That formation happens in four unequal stages. We begin by preparing ourselves in heart and mind for worship. We hear God’s holy Word, which joins us together as the people of God. We share the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, which forms us into the body of Christ. And we are sent back into the world, to love and serve the Lord.
The first, preparatory part takes just a few minutes. The opening hymn should get us into the spirit. So, for example, today we will begin with a song asking God to “Gather Us In.” The hymn is followed by an “opening acclamation,” a short call and response in praise of God. We pray the “Collect for Purity,” asking God to cleanse our hearts and minds. Finally, we praise God using the Gloria or else a praise song addressed to God.
Thus collected and prepared, we are ready for the specific prayers and readings of the day.
Liturgy of the Word
The first major part of the service is called the Liturgy of the Word, when we encounter God in Holy Scripture. During the Liturgy of the Word, the Gospel Book sits prominently on the altar as the visual focus for this part of the service.
Our readings come from the Revised Common Lectionary, a schedule of readings we share with other denominations. Divided as Christians may be, many of us hear the same Bible passages in worship each Sunday.
The Revised Common Lectionary is a three year cycle covering much of the Old Testament and virtually all of the New. The readings tend to be more or less sequential. Right now we are working through Second Samuel in the Old Testament and Ephesians in the New. Mostly this year we are using the Gospel of Mark, sometimes supplemented with John, as today.
Brought Together as a Community of Faith
After the readings comes a sermon in which the preacher is supposed to apply the lessons of Scripture to our lives today.
Then we say a creed, normally the Nicene Creed but sometimes the Apostles Creed or else the Renewal of Baptismal Vows. A priest mentor of mine once joked that we put the creed after the sermon to correct any heresies the preacher might have preached. His serious point is that the Creed serves as a kind of summary of what the Bible teaches us.
The liturgy of the Word ends with the Prayers of the People, when we ask God to bless us and the people we love, and we thank God for the blessings we have received.
By the time we have finished the Liturgy of the Word, our encounter with Scripture has formed us as the people of God. As one of our prayers puts it, we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Scripture. In the process, we are renewed in the image and likeness of God as individuals, and we are brought together as a community of faith.
Peace and Offertory
Passing the peace can seem like an interruption in the service, and sometimes it is, particularly if we use that time for casual conversation.
But the Peace is an important part of the service. Having been brought together as a community of faith by the hearing of Scripture, we greet each other in the name of God. It is a way of experiencing ourselves as brothers and sisters in Christ.
After the Peace, we take a collection. We offer our gifts up to God as small token of thanksgiving for all that God has given us.
Our gifts are not just money. We also use this time for special dedications—things like prayer shawls and memorial gifts—and to commission people for special ministries, like vestry or service leader.
At the deepest level, we are symbolically offering up ourselves, our souls and bodies. Today I will leave the offering plate on the altar during Communion. Think of your gift as representing yourself so that you are present on the altar as we celebrate the Great Thanksgiving.
Now we are ready for the second major part of the service. Having been formed into the people of God during the Liturgy of the Word, we turn to the Liturgy of the Table, the Great Thanksgiving.
The Prayerbook gives us six forms for celebrating Holy Communion, and the Episcopal Church has approved another dozen or more. At 8:00 service, we tend to stick with the first two forms from the Prayerbook. At the 10:00 service, we range more broadly.
Although they differ in some important ways, all of the approved forms follow a common pattern of four actions, modelled on Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. We take the bread, we bless the bread, we break the bread, and we give the bread.
The priest takes the bread as part of the offertory. At the 10:00 service, the usher brings the bread forward to make the point. We do not do that at the 8:00 service, but still the acolyte offers the bread to the priest who takes it in his or her hands with a bow and who then lifts the plate before the congregation. That is taking.
Most of the prayers that we say during the Great Thanksgiving are blessing. There are two particularly important ones.
One is the words of institution. On the night that he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them and said, “Take, eat. This is my body.” We say essentially the same thing with the wine.
The other key part of blessing the bread and wine is invoking the Holy Spirit, asking God to send the Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be for us the body and blood of our Lord.
The Words of Institution and our prayer for the Holy Spirit bless the bread.
After the bread and wine are consecrated as the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the priest breaks the bread and says some form of “Alleluia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”
Finally we give each other the gifts of God. The priest does a lot of the giving, but not all. Laypeople almost always distribute the wine. I normally ask the chalice bearer to communicate me, which is to say, to give the gifts to me. The point is that we all receive the gifts of God from each other.
So what does the liturgy of the table do to us? Well, having come together as the people of God, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. As we receive the body of Christ, we are formed into the body of Christ. As Father Derrick says when he invites people to share Holy Communion, “Behold what you are. Become what you see.”
Having been formed as the people of God by hearing Scripture, and having been nourished by the body of Christ, we are ready to return to the world.
At the post-communion prayer, we thank God for feeding us with spiritual food, and we ask God to send us into the world equipped to love and serve God and God’s people.
We call our final hymn our mission hymn because it is normally about committing ourselves to God’s mission.
And the final dismissal is about going forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Having been formed, we are ready to serve. Thanks be to God.