i. Before Confession
Today we're doing something a bit different. We're going to have five short talks on the liturgy, in the hope that it might help what we do come alive for you and enrich our worship together. However, right from the start we need to realise that there is more to say than can ever be said so, point one: Don't be afraid to ask questions, after the service today or at any time. Point two: You don't need to understand everything to participate fully in it. Understanding can help us to worship, but it's not the same as worshipping and may even get in the way. At the heart of what we're about is a mystery, the mystery of God made present among us in his Word, in the Body and Blood of his Son.
So first things first: all services of mass, holy communion, the eucharist, the Lord's Supper, whatever you want to call it have two parts - word and sacrament. Wherever you go in the Christian world, whatever the denomination, tradition or culture, there are these two aspects. First the ministry of the Word in which we respond to God's proclamation both in the past through the Bible and Creed and in the present through the experiences we bring of our week with God, which come into the confession, the prayers, the sermon.
The offertory acts as a sort of pivot, a transitional moment, And then we come to the eucharist itself, the ministry of the sacrament, with its call to come out of oneself, to be ecstatic, to have our hearts lifted up, as we are given a foretaste of heaven. If the first half of the service is a gathering up of all the different bits and pieces from the past and present, building them up as a tower which lifts us towards God, then the sacrament is a reaching back in time from the future, God's hand coming down to lift us up to heaven. Through the two together, properly done, we should know and worship God as both among us and beyond us, immanent and transcendent.
That sets the scene but what of the details. We process in, not to make us seem important but to stress the fact that this act of worship belongs to the whole congregation. The clergy are not actors coming onto a stage to be watched but representatives of all of us. We bring in the Gospel with us, holding it high as a treasure. And we go to the altar to kiss and cense it, to show our destination - all that follows is leading us there.
Then we greet each other. We are not alone. Our faith cannot be private for we are called to be one in Christ.
But meeting together, means looking into our neighbours' eyes and seeing how far apart we actually are, through our words, actions our uncharitable thoughts. And more so being in the presence of God means looking into his eye and seeing just how far we fall short. So our first movement is from gathering to saying sorry.
It's a leap we can easily take for granted but is actually very strange in our world today, which doesn't understand sin at all. The secular world speaks of crime and emotional hurt but sin isn't simply the same. Sin presupposes that we each have a purpose, a destiny and that we do not live up to it. We are called to be like God, who is love, and we fall so far from that destiny every second of every day, that we should be continually saying sorry. But if the world struggles with confession, it struggles even more with forgiveness. For we are brought straight from that moment of acknowledgement to God proclaiming his forgiveness. These are no empty words, the sins which you have confessed are set aside from you as the priest declares you forgiven. Not because you deserve it, not because you have done something to make up for it, but purely because of Christ's saving love.
What better way to celebrate than with a hymn of praise and the Gloria already popular in the fourth century has filled this role for centuries.
If ever two things from our worship should colour our everyday lives it is this joining of confession and Gloria. We should see our lives realistically, as a falling short of God and all that he planned for us, every second of every day. This is a serious house on serious earth. But we must also be joyful, not with a fixed grin or pretence of happiness but truly joyful because God did not leave us like this. He lifts up our hearts.
ii. Before Gradual Hymn
The heart of the ministry of the word is the reading of Scripture. It used to happen for as long as there was time and all the different clergy would preach in order of rank ending with the bishop, but thankfully now we have just three readings and one sermon. Sometimes it all seems a bit much and many have tried to simply drop a reading but they creep back in because we need them all.
The Old Testament may seem harsh and brutal, legalistic or irrelevant, but without it the New Testament makes no sense. God did not act just in Jesus but throughout history. Jesus's actions on their own would be quite odd without the prophecies, without the giving of the Law, the choosing of Israel, the history of mankind's continual disobedience and falling away.
It's also right to hear from the early Church. Paul's thought may be hard to understand, but even if we don't follow it in depth it reminds us of two things. God gave us minds to reason, we shouldn't have a blind faith but one seeking understanding. Secondly, the church and Christians were ever thus. We may weep over the silliness, the petty bigotries, the unfaithfulness of our church today, but Christians in Corinth were just the same.
Although all this is important, the Gospel, the story of Jesus is far more so. It is if you like the lens through which we have to look at everything else. We share the Old Testament with Jews and Muslims alike but we read it differently because of Jesus. And so we try to show that with action, with reverence.
The Gospel book is lifted high and carried into the midst of the people because Jesus brought his message of truth into the midst of us. It is kissed, it is censed and people stand to show its importance. We have the cross because that is the heart of the Gospel's message and the lights because Jesus is the true light of the world and if our inner eyes are not illuminated by him then we shall not see the truth of anything.
The Gospel is the key. That's also why there's always a break before the sermon and it's not done from the same place or with the same ceremony. However wise, what the preacher says is not what God says. Yet it's necessary because the word of God has to be broken in order to feed us, just as the consecrated bread at communion is broken before it is shared out.
iii. Before Offertory
Hearing God's word means making assertions about him, what he is and what he is not, so we recite the creed as a sort of crib-sheet. It also demands a response. Loving God means loving our neighbour as ourselves, so we pray for each other, for our world and exchange signs of peace.
But ultimately that experience of God drives us to offering. We offer ourselves, our prayers and worship, our money, time and talents, the fruits of the earth, bread and wine. We take all these ordinary things and we ask God to make them extraordinary.
We are not just laying a table ready for a meal, though that's part of it. The offertory is really a movement if you like from where we are to where we want to be, where God calls us to be. It's such a significant point that it's surrounded with symbolism, with unspoken gestures and actions which communicate subconsciously what is really happening.
That is the heart of all ritual and ceremonial. It says something about importance and value. It says something about us as human beings, we are not just creatures of mind but of body as well. We must see and hear, but we must also touch and smell and taste. Just as we can bend our will and pride before God so we can bow our head or bend our knee, just as we can spiritually draw near to the Holy Spirit, we can physically draw near to the altar where he will make Christ manifest. We should always be prepared to think about why we are doing something but our offering to God should also be rich, full and with the whole of our beings, body as well as soul.
So we move physically. God is present everywhere for those who have eyes to see him but he is more easily found in some places than others and that is where church buildings and sanctuaries help. Holy places, where God has been called upon and made present countless times. We journey to the altar just as we are called to journey to heaven. Our building says something about journeying outside of oneself, finding God in his otherness, his distance. Other buildings may have the altar in the middle, saying something something about God's presence, his being among us, in the heart of our community. Both are true, and which truth needs speaking varies from time to time and place to place.
The gifts are brought up - bread and wine. We could just keep them on the side but the fact that they are given by us first says something profound about God. He works with what we give him. If we offer just a corner of our lives, that's where he will act, if we offer the whole of our being then he will really change us. He doesn't steal from us even though everything we have came from him first.
What's more it isn't the special things we offer. It's not the rarest wine or a special bread (even if we use wafers for convenience's sake as they stay fresher and produce less crumbs) - we are giving ordinary things because God has always taken ordinary things, ordinary people and made them extraordinary.
The wine is mixed with water. Partly because that was always the way wine was drunk in the ancient world, drinking unmixed wine was a bit like downing Bell's from the bottle. But also it symbolises the two natures of Christ, that he was God and man. It marks Jesus' transformation from God to man, and ours from man to God.
And then all the offerings are censed. Incense and religion have long gone together, partly because it was expensive and precious and smelled nice, partly because it covered the smell of blood from animal sacrifices. But we use it to symbolise our prayer rising up to God and our setting things aside for him. To cense something is to say that it is special, it is valuable and it is set aside for God to do with as he wills. And so we cense the bread and wine, the altar, the celebrant and clergy. But above all we cense the people. That last censing is the culmination as it says you, the whole people of God are holy and special, set aside for him.
iv. Before Eucharistic Prayer
The eucharistic prayer ought to be the pinnacle of our worship. The great cry "Lift up your hearts" is supposed to be ecstatic in the true sense, to ready us to be swept up in God's story and taken out of ourselves into God's being. In reality people tend to struggle. The wordiness of it all makes them tune out. The prayer tries to remember everything, to put it all in context, to give a full understanding of God's saving actions according to the season, culminating in the saving cross and passion.
But beneath the words there is a simple pattern. Four great actions - bread is taken, blessed, broken and given. Those actions, found in the feedings of the thousands and on the road to Emmaus too, say something not just about Jesus and what he did but about all our Christian journeys and what God continues to do. When we offer ourselves to him, we continually find God taking and blessing us, breaking us, traumatically yet creatively and giving us back to ourselves and to others radically changed.
Alongside those four actions, there's also a strong sense of the vision of God, the reality of his presence at this particular moment under the veil of bread and wine. That's why we sing the Sanctus and Benedictus throne (Is. 6.1-3) and has been used just before the moment of communion almost from the start. The Benedictus was introduced later in response to Jesus' rebuke to the people of Jerusalem, "You will not see me again, until you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (Mt. 23.39). We want to see Jesus, so we say it at that point and the consecrated bread and wine, the sacred host (which means a sacrificial victim), are censed and bells rung to let people know that God is there. This was vital in centuries past as the chancel was screened off and the prayers spoken in Latin but even now it can be helpful, calling back a wandering mind to pray "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief" (Mk. 9.24) or Thomas' confession "My Lord and my God" (Jn. 20.28).
v. Before Blessing
Everything in the service has led to the moments of consecration when bread and wine become Christ's body and blood and communion where we receive Christ's transforming gift of himself. All that remains is to say thank you and go home.
But it's not quite that simple. The whole point of communion is that it does not leave you the same. Being united in this way with God, however much we may not notice it week by week, changes us. It is not just spiritual sustenance but spiritual transformation.
The ministry of the word has brought us together physically, gathered up our different experiences of God and his world over the previous week, shared that and bonded us together in compassionate prayer for others and the exchanging of the peace. The ministry of the sacrament has opened us up to God's real presence as he takes, blesses and breaks us and then he gives us back to ourselves and the world. We are sent, we have become his sacramental presence to others, the light of the world, the salt for the meal, the yeast in the dough. We have been made different to make a difference. Our business here is done, this act of worship, this mass is ended, we must go now in God's peace, as God's peace and take that to others.
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