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August 10, 2018

Even when I was a child, I was always curious about what the priest was doing with his or her hands during the Eucharistic prayer.  At the church where I grew up my seat in the choir put me relatively close to the action, and I could see there were all sorts of things happening on the altar, but it was always a great mystery to me what exactly was going on.  So I really appreciate and identify with the folks who have emailed me and asked some version of the question, "what are you doing when you consecrate the bread/wine and why?" The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is actually quite sparing on the instructions it gives clergy during the Eucharistic prayer (you can find the rubrics on page 362 of the BCP).  The clergy are instructed to hold or touch the bread or the cup at the part of the prayer where Jesus says, "this is my Body" or "this is my Blood" (those are referred to as "the words of institution"). That's it.  Other than that, the motions (or "manual acts") the clergy person makes are reflective of their personal theology of the Eucharist and the practice of the congregation they serve.   What does that mean? It means that if you are a part of an Anglo-Catholic congregation, that is to say a "high church" congregation with elaborate liturgy (often including incense, bells, extra vestments, and chanting), then the manual acts of the clergy are much more complex and highly symbolic.  An Anglo-Catholic clergy friend once told me he makes the sign of the cross something like 33 times during the Eucharistic prayer.  But if you were at a "low church" congregation, then the clergy person might barely move their hands at all.  And these different approaches would roughly map on to those various Eucharistic theologies I talked about a few weeks ago, with the "high church" folks believing in a transformation of the elements and the "low church" folks believing something closer to the "remembrance" approach to Holy Communion. So where is The Falls Church?  We are where the majority of Episcopal Churches are in that we reflect the "broad church" tradition, which is to say we're somewhere in between. Once the prayer starts, there are a number of movements made, and the order in which they come depends on the clergy person.  They are some combination of: 1) touching all the vessels containing bread and wine, 2) lifting the bread and wine up (just as they do in traditional Jewish prayers over bread and wine), and 3) making the sign of the cross over the elements. These motions line up in some thoughtful way with the words of institution and what's known as the "epiclesis" - which is when you ask the Holy Spirit to come down and bless something.  In the Eucharistic prayer we're currently using, it's when we say, "Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him." There's also a part of the prayer where there is an epiclesis over the people - "Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace...". This is the moment when you may see the clergy person and some people in the congregation cross themselves as a way of acknowledging that we've just asked the Holy Spirit to bless and transform us too. I could go on and on with this topic, but we should probably get to the announcements.  I'm loving these questions about our worshipping life together, so if you have any more, please don't hesitate to send them to me!

See you Sunday,


August 2, 2018

Dear Friend of The Falls Church Episcopal,

As I mentioned last week, I have gotten all sorts of great questions from folks on "churchy" things, and I'm having a blast answer them! Keep 'em coming!  And since our Sunday readings have us in a stretch of the Gospel of John known as "The Bread of Life Discourse," I'm sticking with questions that are related to Holy Communion because it's nice to keep everything on theme. I got a couple of questions from people about receiving Communion, particularly about children receiving Communion.  How old does one need to be before receiving the Eucharist? In the Episcopal tradition, the only qualification for receiving Communion is baptism.  That's it.  And it doesn't matter in which Christian tradition you were baptized, just as long as you were (and if you haven't been and are interested in getting baptized, I'd love to talk with you about that!). Different Christian traditions have different approaches, and there are some who believe that a child must reach "the age of reason" before they receive Communion.  As it turns out, that argument is a much later development in Christian theology than most people think.  It wasn't until the 13th century that people began thinking along those lines, and it was only in the Western Church. In fact, earliest Christian practice was that baptism was not complete until the newly baptized person had received Holy Communion.  So you were baptized in water, sealed by chrism oil, and received the Eucharist all in the same service.  In the first 200 years of the church, Christian converts were primarily adults, but as the practice of infant baptism became more common, they transferred the same principle to the babies.  The liturgy began to include little spoons on which a tiny bit of Communion bread and wine was administered to the infant.  This is still a common practice in Eastern Orthodox traditions today.  So there is long-standing precedent in large portions of the Christian tradition that age does not affect whether or not an individual can or should receive Holy Communion. As to the question of reason, I think my note late week about Episcopal Eucharistic theology can help. Our tradition holds that what happens in the Eucharistic moment is a mysterious, unknowable, and wildly complex. So if we were going to hold people to the idea that you need to understand Holy Communion before you can receive it, then I think all of us would have to sit it out!  Nobody truly understands what happens in that moment, and I don't believe any of us experience it in quite the same way. A quick story to end on: There was a mom at a congregation where I used to work who told me that every time she went to the altar rail to receive Communion, her 4-year-old daughter (who did not receive) kissed her on the lips when they got back to their pew.  The mom began to notice that she always did this, and so she asked her daughter why.  She replied, "Mama, I wanna be close to Jesus too."  Don't we all? See you Sunday, Kelly

July 27, 2018

First, let me thank everyone who sent in questions the last two weeks to help me find topics for these e-news blurbs.  I got some great questions about "churchy" things, and I look forward to answering them over the next couple of months (and if you have a question you'd like to submit, please feel free to keep sending them!).

Many of the questions I received had to do with how we understand the Eucharist (aka "Holy Communion", aka "the Mass") and more specifically what happens to the bread and wine during the Eucharistic prayer.  There are many variations in how different Christian traditions understand what happens during Holy Communion, but there are four approaches that are the most common.

Transubstantiation refers to the idea that the bread and the wine are transformed in their substance and become truly the Body and truly the Blood of Christ.  Consubstantiation is the belief that the bread and the wine somehow remain both bread/wine AND become the Body and the Blood of Christ at the same time.  Real Presenceis another observance which says that Christ is really present in some way in the Eucharist but is unspecific as to how.  And Anamnesis (the Greek word for "remembering") is a theology that says when we celebrate Communion we are strictly remembering Jesus (as he asked us to at the Last Supper) and there is no change in the bread and wine.

So which one do Episcopalians believe?  

If you like clear answers, then I'm about to frustrate you.  

One of the hallmarks of the Anglican tradition (of which the Episcopal Church is the American branch) is that the Book of Common Prayer leads us all to pray with the same words, but those words may mean somewhat different things to each of us.  Our unity comes from our life of prayer together, not from strict adherence to a series of doctrinal statements.  So when it comes to Communion, many Anglicans find affinity with an ancient phrase from the Orthodox churches - that we maintain a "pious silence about technicalities."

In other words, some things are meant to be a mystery.

That may be a frustrating answer to some.  But I think the prayer book offers guidance in the words clergy are instructed to say when giving someone Communion: "The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven."  I hope that phrase makes space for people all along the spectrum of beliefs about the Eucharist.  If you believe it's the Body, there's room for that.  If you believe it's bread, there's room for that too.  If you believe it's both, excellent!  There's room for you as well.

These are the kinds of questions that seminarians stay up all night debating with one another, and this little e-news message certainly can't bear the weight of two thousand years of debate on this topic, but I hope it gives folks a place to start.  And considering that our gospel readings for the next several Sundays are all about Jesus and bread, I suspect there is much more discussion on the Eucharist to come.

See you Sunday,


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