Celebrating Holy Communion:

A Tutorial with Commentary for United Methodists and other Sacramental Christians

The Sursum Corda

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Latin for "Lift up your hearts," this is the opening dialogue to the Preface of the Great Thanksgiving as it is found in most liturgical churches. Its presence in the ritual dates to the third century Anaphora of Hippolytus. and is found in the United Methodist liturgy because of its Anglican and Catholic roots.

Traditionally, the celebrant opens their arms to the congregation in the universal sign of welcome as they say the words: "The Lord be with you!" This is the ancient liturgical greeting of ministers to the gathered church.

The Lord be with you!
And also with you!

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At "Lift up your hearts..." it is traditional for the celebrant to illustrate the words by raising his or her hands higher, palms upward.

The United Methodist Book of Worship's only recommendation here is: "The pastor may lift hands and keep them raised." ... presumably to the end of the Preface.

Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord!

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At "Let us give thanks ..." the celebrant traditionally brings his or her hands down and into a prayerful position clasped in front of their mid-section (see pictured).

The Untied Methodist Book of Worship doesn't indicate this action, but presumably leaves it open for the celebrant to do so if they wish. When I was in seminary at Duke Divinity School I was taught the traditional motions.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!
It is right to give our thanks and praise!

The Preface

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At the beginning of the Preface, the celebrant returns his or her hands to the upraised position, and keeps them raised throughout the Preface. This is the recommendation of the United Methodist Book of Worship, as well as most other liturgical resources.

The Preface is usually prayed aloud by the presiding minister. It may be shared, in part or in whole, by a concelebrant (an assisting minister), or by the congregation in unison or antiphonally. For examples of these variations, see Liturgies.

The Preface is the portion of the Great Thanksgiving that is dedicated to the particulars of a given day or season of the Church year. Usually, this portion of the prayer also focuses upon what God has done for us as our creator, and our need of grace.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. You formed us in your image and breathed into us the breath of life. When we turned away, and our love failed, your love remained steadfast. You delivered us from captivity, made covenant to be our sovereign God, and spoke to us through your prophets.

The Holy Holy Holy

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The Sanctus-Benedictus is sung (or said) by the congregation at the close of the Preface. It is appropriate at this point for the celebrant to lower their hands to their mid-section, clasping them together during the entirety of the sanctus. This is the recommended action of the United Methodist Book of Worship and has the advantage of being simple to do if one is also leading the sung liturgy. If, however, one would like to add an additional element of reverence to this point in the liturgy, there are several options that are commonly seen in several Christian traditions.
  • Bowing the head
  • Bowing at the waist (pictured)
  • Crossing oneself at "Blessed is he…."
  • Going to one knee behind the Table
Any of these actions may be appropriately done by the celebrant as best-expresses their own spirituality. Whatever is done, the celebrant should ensure that the action is honest and true to their own comfort-zone and the character of their spirituality. Anything else and it will appear to be contrived or artificial to the congregation.

The first part of the Sanctus (or "Holy") comes from Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8, where God's throne is described as being surrounded by the six-winged seraphim, who sing praises to Yahweh Elohim. The Benedictus (or "Blessed"), is taken from Matthew 21:9, describing Jesus' Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem.

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
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.

The Anamnesis I

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Greek for "remembrance," the Anamnesis is the part of the Great Thanksgiving where the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are all recounted. Additionally, content particular to a season of the Church Year (Lent, Easter, Advent, etc.), and Holy days (Easter Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, Christmas Eve and Day, etc.) may certainly be added. There many examples of how this section can be adapted to a given day in the Liturgical Resources section.

As was true with the Preface, the Anamnesis is usually prayed by the celebrant, but portions may also be shared with a concelebrant and/or prayed by the congregation, either in unison or antiphonally. This portion can be rather lengthy, so care should be taken to not rush through the prayer. Keep in mind that this is a prayer, not a sermon.

According to the Book of Worship, during this portion of the Great Thanksgiving the celebrant usually keeps their hands raised. This is in keeping with the practice of most liturgical Christians.

Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ. Your Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners. By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your Church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the spirit. When the Lord Jesus ascended he promised to be with us always, in the power of your Word and Holy Spirit.

The Anamnesis II

The Words of Institution

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Following the general recalling of the acts of Christ, the Anamnesis proceeds to the Words of Institution as they are related to us through the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20) and by the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). These words of our Lord have been at the heart of every historic Communion Liturgy since before the days of Justine Martyr, who in 155 AD described them as being central to the church's celebration of the Eucharist.

Indeed, these words, or some version of them, are required for Holy Communion to actually be Holy Communion. When clergy try to minimize the liturgy — and this is often seen in Contemporary Worship settings — the "least amount of ritual necessary" for this holy meal to be the Eucharist is the recalling of some version of these words, combined with the praying of some kind of Epicletical prayer (see bellow).

The United Methodist Book of Worship contains the following rubric: "The pastor may hold hands, palms down, over the bread, or touch the bread, or lift the bread." My recommendation is that the bread be lifted to eye-level, holding the plate with both hands, while the Words of Institution regarding the bread are proclaimed. One should not break the bread here; the bread should be broken only after the consecration is completed (i.e., after the Great Thanksgiving is completed).

On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:
"Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me."

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The United Methodist Book of Worship contains the following rubric: "The pastor may hold hands, palms down, over the cup, or touch the cup, or lift the cup." Again, my recommendation is that the cup be lifted to eye-level, holding it firmly by its stem with one hand and supporting the base of the cup with the fingertips of the other, while the Words of Institution regarding the cup are proclaimed. This practice is in accord with the historic usage of many Christian traditions. Also, lifting the elements serves to emphasize their importance as the Words of Institution are recounted.

The cup should not be returned to the table until the words of Christ are completed. Motions should be steady and deliberate, and care should be given to not spill the content of the cup. If trays of individual shot-glasses are being used in the sacrament, and a common cup is also present on the Table, it is more effective to only lift the common cup. If there is no common cup, and only trays of shot-glasses are on the Table, lift one of the uncovered trays.

When the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
"Drink from this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

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Throughout the Words of Institution, special care should be taken to not rush through the liturgy. Pronounce the words clearly and steadily, pausing in the words of Christ to punctuate their importance. It would be best to commit the words to memory, so that they may be spoken without reference to the printed liturgy. This will allow the celebrant to focus their attention solely upon the elements.

If more than one ordained minster is present and celebrating at the table, it is appropriate to share the presentation of the Words of Institution with them:
  • One celebrant can recite the words for the bread while the other takes the words for the cup.
  • One can speak the words of narration, while the other recites the words of Christ.
  • One may take the lead in presiding, while the other gestures to the lifted elements (pictured)
  • If there are more than two Elders concelebrating at the table, it is particularly effective to invite all of them to recite the Words of Institution in unison.
Following the Words of Institution, the celebrant should raise their hands and continue with the "offering of the sacrifice," the concluding portion of the Anamnesis which ends with the Memorial Acclimation (a.k.a., the "Mystery of the Faith").

In remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ's offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Memorial Acclimation

The Mysterium Fidei

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The "Mystery of the Faith" is sung or said by the congregation, as led by the celebrant, to bring to a close the Anamnesis. This seemingly superfluous element in the ritual is actually critical to the liturgy: it is the most fundamental affirmation of faith the church can proclaim — even more fundamental than the Apostles' Creed.

While the United Methodist Book of Worship lacks a rubric at this point to direct the presider's motions, it is appropriate for the celebrant to either clasp their hands or bring them together in an attitude of prayer as the Mystery of Faith is proclaimed (pictured). Alternatively, some traditions have the president make a low bow at the words: "Christ is Risen," reverencing the elements just prior to the epiclesis.

Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.

Alternative words may be used for the Memorial Acclimation, such as:

We remember his death,
We proclaim his resurrection,
We await his coming in glory.


Or

Dying, Christ destroyed our death!
Rising, Christ restored our life!
Lord Jesus, come in glory.

The Epiclesis

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Greek for "invocation," the Epiclesis is the portion of the Great Thanksgiving where the celebrant calls upon the Holy Spirit to consecrate the elements. It is the part of the prayer which actualizes that which is proclaimed in the Words of Institution and, as such, it is of critical importance in the liturgy. Along with the Words of Institution, an epicletical prayer is essential for this meal to actually be Holy Communion.

The United Methodist Book of Worship gives a very simple suggestion for celebrants as they pray the epiclesis: "The pastor may hold hands, palms down, over the bread and cup." This action is appropriate and very simple. In my opinion, it is also the very least that should be done while presiding.

In many liturgical traditions it is also appropritate for the celebrant to make the sign of the cross in a horizontal plane over the bread and cup. This can be done most effectively at the very beginning of the epiclesis; as pictured in the above photo, the celebrant begins by drawing the vertical bar toward him or herself while saying: "Pour out your Holy Spirit ...."

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here...

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As illustrated in both the immediate-left and the below-left photos, the horizontal bar of the cross can then be drawn in the air over the elements as the celebrant prays: "... and on these gifts of bread and wine."

Making the sign of the cross over the elements during the Epiclesis is a time honored practice of the church, going back to as early as the 4th Century (and perhaps even earlier). A visual-symbolic proclamation of the death of Jesus, it is appropriate that it be directly connected with the consecration of the bread and wine in the sacrament.

... and on these gifts of bread ...

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Some United Methodist clergy may be uncomfortable making the sign of the cross, while others will have no problem with this action. Celebrants shouldn't make the sign unless and until they are fully comfortable doing so.

The hand may be held vertically in the horizontal plane, the palm open, with the fingers pointed straight ahead and the thumb folded down over the palm. Alternatively, the index and middle finger can be pointed forward, with the thumb folded down and the ring and pinky fingers folded up so that they touch the thumb.

This latter configuration has the advantage of proclaiming the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the Consubstantial Humanity and Divinity of Jesus. The Trinity is exemplified by the thumb, ring, and pinky fingers held being held together as symbolizing the unity and diversity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Consubstantial Humanity and Divinity of Jesus is similarly exemplified by the index and middle fingers being held together as one, demonstrating that Jesus was both human and divine at the same time.

...and wine.

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After making the sign of the cross, and while praying the words: "Make them be for us ..." the presiding minister may hold their hands, palms down, over the bread and cup. This is the recommendation of the United Methodist Book of Worship and it is also what is most commonly found among multiple liturgical traditions.

Keep in mind, this is not a magic act: it is a symbolic gesture rooted in multiple Biblical accounts of blessings and consecrations (see, among a great many others, Genesis 48:18-20; Leviticus 1:4; Numbers 8:12; Matthew 19:13-15; 1 Timothy 1:6). When presiding at the Eucharist, and praying the Epiclesis, we are asking God to bless the elements and their receiving; holding one's hands over them at this point simply serves to physically illustrate that for which we are praying.

This can be done in one of several ways:
  • Both hands extended side by side, thumbs touching.
  • One hand held over the other.
  • Both hands cupped, together, over the elements.
  • One hand over the elements, the other raised to heaven.
Any concelebrants should also extend their hand, or hands, toward the elements at this point, so-as to join in the consecration. If they do so, they should also verbally pray the words in unison with the presiding celebrant.

Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.

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After the consecration of the elements, the Epiclesis concludes with a blessing for those who are partaking of the sacrament. Again, this is not magic but a prayer for blessing for the congregation; it is not dissimilar to the benediction at the close of a worship service, except that it is in direct correlation to the consecration of the communion elements.

Beginning with "By your Spirit ..." church tradition is open to any one of several actions here. The celebrant may take their pick, keeping in mind that consistency with the prior hand motions over the elements would be especially appropriate:
  • The Book of Worship recommends that the celebrant return their hands to the upraised position and keep them there through the rest of the Great Thanksgiving.
  • The celebrant may extend their hands, palms outward, toward the congregation in a physical, visible act of blessing.
  • The celebrant may make the sign of the cross over the congregation (pictured).

By your Spirit make us one with Christ...

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My preference is for making the sign of the cross, mirroring both the sign that was made over the elements and the words now being prayed.

As I proclaim: "... make us one with Christ..." I draw the vertical bar from top to bottom.

As I say: "... one with each other..." I draw the horizontal bar from the left to the right and then back to the center.

... one with each other …

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And as I say: "... and one in ministry to all the world" I raise my hands back to the palms-up position and keep them there through the word "banquet." This is the recommendation of the United Methodist Book of Worship and is what is mostly seen in the communion services of several liturgical traditions.

… and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

The Doxology

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The concluding doxology of the Great Thanksgiving can be prayed by the celebrant, by a concelebrant or other assistant, or even by the congregation as a whole. The celebrant is free to keep their hands raised here or, alternatively, to raise the elements to chest or even eye-level, extending them out over the table either simply or crossed. If there are multiple celebrants, one may raise the bread and another the cup.

Following the Doxology there is either a said or sung Amen, which brings the Great Thanksgiving to a close.

Through your Son Jesus Christ,
with your Holy Spirit in your Holy Church,
all honor and glory is yours,
Almighty Father, now and forever.
Amen!

The Lord's Prayer

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While Protestant tradition has been to pray the Lord's Prayer following the "Prayers of the People" and/or the Pastoral Prayer, the longer history for its placement in worship services is following the close of the Great Thanksgiving and prior to the breaking of the bread.

And now, as our savior Christ has taught us, let us pray:

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The Celebrant should lead this prayer, hands raised and palms either upward or outward. Alternative, the celebrant may hold their hands out, palms upward, in front of them, or fold them in a prayerful position.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

The Breaking of the Bread

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The bread should never be broken prior to the consecration, nor should it be pre-cut to "ease the breaking." The celebrant should take the loaf in their hands and, holding it either at face-level or even above their heads, they should break the bread as evenly as possible into two distinct halves. The words spoken here may be those taken from Paul's affirmation in 1 Corinthians 10:17 (see below), or the celebrant might draw from Luke 24:35 and say: "The Disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread." Alternatively, there are several Fraction Anthems that the celebrant or the Choir might sing during the breaking of the bread. Finally, the breaking of the bread may even be done in reverential silence.

If, rather than a single loaf, wafers are used, the celebrant should consider having a larger "celebrant's host" available to break at this point.

Because there is one loaf
we, though we are many, are one body,
for we all partake the one loaf.

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After the bread is broken, while still holding up the two halves of the loaf (or of the broken wafer), the celebrant may -- as pictured to the left and recommended in the United Methodist Book of Worship -- recall the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:16b (see below). Another affirmation might be: "The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven."

The bread which we break
it is a sharing in the Body of Christ.

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Raising the cup to at least chest-level, the celebrant may hold their other hand over it or gesture to it they proclaim the affirmation in 1 Corinthians 10:16a (see below). Alternatively, they might say "The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation." They may even remain silent at this point. The point to keep in mind is that the breaking of the bread is the focus of this portion of the liturgy; some traditions don't make direct reference to the cup at all at this point.

And the cup over which we give thanks
is a sharing in the blood of Christ.

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An alternative to the above, and one which can be seen in several denominations including the Episcopal Church, is to have the presiding minister break the bread while leading the congregation in the following response.

Leader: Alleluia! Christ our passover is sacrificed for us!
People: Therefore let us keep the feast! Alleluia!

This response to the breaking of the bread is particularly effective at Easter, recalling the passover imagery of Good Friday but transformed by the celebration of the Resurrection.

Communion

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There is considerable debate among clergy regarding when the celebrant should receive communion. Some are adamant that those who preside at the Table, and/or serve the sacrament, must receive last (hence, Matthew 20:16). The argument here is that receiving last demonstrates an appropriate attitude of humility and service toward others, rather than one of power and position born of clericalism. There is much to be said in favor of this approach, and many United Methodist clergy prefer it.

The Book of Worship, however, leaves this matter open to the preference of the minster and to local custom: "It is traditional that the pastor receive the bread and the cup first and then serve those who are assisting in the giving of the bread and the cup, but, if desired, the pastor and those assisting may receive last."

The historic practice of receiving first come from an understanding of the sacraments as means of grace which one must receive before sharing with others. The theological principle is a sound one, but it leaves the presiding minister in a quandary: does one serve themselves in persona Christi (i.e., as if Jesus were serving them), and then commune others? This is the preferred approach in many traditions, however there are plenty of clergy who are uncomfortable with it for multiple reasons.

A popular alternative to serving oneself in persona Christi, while still attempting to abide by the theological principle of first receiving before giving, involves communing just an assistant (for example, a concelebrant), and then receiving communion from that person before proceeding to commune other assistants and the rest of the congregation. This compromise is one that many clergy prefer over serving themselves, and it is the one that I find myself gravitating toward more often than not.

May the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ
keep you in everlasting life.

Giving the Bread and the Cup

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How congregants receive communion, and what is said to them as they receive, is also important. Local traditions will vary, but most United Methodist Churches will invite the congregation to come forward to the chancel and kneel at a railing to receive communion. Alternatively, some churches may prefer to have the congregation come forward and commune while standing at communion "stations." Those churches that were once part of the EUB (Evangelical United Brethren) may still have the tradition of receiving communion in their seats, passing the bread and the cup down the pews from person to person.

The Book of Worship is explicit on one point: "All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and the cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive." This is what United Methodists call the "Open Table." Clergy are encouraged to make the invitation as clear and as open as possible.

The words used while communing congregants can vary greatly depending upon local custom or preference. In addition to the common one found printed in the Hymnal, the Book of Worship offers several alternatives, including:

The body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Amen!
The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. Amen!

The body of Christ, given for you.
The blood of Christ, given for you.

The Prayer After Receiving

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Following communion the celebrant may lead the congregation isn a prayer. This can either be extemporaneous, drawing to a close the Eucharist prior to a closing hymn and a benediction, or it may be the prayer offered in the Hymnal / Book of Worship and prayed either by the pastor or by the congregation.

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us. Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.