My purpose here is to explain the basic structure of Christian worship, and I think the best way to do it is to posit a Generic Christian church—something on the order of an Orthodox Catholic Anglican Protestant church—that is ecumenically broad enough to be in Communion with all contemporary mainline church organizations, yet historically deep enough to be true to our common Christian heritage: In other words, if time-traveling fourth-century Christians were to visit this church, they’d feel at home.
There is no denomination called Generic Christian Church and there are no Genericans; it’s just an example.
The Service of Communion (The Eucharist)
Even though there is a lot going on in the Service of Communion, most of it doesn’t take much time, so with an efficient system of distributing Communion, it only lasts 10-15 minutes at Generic Christian Church. They do it reverently, but they don’t run it into the ground.
Unlike the Service of the Word, the Service of Communion never stands alone at Generic Christian Church. The Service of Communion always immediately follows the Service of the Word. If you are attentive, you can see how it recapitulates the entire Easter story, from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection.
The Jewish parallel to the Service of Communion is the kiddush after the service, following the pattern in Nehemiah 8. In Christian worship, it became the Eucharist, which is the original name. “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving” in Greek.
In this discussion, I’ll use the technical terms, but I’ll explain them as I go. The technical terms sound pretty imposing until you get used to them. Since they don’t usually appear in the bulletin, you can learn them, then amaze your friends and astound your pastor with your liturgical erudition!
Here is the order of worship for the Generic Christian Church, minus hymns and service music:
- Confession and Absolution
- Sursum Corda (Latin for “hearts up!”)
- Tersanctus (Latin for “holy, holy, holy”)
- Anamnesis (Greek for “remembrance” in the sense of “reenactment”)
- Mysterion (The mystery of our faith)
- Epiclesis (The “calling down” of the Holy Spirit; the consecration)
- Lord’s Prayer
- Fraction (The ceremonial breaking of the bread)
- Benediction (Latin for “speak well of” in the sense of “bless”)
Since the Generic Christian Church has Communion every Sunday, it does it efficiently, so that the total service (that is, the Service of the Word plus the Service of Communion) usually isn’t more than an hour long.
The Service of Communion in Detail
There are many liturgies for Communion throughout the Christian Church, but they are all essentially the same and they all trace back to the Liturgy of St James, the brother of Jesus. This is a bare-bones service with the essentials.
The Church inherited the Service of the Word from the synagogue, so the Service of Communion is the only part of the worship service that is uniquely Christian. It is essentially one giant prayer that is almost entirely composed of quotations and allusions to Scripture.
- Confession and Absolution
- The Genericans have the confession and absolution right before the Communion service, but some other churches put it earlier, right after the opening prayer. In any given week, some members have gone to the clergy to confess their sins. Some of them call it “confession,” others call it “counseling.” Whatever. Nonetheless, the Service of Communion begins with the entire congregation praying a prayer of confession that is printed in the bulletin, and the celebrant pronounces God’s forgiveness using wording based on 1 John 1:9.
- Sursum Corda
- This is the only part of the Communion service that is not a prayer; it is a call to prayer.
The words “sursum corda” are Latin for “hearts up!” It refers to a series of responses that are invariably a part of every Christian Eucharist. The celebrant alerts the congregation to the sursum corda by using the Christian call to prayer. The congregational response is in italics.
The Lord be with you!
And also with you. [Or: And with your spirit. ]
With these words (which come from Ruth 2:4 and 1 Samuel 17:37) the congregation empowers the celebrant to perform the service. And, by the way, the pastor at Generic Christian Church uses this call and response before every public prayer.
The purpose of having responses is to get the congregation to do worship rather than just watch it. These aren’t the Middle Ages! If I’m the one conducting the service and I don’t get a hearty response, I say, “What? You don’t want the Lord to be with me? Let’s try it again.” Usually that fixes the problem for the rest of the service. I want the congregation to roar back the responses!
The actual sursum corda follows. Again, the congregational response is in italics:
Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!
It is right to give Him our thanks and praise.
“Lift up your hearts” comes from Lamentations 3:41. Since ‘Eucharist’ means ‘thanksgiving,’ the rest is basically a call to Communion.
After the sursum corda, the celebrant prays a brief (and I mean brief ) prayer that is the proper preface for the season or for the special holy day—or in other words, a prayer that is in line with the theme of the season or the day (which makes it proper) and that leads into the Communion itself (which makes it a preface).
- The word ‘tersanctus’ is Latin for ‘thrice holy.’ This prayer-hymn is historically a part of every Christian Service of Communion. The first half derives from a synagogue prayer that is based on Isaiah 6. The second half is a portion of the narrative of Palm Sunday in the gospels. It is called the tersanctus because it begins with the word “holy” three times in a row (in Latin, sanctus, sanctus, sanctus; hence: tersanctus). The celebrant, the lay reader, the choir, or the congregation can say it, sing it, or chant it, and they like to do it different ways on different Sundays.
The tersanctus is:
God of power and might—
Heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!
Again, the first part comes from a synagogue prayer based on Isaiah 6:3; the second part comes from Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:9-10, and John 12:13. The Generic Christian Church doesn’t change the words “blessed is He” to “blessed is the one” because that change allows people to interpret this as applying to the celebrant. It does not. The “He” refers to Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
- Anamnesis is the Greek word that means ‘remembrance’ with the flavor of ‘reenactment.’ This is the part that reenacts the Last Supper. The celebrant blesses the bread and wine using words that are based on 1 Corinthians 11. In fact, so far as possible, most of what is said in the Service of the Word and the Service of Communion is either a quotation or an allusion to Scripture.
Genericans like to worship God with the Word of God, so this part of the service is a prayer based on Matthew 22:26-28, Mark 14:22-35, Luke 22:19-20, John 6:53-59, 1 Corinthians 11:23—25, Hebrews 4:15, and 1 John 2:2.
- It goes without saying that mysterion is Greek for mystery, but there I went and said it anyway. This consists of the congregation proclaiming the mystery of our faith:
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again
- ‘Epiclesis’ is Greek for ‘calling down’—think of the Scriptures in which the Holy Spirit descends as a dove. The celebrant prays to the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and wine, using wording that is based on Acts 17:28 and John 6:53-59.
- Lord’s Prayer
- The Lord’s Prayer, which is in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2b-5, is appropriate at this point, because it asks for forgiveness and our daily bread, which is Jesus, the bread of life.
- The fraction is when the celebrant breaks the bread as Jesus did in Mark 14:22 and repeats Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8a that “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.”
- At this point, the Generic Christian Church uses one of two alternatives for distributing Communion.
The ancient practice is for the congregation to come forward, using a common cup and a common loaf of bread. In congregations of the Generic Christian denomination that don’t like the idea of everyone drinking from the same cup, they take Communion by intinction—that means they still use a common cup, but instead of drinking from it, each person dips their piece of bread in it. The advantage of coming forward is that it makes Communion into an altar call. It is a chance to stand up for Jesus Christ in public, and it has the added benefit of letting everyone stretch their legs. The disadvantage is that it makes people who cannot walk very conspicuous, since the clergy and the Communion servers have to go to them and serve them in their seats.
During the Reformation, some parts of the Reform tradition innovated curb service in the pews. The idea was to emphasize the priesthood of all believers, where each person serves the next. However, in practice, people just pass it around. The disadvantage is that it becomes awkward when there are large gaps between people in the pews, or if small children are sitting in places where they have to pass the plates.
Whichever way they do it, Genericans make a point of having enough equipment and people to distribute Communion quickly and efficiently.
- Communion concludes with a prayer of thanks, not just for Communion, but for the hope of the Resurrection in Jesus Christ. It also asks God to empower the congregation to live as Christians beyond the service.
- The clergy dismisses the congregation with a Scriptural benediction.
Okay, now you can go home if you can remember where you parked the car!
(You can read a sample Communion service that meets these criteria.)