Liturgy Matters - Part VII
We have reached the third movement of the service: the Liturgy of the Sacrament. And the first action which takes place in this section is an important hinge which links together the first half of our service and the second half, and that is sharing the Peace. Coming as it does after the intercessions, Michael Perham in 'Pastoral Liturgy' writes, 'it is the seal of the prayers of the people and it looks forward to the Liturgy of the Sacrament, both by being a ritualizing of the command of Jesus to be reconciled to our neighbour before bringing our gift to the altar and also, being in effect, the opening greeting of this second, table-based service.'
Thankfully all our churches are comfortable with sharing the Peace, as it really is an important aspect to our service. It is more than simply saying 'hello' to one another, as we do that over coffee. It is, as we did in the gathering, recognising that we worship corporately as the Body of Christ. Coming to worship God is not an individual affair at church - it is all of us together. So firstly, this important action in the service recognises the presence of one another, and in particular, our relationships with one another - putting our relationships right. But bigger than that, it is Christ's peace, which he shared with his disciples, that we share with one another, not just our own. It is usually introduced with a suitable sentence from scripture, which reveals its importance and biblical precedent. Again it is Michael Perham who writes that we must see it as 'a much broader reconciliation in Christ. In the sign of peace, those sharing in the Eucharist express not only their love and charity for those present with them in the celebration (though that is sometimes a painful and demanding thing), but symbolically the reconciliation of the whole humankind in Christ. When the peace follows the prayers, with their emphasis on the world and its sorrows, that becomes very clear.' Next time you share the peace, think about that wider picture, that we are symbolically enacting the fullness of reconciliation that in Christ we yearn for in our world.
We move to the singing of the offertory hymn, and the bringing of 'gifts' to the altar: and this can include many things. Yes it is our money - our contribution from our hard-work during the week to give to God for use by the church in his mission in the world, but also the bread and the wine. As one of the texts puts it, which we use in all our 8am services: 'through your goodness we have this bread to set before you, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life... through your goodness we have this wine to set before you, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become for us the cup of salvation.' Our offering of bread and wine is deeply moving. Firstly it is acknowledged that everything we have to give comes from God - it is purely through his goodness that earth gives the grain and the vine grows grapes. So we can only ever give to God out of what he has in the first place given us. But secondly, it is our co-operation together with God which creates bread and wine. Our creativity in taking what God has given us and doing something with it, says something about our call to work alongside God in his creation, to delight in working together, and in God choosing to use us to share his love in the world. Thirdly, it is symbolic of us offering our very lives to God. As we give God our money, the work of our labours symbolised as bread and wine, we are offering ourselves to his service and purpose. And just as we offer God ordinary bread and wine, and in the Eucharist it becomes extraordinary, so we offer God our ordinary lives, and he can do something extraordinary with those too. Acknowledging that what we bring to God as gifts comes from him anyway, as we place them on the altar, we are left with empty hands. It is these empty hands, which we bring to God as we approach the altar, which can receive God's gift to us in the Eucharist. This circle of giving, which God out of his generosity, enables us to partake in, in described by Timothy Radcliffe, in his book, 'Why Go to Church?' as being like when children are little, and parents buy presents on their behalf to enable the children to also give presents to others. These are the gifts we bring to God, and as Radcliffe sums up so succinctly, 'The offertory is a moment in the circulation of gifts which, like the circulation of blood, keeps us alive in grace.'
The altar is prepared, usually by a deacon, setting the table for this great meal to which we are invited, and you will often see the president lift up the chalice and pattern, and replace them on the altar, to indicate that these are 'the items which will be removed from their ordinary everyday use and transformed in the eucharistic prayer' (Come to the Feast: A Companion to Common Worship Holy Communion). It is the eucharistic prayer with which we will begin next time.