Years ago — when I was studying theology and researching the liturgy — I asked my classmates whether or not worship should be comfortable.
After all, we're bringing ourselves before God — the greatest being our minds can attempt to imagine.
And the liturgy provides ample occasions to feel a little uncomfortable.
In an earlier posting (Confession - Forgiveness) I noted my unease at the thought of taking stock of my shortcomings. And in my posting about the First Reading, I noted my discomfort with biblical literalism.
Well, at this point in our pilgrimage we've arrived at another step in the liturgy that makes me twitch: the Offering.
I never know how much is enough to give. The most zealous among us might answer: 'everything.' But in truth, few of us are so brave.
So we dig into our pockets and pass the plates. We’ve calculated how much to sacrifice from our budgets. And although it might cause us a moment of angst, it doesn't paralyze us.
But the notion of Offering and sacrifice was the key theological argument that fuelled the Reformation: Differing views of what worshippers offered to God during the eucharist drove a long-lasting rift through the western church.
When early Christians gathered and worshipped, just before communion they placed food and other gifts near the altar in an effort to support the clergy and the poor. Bread and wine were taken and used for the eucharistic celebration.[i] Paul also encouraged worshippers to collect money during the service (1 Cor. 16:2).
Those offertory processions ended in the late Middle Ages. They were replaced by the presider’s prayers offering to expiate the people’s sin and plead for salvation.[ii]
The notion of offering and sacrifice for sins stems from ancient Jewish religious practices in which a sinless, spotless, animal was sacrificed in hopes for God’s absolution. Many Christians consider Jesus to be the sacrifice for the absolution of all people: As John the Baptist exclaimed (John 1:29) about Jesus: “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[iii]
So, for many churches, the eucharist became the sacrifice of Jesus to God to wash away our sins.
But Martin Luther considered the eucharist to be God’s gift to the people — not an offering from the people to God. “All the Reformers rejected the Roman Offertory and its idea of a sin offering by the priest instead of a thank offering by the people.”[iv]
The Reformation restored the practice of the people offering gifts during mass.[v]
Today, in addition to money and materials, we offer our praise, our gifts of music, and stand to present ourselves.[vi]
The presider receives the collection and elevates some of the Offering. If an Offering Prayer is made, it’s on behalf of all of us and is to highlight the notions of creation, redemption and vocation.
For links to sources, visit the reference list.
[i] Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 311
[ii] ibid., 312
[iii] Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy, 14
[iv] Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 312
[v] ibid., 309
[vi] ibid., 198
Singing "the gifts of God for the people of God," the Offering is presented during a worship service at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.
The Dome of the Rock is an Islamic shrine on the plateau Jews call Temple Mount, and Muslims call Haram esh-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) in central Jerusalem. It's built over the rock on which many believe the Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac (Gen. 22).
Pigeons roost in the rocks of the foundation wall of the Temple Mount. In Jesus’s time, Jews went to the Temple and made offerings for various reasons. The rich could afford to buy livestock for the priests to sacrifice on their behalf. The poor bought pigeons. Luke 2:24 describes Mary and Joseph buying two pigeons, or turtledoves, as thanksgiving sacrifices when they presented baby Jesus at the Temple.
Rev. Katherine Altenburg raises the Offering during a Sunday service at St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont., Canada.
The Great Thanksgiving
Hold onto your hymnals, folks, because The Great Thanksgiving is a collection of a lot of prayers and actions packed into to a relatively short period of time.
It consists of:
- Dialogue and Preface
- Holy, Holy Holy (Sanctus)
- Thanksgiving at the Table with Words of Institution or simply Words of Institution
- The Lord’s Prayer.
“In this great thanksgiving the church praises God for the continuing creation, for the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and for the presence of the Holy Spirit through this meal and throughout the world.”[i]
Dialogue and Preface
“The Lord be with you,” marks the start of the Dialogue, which eventually ends with the assembly’s response: “It is right to give our thanks and praise.”[ii]
The Dialogue is one of the most ancient Christian texts. Hippolytus and Cyprian, during the third century, used some of its phrases. “In its exalted sentences we have the oldest and least changed part of the liturgy.”[iii]
The Preface, is not simply an introduction of the text that follows. Rather, it is a public proclamation of “the merciful and saving acts of God.”[iv]
The Sanctus is a short song drawn from Hebrew and Christian Scriptures: “Holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:6; Rev. 4); “Heaven and Earth are full of your glory (John 12:41); “Hosannah in the highest,” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 21:9), which welcomes of the approaching king to Jerusalem as, today, the assembly welcomes Jesus into its midst.[v]
It's not clear when in history the Sanctus became part of worship, but appears to have been included in the liturgy in Egypt during the second half of the third century.[vi]
Words of Institution
The Words of Institution come to us from Paul. The familiar phrase begins with: “In the night he was betrayed…” from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (11:23-26).
By the time of the Reformation in Germany, the presider would recite the eucharistic prayer silently; parishioners took communion only once a year, if that; and the time had long passed since people brought their gifts to the altar.
In effect the mass, for laypeople, had become a spectator event rather than a worship service in which they fully participated.[vii]
One of the most important reforms Martin Luther instigated was that the presider would say the eucharistic prayer aloud.
For links to sources, visit the reference list.
[i] Ramshaw and Teig, Keeping Time, 58-59
[ii] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 107
[iii] Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 324
[iv] Brugh and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 201
[v] Idib., 202
[vi] Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, 136
[vii] Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 59
Rev. Katherine Altenburg delivers the eucharistic prayer during a Sunday liturgy at St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont., Canada.
The Upper Room is a space built by the Crusaders over the site in the old part of Jerusalem where they believed Jesus presided over The Last Supper (Luke 22:19-20; Matt. 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24).
An ancient street and acropolis (background) in Corinth, Greece. The Words of Institution of the eucharist is rooted in Paul’s letter to the early church in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Located west of Athens, in Paul's time Corinth was a vibrant city. Now it's an excavated archaeological site.
The Lord's Prayer
I end most days with a short prayer. And on those occasions I'm at a loss for words, or simply too tired to think of anything original to say, I resort to The Lord's Prayer.
It's like a touchstone: Always there. Fit for any occasion.
But it's as challenging as it is comforting.
"Give us this day our daily bread," is easy to say, but it's difficult to truly rest in the belief that our daily needs will be met. So we continue our daily struggles to meet our needs, and then some.
Also, as a copy editor, I quibble with a comma separating two thoughts presented in the prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
By pausing at the place of the comma, we imply that we've already forgiven those who have done us wrong. But I'm not sure that's the intent of the sentence.
Rather, I think it's a reminder for us to forgive as we would like to be forgiven — a call to be as merciful with others as we would like God to be with us.
There are two sources in the Gospels for The Lord’s Prayer: Luke 11:2-4 and Matt. 6:9-13.
Each testifies Jesus taught the prayer in a different location. Luke depicts him, en route to Jerusalem, stopping to visit Mary and Martha in a village just east of the Mount of Olives. There, one of the disciples asks Jesus to teach them how to pray.
But in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches the Our Father when delivering the Sermon on the Mount (Beatitudes) at the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The form of prayer parallels the Aramaic Kaddish, prayers said after principal sections of a synagogue service, and the Eighteen Benedictions said in synagogues of Jesus’s time.[i]
The prayer became part of the mass around the turn of the seventh century. And the conclusion “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever,” is a doxology (liturgical formula) from the Didache, dating from around 100 CE.
Many denominations recite The Lord’s Prayer during the service, but saying it immediately before communion is a uniquely Lutheran practice.[ii]
As we say “Amen,” to conclude The Lord's Prayer, The Great Thanksgiving is finished.
For links to sources, visit the reference list.
[i] Kingsbury, HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, 622
[ii] Bruch and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 185
The Lord’s Prayer is rendered in colourful tiles at the church of Pater Noster in Bethpage near East Jerusalem. Bethpage is one of two locations the Gospels identify as the place Jesus taught the prayer — the other location being Galilee.
The Lord's Prayer is rendered in more than 100 languages at the Church of Pater Noster in Bethpage, east of Jerusalem.
The Lord's Prayer in Arabic: One of more than 100 panels of the prayer rendered in different languages.
A view of the Sea of Galilee from the Church of the Beatitudes built in the area believed to be where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:9-13). The region is believed to be one of the places, according to the Gospels, Jesus taught The Lord's Prayer.
Like many kids, I took my first Communion at seven years old.
Then our family moved from the Roman Catholic Church to an evangelical Protestant church before withdrawing from congregational worship altogether.
I was just happy to not sit-and-fidget at church each week. I quickly joined the ranks of the unbelievers. I wasn't anti-religious, mind you, but firmly agnostic.
Fast-forward several decades and my wife and I, on holiday in Rome, stood at the back of a huge crowd attending mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. When it came time for Communion, a priest appeared in front of me and offered a wafer — no questions asked.
I reached for it, a little reluctantly, out of reflex. I placed the wafer on my tongue, knelt down and bent my head. The sound of the crowd fell to a hush. Despite all the commotion around me, I felt as though I was sharing a moment with tranquility. Not a feeling emptiness. Rather, a calm moment with an old companion.
My first Communion in 35 years gently, but firmly, ushered me onto the road back to a faith now nourished frequently by the ancient rite of Communion.
Jesus’s followers gathered weekly to break bread (Acts 20:7, 11). They shared a full meal called the agape (love) feast which looked like the banquets held by many organizations in Hellenistic culture.
In those regions where the agape meal was eventually separated from the eucharistic ritual, the division probably took place around 110 CE when Emperor Trajan suppressed all supper clubs, which met regularly to discuss various issues, out of fear of sedition.[i]
But some argue they were separated because too often the feast degenerated into “gluttony, pride and selfishness.”[ii]
Communion continued evolving through the Middle Ages. In the Hebrew Scriptures, priests used unleavened bread when they made sacrifices.[iii] The practice of using unleavened hosts for communion was probably adopted in the ninth century. During the twelfth century, clergy stopped giving wine to the congregation for fear of spilling the precious blood of Christ.[iv] So much concern for the elements is one of the reasons that most received communion only once a year.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther placed emphasis on The Lord’s Supper as a meal, not sacrifice;[v] he advocated that people receive both bread and wine at communion;[vi] and urged communion be taken weekly.[vii]
But the Pietism movement’s focus on our unworthiness to accept the sacrament, and the Enlightenment’s favouring of spiritual notions over material expressions of faith, again led to people taking communion less often.[viii]
The Communion Song helps centre the assembly and encourages participation — as though everyone gathered is sharing a meal — so that the Communion is not merely a means of distributing the elements to individuals.[ix]
Concluding the Meal portion of the service, a Prayer After Communion is typically said by the principal assisting minister. It's intended as a prayer that the sacrament we have received will turn us to service in the needy world.[x]
For links to sources, visit the reference list.
[i] Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy, 31
[ii] Baker, “Love Feast,” in A New Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, 341
[iii] Brugh and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 188
[iv] Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 53
[v] Brugh and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 15
[vi] Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 69
[vii] Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy, 27
[viii] Brugh and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 33
[ix] Ibid., 176
[x] Ibid., 225
Rev. Anne Anderson, pastor of the thirdspace_ community in Waterloo, Ont., distributes Communion bread during a weekly service at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. The bread is offered with the words, "The body of Christ, given for you."
A piece of freshly baked bread at Nazareth Village in Nazareth, Israel. It's the style of bread Israelites ate during the first century CE and possibly the type of bread broken by Jesus at The Last Supper.
Communion comes in many forms. The practice of using unleavened hosts for communion was probably adopted in the ninth century.
The communion minister offers wiine, also part of the Communion ritual, with the words, "The blood of Christ, shed for you."
The Prayer After Communion during Ash Wednesday (2018) worship at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Waterloo, Ont., Canada. The prayer is usually delivered by the principal assisting minister.