Before reading this chapter, ask yourself or share with a friend: How do I go about my thanksgiving for communion? Am I conscious of my solidarity with other communicants?
The Lord’s Prayer
We now prepare our minds and hearts to receive the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. We commence with the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus himself gave us (Matthew 6:9–13) and which is common to all Christian people. We stand for this prayer, the posture of a risen people. Some parishes have the delightful custom of the people holding hands during this prayer as a sign of unity.
Our Daily Bread
I wish to draw your attention in particular to the petition ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, using the research of Eugene LaVerdiere SSS. He draws on the shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:2–4.
LaVerdiere says that for people of Jesus’ day, ‘bread’ indicates food and meals and even the relationship of those who are eating together, and adds
For Jesus, as Luke presents him, bread, food and meals have a profoundly religious dimension which transforms and shapes their human reality and makes them a sign or symbol of the gospel. (When We Pray – Meditations on the Lord’s Prayer, Ave Maria Press, Indiana, 1983, p.117)
The Greek word translated as ‘daily’ is epiousios and is found nowhere else in Greek literature, a fact which has always puzzled scholars. Where does it come from and what does it really mean? LaVerdiere concludes that the Christian community invented the word to describe their unique Christian meal which is unlike any other. A new kind of meal needed a new word so they called it ‘epiousios’. LaVerdiere says:
‘Our bread’ refers to the bread or meal which is characteristic of us as Christians, and this meal can only refer to one which is taken with Jesus, the Christ and our Lord. (p.119)
Moreover, this meal can only be understood by those who take part in it; you need experiential knowledge of the meal to comprehend its full dimension. LaVerdiere concludes:
When we pray for our daily bread in the context of the Eucharist, we place ourselves at the Lord’s service and recognize his presence in our midst. And our prayer is fulfilled. Spoken with the Son and through the Holy Spirit, our prayer proclaims the blessedness of all who eat bread in the kingdom of God. (p.126)
We need to recite this prayer with full attention, and the awareness that it has been used for 2000 years since Christianity was first established and is used by all Christ’s followers. The petitions in this prayer are of universal significance, applicable to all cultures and all ages.
Extension of the Lord’s Prayer
In the Eucharist, the final sentence of the Lord’s Prayer is then extended, asking God to deliver us from every evil, grant us peace, free us from sin and to keep us safe from all distress. These hopes can all be surrendered to God as I have suggested at the preparation of gifts.
The response, ‘For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever’ is an addition to the Lord’s prayer, though many denominations use a variation of it as part of the prayer. It is based on 1 Chronicles 29:11–12. We then pray for peace and unity asking God not to look on our sins but on the faith of those who are gathered around the altar.
Greeting of Peace
We exchange a greeting of peace with others who have gathered with us. This is a powerful contact with other worshippers, our sisters and brothers in the Lord. It partly fulfils Jesus’ instruction:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)
It could be that we’ve become so enchanted with the heavenly liturgy, we are so ‘up in the clouds’ in the great Mystery, this hand to hand contact brings us back to earthly reality. The challenge is to look the other cheerfully in the eye as you shake hands so that this is not just a hollow gesture but a meaningful personal contact. A healthy spirituality encourages us to be at peace with those we live with before we can pretend to be a good friend of God. The Eucharist has a horizontal dimension as well as a vertical dimension – the two arms of the cross. Both arms are essential.
MINGLING OF BREAD AND WINE
Then there follows a little ritual which is hardly noticed but is important. The celebrant breaks off a small piece of the bread and drops it into the chalice saying:
May this mingling of the Body and Blood
of our Lord Jesus Christ
bring eternal life to us who receive it.
The significance of this gesture is to recognise that the risen Christ is whole and entire. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he died because his blood separated from his body. Now that he is risen, his body is again complete. This wholeness is symbolised by bringing together the bread and the wine. The prayer asks that we may share that risen life of Christ when we enter into eternity.
LAMB OF GOD
The presiding celebrant then holds up the bread while all say or sing, ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.’ This is said or sung twice and then ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.’
The reference is to Jesus who has become the sacrificial lamb of the new covenant, replacing all the animal sacrifices of bulls, goats, lambs of the Old Testament. The author of the gospel of John was so taken with this idea that he has Jesus dying on the cross at the same time as the lambs were killed for the Paschal meal. He continues this theme in the book of Revelation with frequent references to the Lamb who was sacrificed but became victorious and is worshipped by all in the next world.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. (Revelation 5:12)
In fact, the whole Eucharist can be seen as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where the victorious Christ who overcame sin and death is worshipped along with the Trinity in the glorious company of all those he redeemed. What we do at Mass is what we will be doing in the next world, though it’s impossible for us to imagine just what the scene there will be like.
This prayer acknowledges that it is Jesus as the sacrificed Lamb who has gained forgiveness of our sins by his death and resurrection. Jesus’ dying and rising is the saving event for us and it is applied to us through the Eucharist.
The Breaking of Bread
In small groups, the unity of the gathering can be emphasized by using just one bread and one chalice. This was a theme dear to Paul:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16–17)
While the Lamb of God prayer is being said or sung, the priest breaks the bread into bite-size pieces for distribution to the participants. The Breaking of the Bread was considered such an important part of the ritual in the early Church that the Eucharist was known as the ‘Breaking of Bread’, as I said in Chapter 1.
The bread is broken so that all may have a piece. This can remind us of our need to share our possessions, our time, our energies and to be generous in giving to others. Perhaps it was because they were so taken by the necessity of sharing that the early Christians called their Sunday gathering the ‘Breaking of Bread’.
Called to the Supper of the Lamb
The presider then genuflects and takes the host, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice and, while facing the people, says aloud:
Behold the Lamb of God,
behold him who takes away the sins of the world.
Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.
The first part of the prayer echoes the Lamb of God prayer and declares that those who are to receive the bread and wine are privileged, as were those who took part at the Last Supper.
Are we worthy to receive these extraordinary gifts? Certainly not! But the good news is there is no worthiness test for those about to receive them. The question of worthiness became a big issue in the early Middle Ages as discussed in Chapter 1, and led to people not daring to receive communion, an attitude that prevailed into modern times.
I can remember when a second penitential rite in the form of the confiteor (I confess) prayer was used just before communion. My memory is quite vivid because sometimes I went to Mass at a convent and for this prayer the sisters got out into the centre aisle and recited the prayer kneeling with their foreheads touching the floor! Today this seems a bizarre practice.
Coming back to the present, the response of the people to the priest’s showing of the bread and the cup recognises that we are unworthy to receive but we do so because Jesus has invited us to this sacred meal. We say, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ This is the reply the centurion made to Jesus when Jesus agreed to come and heal his servant. (Matthew 8:8)
We are asking that by this intimate contact with Jesus he will heal our bodies, minds and spirits of whatever is ailing us by words that only he can utter. Our spirituality includes confidence in the healing power of Jesus, which is most powerful in the Eucharist.
Receiving the Bread and Wine
As the priest or minister presents the Eucharistic bread to the communicant, he or she says ‘The body of Christ’ to which the communicant responds ‘Amen.’ This is a reminder that the bread is truly the sacramental presence of the risen Christ and is to be received with the utmost reverence. The ‘Amen’ response affirms the communicant’s recognition of this sacramental presence. However, this individual contact with the risen Christ does not displace the important fact that the community is the body of Christ. Hence, the ‘Amen’ is also saying ‘count me in’ as a member of the body of Christ. The two beliefs are complementary, not in opposition.
The spirituality of recent centuries taught us to concentrate on the individual contact with Jesus. We were taught when preparing for first communion that when we returned to our seat, we knelt down, closed our eyes and talked to Jesus who is now in our heart. There is value in this practice, but it entirely neglects the community dimension. We must be aware that all have eaten the one bread and drunk from the one cup. This is the parish family gathered around the table, united to each other to form the body of Christ, and it’s important to be conscious of this unity at communion time.
Rather than placing the axis of celebration in the ‘words of consecration’ when the priest alone is thought to act, recapturing the act of sharing at the table of the Lord when all commune, as the central moment would itself be an act of Eucharistic justice. For much doctrine and theology the nature of the Eucharist as sacrifice has been allied with the consecratory power of the priest. However, a much more traditional theology, still known in the East and in Protestant communities, allies the core of the sacrament and sacrifice with the communion at table where all are one with Christ in his sacrifice, as members of his Body. Indeed the very sense of sacrifice in that we are in communion with Christ demands the retrieval of the sign of the common meal of fellowship, as Pope John Paul II said in the letter Mane Nobiscum. (David N. Power OMI, Eucharistic Justice in Theological Studies, Dec. 2006, Vol.67, No.4, p.861)
This community dimension of our spirituality is an important safeguard against our spirituality of the Eucharist becoming too individualised.
By receiving from the cup I am agreeing to share the suffering of Jesus as mentioned in Chapter 4. When I take the cup I may say, ‘Yes, Lord, I willingly accept this cup of bitterness. I will accept as joyfully as I can the pains that come to me today. I unite my hurts with your hurts so that I can share more fully in the glory of your resurrection.’
Some people are put off receiving from the chalice for fear of infection. This is understandable in the light of current hygiene and the AIDS epidemic but the fear may be ill-founded. The chalice is wiped after each communicant, the chalice is turned, the content is alcohol, each person receives only a small amount and, as I understand it, there is no recorded case of anyone being made sick from sharing the cup. A woman who was in charge of infectious disease control in a hospital has told me there is no risk in drinking from the chalice. For years now I’ve been finishing off the wine left in the chalice after everyone else has partaken and I’ve never become sick from doing that.
During the time we are processing to the altar and while receiving the bread and the cup and returning to our places, we need to be reverent, conscious of the sacredness of the moment.
When I asked a friend what the Mass meant to her she said, “At communion we are all part of each other; God loves us all.” Our spirituality includes the personal contact with the risen Lord but also incorporates the awareness that everyone else has taken this spiritual food and drink, making us one body in Christ.
By eating the bread and drinking the wine, we are rededicating ourselves to imitating Jesus in his self-giving. Our lives are not for ourselves, they are to be given for others.
Your life is not about you. It is about God and about allowing your life to ‘be done unto you,’ which is Mary’s prayer at the beginning and Jesus’ prayer at the end. (Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 2004, p.66)
Prayer after Communion
The Prayer after Communion is the third of the proper prayers of the day together with the Opening Prayer and the Prayer over the Gifts. It frequently reflects what the Eucharist has done for us and what we need to do after participating in the Eucharist.
The prayer for the twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time says:
Renewed by this bread from the heavenly table, we beseech you, Lord, that, being the food of charity, it may confirm our hearts and stir us to serve you in our neighbour.
The Eucharist is brought to a conclusion with the sending out of the people. There are various formulas for this, to each of which the response is ‘Thanks be to God’. This is a fitting response with which to end the service as it echoes and reinforces the overall theme of thanksgiving.
The Latin for ‘Go, the mass is ended’ is ‘Ite, missa est’. Missa comes from ‘mittere’ which means ‘to send’ and it is from ‘missa’ that we get the word ‘mass’.
We are being sent out to continue the mission that Jesus began but which was interrupted by his premature death. In John’s gospel Jesus appears to the disciples in the evening of the day of his resurrection. He greets them with ‘Peace be with you’ and then says, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21). The very first instruction he gives to the disciples is to continue his mission. What he was unable to finish we, as his followers, are to continue. One of the dismissals is very explicit ‘Go and announce the gospel of the Lord.’
The spirituality of the Eucharist demands that we do something practical for other people. The Mass pours into us an abundance of spiritual energy which is given to us not just for our own spiritual journey but to help others along the way.