucharist is a special service for new Episcopalians, which is narrated in order to teach the meaning of the service. This Instructed Eucharist will soon be available on a multimedia CD-ROM with all the printed reference material for the congregation (liturgical glossary, historical references, annotated map etc). Meanwhile you can obtain a copy of the printed version from the Episcopal Diocese of New York.


(Introduction) by Martha Ainsworth
January 17, 1995

The drama of the Eucharist has always been the central event in historic Christian worship, and the pattern for all Christian life.

“Eucharist” is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving”. The word “liturgy” means the official corporate worship of the Church (corporate meaning what we do together as a body, as opposed to what we do as individuals). The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek laos, meaning “the people”, and ergon, meaning “work”. It means, “the people’s work”.

The basic pattern of the Eucharistic liturgy goes back to the earliest years of the Christian Church. What we do at this time, therefore, ties us together with all those who have come before us, and since it is unlikely that the Church will ever cease to celebrate the Eucharist, this celebration ties us together with those who will come after us.

The church building

Let us begin with an awareness of this place in which we sit, which will become the theater for this ancient drama.

The center of visual attention, the most important site in the church, is the altar, the table upon which we will celebrate this special family meal. (In this church there are no barriers between the people and the table, and we may gather around the table, facing one another, as a family might gather for a meal.)

Another important location is this ambo; this is the place where the Word of God is read from the Bible, and proclaimed by the preacher.

One, the Word of God.... and two, the communion table. As you will shortly see, these two things will define the shape of our liturgy.

Above the altar hangs the pyx. It contains consecrated bread reserved from past Eucharists, which is taken to sick and shut-in persons who are unable to come to the church for worship. We believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated bread. When there is consecrated bread in the pyx, the sanctuary lamp (the candle on the wall over there) is lighted to tell you of the presence of Our Lord. Many people, when passing before the pyx, will stop for a second or two to acknowledge his presence.

Another important site in the church is the baptismal font, just as you come in the door—symbolically the best place for it, since you enter into life with Christ by passing through the water of baptism. The font contains water which has been blessed. Many people, upon entering the church, touch the holy water and make the sign of the cross, as a reminder of the promises of their baptism.

Our worship style

A word or two about the particular style of worship in this church. Christians throughout the world worship in many different ways. Individuals often come to prefer a particular style of worship that speaks to them in a significant way.

The style of worship here at St. John’s is called “anglo-catholic” — “anglo” meaning that it developed in England, and “catholic” meaning that it is within the ancient catholic tradition. We engage our spirits in worship by two means: following the puritan heritage of worshiping with the mind, as we hear, contemplate and proclaim God’s word; but also, worshiping with the wholeness of our body—and this is the hallmark of anglo-catholic worship. We believe that the human body is a good thing. God declared the human body holy by coming to earth to be in one himself. So in our worship, we use our bodies as well as our minds. Instead of just sitting, we move about. We try to use all our five senses to worship God: seeing color, light and movement; hearing music and silence and the rhythm of words; smelling the incense; touching each other by clasping a hand or embracing at the Peace, touching the holy water, or in the laying on of hands; tasting the bread and the wine.

As you worship, continually offer to God not just a corner of your mind, but the wholeness of your being—your mind, and your spirit, and your body.

Body language in worship

Using your body in worship is a primary means of participating in this service, which is, after all, your work. This is not just a drama or entertainment put on by those in front, but an action in which we all take part. One way of using your body in worship is by standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing and walking. People have differing customs, but in general, because this is corporate worship and not private worship, we try to use the same movements together—as we are able—as an expression of our oneness as the body of Christ.

Here at St. John’s, our general custom is to sit to listen, to stand for prayer and praise, and to kneel for confession. Kneeling is generally considered a posture of penitence, and in recent centuries when more of a spirit of penitence began to permeate the liturgy, some Christians took to kneeling for prayer; however, standing is the more ancient posture for prayer, and indicative that, as a result of God’s forgiveness, we can stand before him without shame or fear.

There are also a number of personal actions you may notice from time to time among members of the congregation. They are used by those who find them helpful for engaging their hearts and minds in the meaning of the liturgy. We may bow slightly in reverence to Our Lord, such as when the processional cross passes by, at the mention of the name of Jesus, or at the mention in the Creed of the mystery of the Incarnation. We may make the sign of the cross as a reminder of God’s saving grace, such as when a blessing is said, when we remember those who have died in Christ, at mention of the Trinity, and before receiving the consecrated bread and wine at Communion.

The overall structure of the liturgy

As I said before, the altar and the ambo are the centers of the two important parts of our liturgy. The service in general has two big sections, reflecting our Christian understanding that God communicates with us both through WORD and through ACTION. The first half is called the Liturgy of the Word. In it we will read from the Bible, and the preacher will talk to us about these readings. Then we will respond to God’s Word by proclaiming our belief, and with prayer. This half of the liturgy is based on ancient forms of synagogue worship, handed down to us from the time of Jesus.

But the Word of God is not just a book, but the person of Jesus Christ himself. The second half of the service is known as The Holy Communion. In it, we follow Jesus’ command to re-enact his actions at the Last Supper, and by so doing, to call him into our presence here tonight. We will do here what he did then: we will take the bread and wine, give thanks for it, break it, and give it, repeating the words he spoke that night. We do this just as Christians have done for almost two thousand years, because Jesus commanded us continually to do it.

The organ voluntary; How to use silences

In a moment, our liturgy will begin. The organ voluntary provides a time of quiet contemplation before the liturgy begins. Often the organ music will reflect the theme of the day, perhaps by incorporating an historic tune associated with the day or the season, or one of the hymn tunes that will be sung in the service.

You may use this time of contemplation to pray, and to prepare yourself to participate fully in the liturgy to come. This doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting about the world outside. It means finding the inner, spiritual world, and letting God integrate it with the outer world. It starts with allowing all of yourself to “be here”. Worship starts as an action which is an expression of our relationship with God. As we do with God, we get to bring all of ourselves to worship. Close your eyes a moment and think. What is on your mind right now? What are you feeling in your heart right now? Whatever it is, you get to be here with all your feelings—your brokenness and despair, as well as your joy and hope, your love for one another and for our Lord. You get to be angry here, as well as mirthful. You get to bring your doubt. You get to bring your bodies, and your sexuality. You bring all these things into God’s presence, and then, you ask God to use his power to transform them.

If you don’t want continually to be transformed by God, worship can be a meaningless experience. Remember: prayer doesn’t change God—it changes you. Real worship starts when you’re finally ready to believe that God knows more than you—God is God and you’re not—and you start being willing to listen to him, instead of telling him what to do. Open yourself, and let him in. God speaks sometimes in visions, and you can either walk away from the vision saying, “I don’t get it” — or, like the prophet Daniel, you can ask him to open your mind to understand it.

In this time of quiet now during the organ voluntary, and during the other times of silence during the liturgy, open your mind and heart to God. With deepening quiet may come an inner awakening to the presence of God within, and the tuning of your spirit’s ear to hear his voice in the mystery of the liturgy to come.

The liturgy continues...


© 1995 Martha Ainsworth. All rights reserved.

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