A good friend of mine who loves good liturgy, and enjoys study of theology, often has had a difficult time with ideas that I have brought up in conversation, which alone can be enough to make our conversations stimulating. In my preaching I have emphasized how much our service of Holy Communion stresses the Gospel message of Christ's sacrifice, and also of the partaking/communion/fellowship we have with Him by receiving His life-giving Body and Blood. Our service emphasizes that we are celebrating a sacrament "generally necessary to salvation,"1 and that by faithful eating and drinking of it we have eternal life, feeding a future immortality that will be given to us by the Resurrected Christ when he comes on the Last Day. 2 In short, the emphasis of the Holy Communion service in Book of Common Prayer has everything to do with our salvation.
The very name of the service, "Holy Communion," has been added to a list of existing names. "Eucharist" is from Greek, and can be translated best as "good thanksgiving," but can be translated also "good grace." As such the whole idea is reciprocal and depends on Divine initiative; because he gives grace we are able to give thanks. The expression "the Lord's Supper" is also a name for the service, for obvious reasons. So is the word "Mass," which came from the uneducated peasantry hearing the word missa near the end, "depart in peace." Frankly, it is perfectly fine to use the word "Mass," but it is the least meaningful of the names. To say "I am going to Mass" makes me think of words sung by Groucho Marx- in Animal Crackers: "Hello, I must be going." We do not go to Church for the purpose of departing. We do go to be present at the Lord's Supper, where we give thanks for His goodness, because we are receiving the Communion (partaking, fellowship, κοινωνία-koinōnia) of His Body and Blood. As we have seen on this blog many times, the addition of the phrase Holy Communion to this list of names came in a historical context of most people receiving the sacrament very rarely if at all. The Book of Common Prayer emphasized, in its version of the Masse or Eucharist, the Holy Communion itself, that the people are meant to partake. This was no less than an emphasis on God's gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Against this emphasis, my friend has argued with me, "I am not in Church for my salvation, but to worship God." And, if in any sense that is true, it is not from the Divine perspective. From the Divine perspective it is all about our salvation. Before someone takes that to mean that I believe in an anthropocentric notion of the Church (i.e. human centered) rather than God centered, we need to understand His perspective as he has revealed it to us. From His perspective each of us was the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son in the successive parables from Luke chapter fifteen. From Christ's perspective, each of us is the one sheep that went astray, after which He sought until He found it, or the pearl of great price for which He paid the full value. So, from the Divine perspective, the emphasis is on the need not only of mankind, but of each person who is part of His Church.
The other part of this has to do with a grand presumption that can amount to a flattering delusion in the human imagination. And, this is why the point I want to make here is so appropriate for Lent, for the truth of the matter leads only to humility. To say that our service is not about the salvation God gives to us, but about our worship of God, certainly makes us seem very holy, very spiritual in the best sense (i.e. not carnal), and capable of perfect love for God coupled with an enlightened understanding of the Divine nature. But, is that what our liturgy portrays? Here is the truth we tell, in various parts of our service, both in the presence of God and of one another:
"We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty...We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table...we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice..."
An extreme example of the opposite attitude, from the words we say about ourselves, was expressed in a song that a denomination springing from the Charismatic movement, called the "Vineyard churches," was singing in the 1980s, that had this embarrassing refrain, sung to address the Almighty: "There are many, many reasons why I love You like I do/But most of all I love You because You're You." Aside from the stomach-turning, maggot-gagging, flavor of the lyrics, they express presumption that transcends mere arrogance, proud boasting of sanctification on a level that is impossible in this Fallen mortal life, to the point where God is addressed in terms of impertinent familiarity. It is a far cry from the sobering truth taught by St. John in his First Epistle: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins...We love him, because he first loved us." (I John 4:10,19)
We, sinners by our own Fallen nature, cannot love God unless it is the reflection of His love coming from within our hearts by grace. He has expressed that love more clearly by the cross of Jesus Christ than by anything else, indeed, to the exclusion of everything else by comparison. We worship God because even the very possibility itself of doing so is one of His gifts, and because He sees that we need to worship Him; whereas He needs nothing. (Acts 17:25) We cannot worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23) unless He gives us the grace to do so, and that comes with gratitude that presumes nothing. The highest worship we can give requires us to receive His love as he gives it in Christ, by way of His cross, and with the taking of the Food and Drink of eternal life. Receiving this gift, with gratitude that springs from the work of the Holy Spirit within us, is the highest worship and the most true Eucharistic devotion.
What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me?
I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD...
I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
This is humbling, as it ought to be. We have not the ability to love God by our own means, for we are sinners, one and all. Only by His grace and goodness can we offer any worship, praise and thanksgiving. We cannot love Him without first seeing and believing that He loved us. For the true experience of worship, we cannot even begin unless we comprehend, at least in part, the meaning of these words that open our Canon of Consecration:
"All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world."
True worship begins with believing that revelation.
2. John 6:54