The other week someone mentioned just how many words there were in Church on a Sunday. “So many words!” They said. Well yes. This prompted me to think about the Eucharist again, and what it is. Clearly, when the archaeologists dig up what remains of our Eucharist, they will find words! But in reality although the booklets that you get on a Sunday arecomposed of lots of words, they are also composed of instructions as to what to do. There is a saying: ‘Actions speak louder than words.” They do, only more ambiguously. Words speak softer than actions, only more clearly. It is possible however to say something, without actually doing the thing that one is saying. It is possible to say the confession without confessing anything. But if one does something, like taking up a piece of bread, that does not mean anything unless it is accompanied by the story (Great prayer of Thanksgiving) that tells us what this action means. So the Eucharist is a blend of actions and words. But one could accurately say ‘The Eucharist is actions before it is words.’
So what actions? The two central actions in the Eucharist are “Hear the Word of God” or as the book of Revelation has it “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches!” The second action is “Participate in the ongoing, resurrected life of Jesus by sharing together in this meal for sinners and pilgrims.” Around these two actions are placed other actions that help the two central ones. First we prepare for both. How do we get ready to hear what God is saying to us, now, in our location? Well the words of the Eucharist tell us what we should be doing. We should be opened up to God and one another (‘To whom all hearts are open, all desires known’). We should be clean, not muddied (that is focused on one thing only, to listen to God) ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.’ We need God’s grace and mercy in order to do this because we know how far away from meeting these conditions we are ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” We get a sense of just how awesome God is when we come into God’s presence. These are the necessary, preparatory actions to hearing God’s word. How well we do them will depend upon how well we hear what God is saying later on. Then, after the hearing, we ask the question ‘So what?’ Here we do two things. Because of what we have really heard, first of all we pray. In the intercessions we say ‘God, this is what you have done to us! God, this is where we are up to with you. God, you have made us aware of X,Y, and Z in your world, and we thank you, or we cry to you because of it!’ Second we say ‘Yes God, we do believe what your Word is saying to us, that Jesus is our Way, Truth and Life.” (Creed)
Then we do it again. The attention focuses on the meal. Who can come to this meal that replicates Jesus’ last meal with friends and betrayers? The 1662 Prayer Book gives us the answer ‘Those who are in love and charity with their neighbour, you draw near with faith.’ “If you have not been aware of your own sin and changed your mind about it. If you have not done all you can to be reconciled to those with whom you are in dispute: stay away! That is the preparation for eating and drinking in Christ’s company. Then, after the meal, we say again so what? The answer comes: ‘Go into the world to love and serve the Lord.’
Now our Eucharist has a set of words that goes with each of these six phases. But what is important is the actions. In one sense I don’t mind what the words are so long as the set of instructions (words) for the necessary actions are there. Prepare! Listen! Now what!? Prepare by confession and reconciliation! Eat together! Go and do the same out there! Everything else is peripheral to these instructions. But this is harder and more challenging than simply saying the words. If you really want to unleash the power of the Eucharist, then we could, for example, say at one point ‘Go up to the person you have sinned against, confess your sin, and say you are sorry, and will not do it again!’
The thing about the Eucharist is that it is the intensive and symbolic form of the more extensive and less symbolic form of normal life for a Christian. Another way of saying the same ting is that the Eucharist is a ritual. A ritual is a repeated action that discloses to us a world-view and way of living. This is why what we do in Church matters. One form of worship is not the same or as good as another because the actions that we do in each different form of worship are different. Each different form or Worship opens up a different way of being before God.The reformation laid great emphasis on ‘Hearing the Word of God’ and played down the ‘Eating and Drinking Together” so that most forms of Reformed worship are versions of our ‘Part One’. Before Vatican 2 the Roman Catholic Church emphasised ‘Part 2′ and made everyone really confess before they came to eat and drink so that, as St. Paul says we would eat and drink blessing to ourselves and not condemnation. What we do in Church on a Sunday is not a changeable and outward shape of something else more fundamental, but is itself the instruction book on how to live before God by ‘preparing-doing-responding’ to God’s Word, and God’s invitation to participate in the life of Christ in the way that Jesus himself did it: by eating and drinking together.
How does this look for me? Here are just a few examples. I do not go out on Saturday night if I can help it. Preparation for the Sunday Eucharist begins for me by having a quiet night in beforehand. When I am not reconciled to my spouse before Church on Sunday because of something that has happened during the week, I have to go back into the house to do what I can to be reconciled to her. In preaching, if I have not seen how the Word of God has spoken to me in the making up of a sermon, I am a charlatan in the preaching. If there is nothing that God’s Word calls me to do next week because I have heard it, then I haven’t heard it! (This is what our ‘Gospel Reflection Groups’ are designed to do). The knowledge of how I will be required to be by the actions of the Sunday Eucharist drive what I need to do in order to participate in it with integrity. The experiencing of how the Eucharist has been on a Sunday governs my actions during the week because I have participated in the Eucharistic actions with integrity.
So the person for whom the words are too many, they are right; especially if the words are possible to say without the actions or if the words get in the way of the actions (like listening to God in silence, for example.) But touching this issue leads us into much more demanding territory than before. Dare we go there?