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What are you doing up there?

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,


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