During Lent a few years ago, our congregation began celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly. At last, more than twenty years into our church plant-turned mission-oriented congregation, we became truly Reformed and truly ecumenical, honoring the best wisdom and practice of the global church.
We love the sacrament more and more. Every Sunday the young and old, the healthy and feeble, spiritual veterans and rookies walk forward and receive the sacrament. They hold out open hands and hear, “The body of Christ for you.” And then are given the chalice, “The blood of Christ for you.” Many respond as we recommend, “Thanks be to God.” (Others, less traditionally, say “Thanks” or “And also with you” or an enthusiastic, “Good Morning!”)
Weekly Communion, while a long standing practice of the church of every century and around the world, was unfamiliar to many in our congregation. We have attendees from dozens of denominational backgrounds, and many without any. So some needed to process our new rhythm. Their most common question, “What’s happening in that prayer for the elements? Are we saying the bread and wine is actually the body and blood of Jesus?”
The earnest questioners lacked formal liturgical vocabulary. But they were asking about what theologians call the Epiclesis. Hearing it every week, it felt new. The pastor officiant places hands over the bread and chalice and prays a version of:
Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these your gifts of bread and wine, that the bread we break and the cup we bless may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ. By your Spirit make us one with Christ, that we may be one with all who share this feast, united in ministry in every place. As this bread is Christ’s body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world. (PCUSA prayer book)
Another time tested Epiclesis prayer offers,
Send your Holy Spirit on us and these your gifts of bread and wine, that we may know Christ’s presence real and true, and be his faithful followers, showing your love for the world. (The Worship Sourcebook, 340)
The Epiclesis is far from new. Perhaps the oldest litany of the church, credited to Hyppolytus in AD 215, includes:
We ask you to send your Holy Spirit upon the offering of the holy church. Gather into one all who share these holy mysteries, filling them with the Holy Spirit and confirming their faith in the truth, that together we may praise you and give you glory, through your servant, Jesus Christ.” (The Worship Sourcebook, 332)
Epicletic prayers voice our longing for, and dependence on, the Holy Spirit to nourish our faith. Such prayers are sometimes spoken at baptism or before a sermon. And now always in our congregation, like in the global church, while celebrating Eucharist. The Epiclesis accents our worship orientation, that God’s life-giving presence and work is a gift of grace, dependent on the Holy Spirit.
So to answer, “What’s going on?”
More than we can possibly understand. But we do know this, by the blessing of the Holy Spirit, we are meeting the Ascended Jesus. We are rehearsing the gospel. We are receiving grace. And we are communing with the One who saves us and redeems the cosmos. The Belgic Confession says that in Holy Communion Christ “nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls” and “relieves and renews them.” (Article 35) It’s no wonder Hyppolytus called the sacraments “holy mysteries.” Mysteries beyond what any seminary degree or theological treatise or blog post can explain.
We love weekly communion. And we love how the Epiclesis reminds us of our dependence on the Holy Spirit to make Jesus present to us in worship, or at any time, and makes us wholeheartedly willing and ready to live for Him. Again, to quote those wise believers of 500 years ago,
In short, by the use of this holy sacrament we are moved to a fervent love of God and our neighbors. (Belgic Confession, Article 35)