Project Canterbury

From The Works of the Rt. Rev. Charles C. Grafton (Volume 6),
edited by B. Talbot Rogers, New York: Longmans, Green, 1914, pp. 49-57

Plain Suggestions for a Reverent Celebration of the Holy Communion

by Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton

Chapter IX

The Mystical Meaning of the Liturgy

The Liturgy is the old name for our Eucharistic service. It was originally applied to it alone. Morning and Evening Prayer are known by the name of the Divine Office. The Liturgy and the Divine Office are the combination of the synagogue and the temple service. The Anglican communion has preserved the two in better proportions than any other religious body. She has marked their distinction by a careful architectural division of her chancels into choir and sanctuary. In Roman churches this distinction is not made. There, indeed, we find an altar and an altar service, but, save the unvarying meagre Sunday vespers, no public recitation of the Divine Office. In sectarian bodies we have a synagogue service, but no altar.

Thus Rome and the sects represent a mutilated form of Christian worship. Both the synagogue and the temple worship are of divine origin or sanction, and in the new dispensation they passed on, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, into their glorified Christian condition.

It may, then, further aid in a devout celebration for the priest to have in mind the order and structure of his own Liturgy. It has grown into its present shape, we believe, under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, and has consequently a meaning of its own. It is unlike that of Rome in some of its features, and where we differ we have no wish to copy her. Also, our church services are unlike those of the dissenters, which are but a collection of hymns, prayers, Scripture readings, arranged apparently after no principle save that of variety and supposed effectiveness. But the Church’s offices and her Liturgy have a unity like that of a symphony or drama. There is an underlying movement and a purposeful progression, like the unity of nature as she utters her psalm of life in the music of sounding sea, and wind-stirred trees, and chorus of singing-birds, and harmony of clouds, and shining beauty of starlit heavens, and the incense and perfume of herbs and flowers.

Throughout the sacred Liturgy of the Church there is in all its parts the undertone of the Spirit’s voice. The service moves on in majestic order, like a wonderful drama. By it the work of redemption is "evidently," i.e., as "by a picture conspicuously and publicly exhibited," set forth before us. For as the Bible is the Word written, so the Gospel sacraments are the Word in action. They are the two living witnesses, filled with divine power, that shall prophesy unto the end. The Holy Communion is at once a solemn commemoration of the life and death of Christ, a presentation and pleading of Calvary’s all-sufficient sacrifice, and a saving incorporation into it through our partaking of Christ’s body and blood. It is a divine mystery. Human reason cannot fathom it. The whole transaction, and all its details, takes place within the spiritual organism of which Christ is the ever-present centre, and is governed by its laws. How can we realize this? When the priest approaches the altar let him, by an act of faith, draw aside the veil between the heavenly and the earthly, and mentally prostrate himself, along with all the elders, before the throne as he enters into the glorious worship of the Lamb. Hushed be the tumult without and within as he enters into the divine presence.

It will help him in the maintenance of this devotional spirit if he can keep in mind the inspired order of the Liturgy. A first attempt to do this while celebrating is apt to be confusing. But when one has become so familiar with the service that he can say the unvarying parts by heart, he can without much difficulty keep before his mental vision the progressive movement of this acted mystery of redemption.

We may for this purpose divide the Liturgy into four parts or acts, the first consisting of the Lord’s Prayer, the Collect for Purity, the recitation of the Decalogue or Summary, and the Kyries. This first part brings us into the presence of Almighty God. The recitation of the Decalogue in this place is a peculiarity of the Anglican rite. Let us not therefore disparage it, but rather glorify it; for may we not humbly believe that in the development of the Liturgy each portion of Christendom bears its own witness to the faith and has its own special liturgical glories? Our Liturgy, beginning with the Decalogue and omitting the Gloria in Excelsis, is in striking contrast with the Roman. We can admit that the Roman order is more in accord with the primitive liturgies, and that there is something very beautiful in beginning the drama of Christ's life and death with the angels' song at Bethlehem. But yet it is a grand idea—a grander one, we venture to think—to throw the mind first of all back behind the scene of Bethlehem into the eternal counsels themselves and into the presence of the ever-blessed Trinity. The recitation of the Decalogue does this. It places us before the awful grandeur of God Himself, and enshrines us in the splendour of His glory. For the recitation of the Decalogue is not a promulgation of an arbitrarily imposed code of laws to regulate human conduct, but is a revelation of the divine nature by laws which could not have been otherwise than they are, any more than the rays of the sun could differ from its source. The Decalogue reveals the unique and perfect being of the Almighty; the sanctity of His Name; the marvellous combination of the dual principle of unceasing activity and absolute rest in His nature; the order and subordination found in the divine life itself, the basis of that order which holds family and state together. It brings us before God Himself, the eternal source of life Who makes all human life and its propagation sacred, the absolute justice and essential truth, the one and only all-satisfying end of us otherwise covetous mortals. In the presence of that absolute perfection we shrivel into nothingness, and deplore our own sinful condition, and make our ever-needful plea for mercy. Surely there is something very deep and solemnizing in thus bringing the soul before the piercing splendour of the attributes of God.

The second part of the Liturgy extends from the collect for the day to the prayer for Christ's Church militant. It declares that God has heard the cry of humanity and bowed the heavens and come down. He has broken the eternal silence. God has become incarnate. He has to His own nature joined ours, and speaks to us through it as His organ of utterance. The eternal light and wisdom shine out through the human nature like light through an alabaster vase. The prevailing idea of this part of the Liturgy is Christ as the Prophet or Light of the World. Here we have the Epistle, the Word proclaimed by prophets and apostles going before or after Him; then the Gospel, the Word uttered by Himself in sermon, parable, miracle; then the Word preached or extended to us by His messengers and watchmen; then the Word confessed and proclaimed by all the Church in the Creed, swelling by each utterance the testimony of the ages to the faith, and saying: "This is the way, walk ye in it."

The third division of the Liturgy begins with the prayer for Christ's Church militant, and extends to the end of the canon. Here Christ as the Priest and Victim is brought before us. What does it do but remind us of that great liturgical prayer which Christ made in the upper chamber when He summed up His lifework and pleaded for the unity of the Church and for the perfection of its members? Then follow the confession, absolution, comfortable words. Here we follow our Lord out from the upper chamber into Gethsemane's sorrow and agony. He has wrapped about Him our sins as a garment from off an outcast leper. As the representative of the race, He has taken those sins upon Himself. On our behalf alone, as bearing all the burden, He kneels and confesses them with tears of blood. The priest at the altar, as Christ's representative, likewise kneels, and, even if there should be no one to communicate with Him, says the great confession. It is an ever-abiding witness of Gethsemane's dark sorrow; it is part of the tragic drama of redemption. Then, as there appeared the angel strengthening Him, there come the absolution and the comfortable words. The light breaks in from heaven. Throughout Christ's life the angels ever attended Him. They sang the introit to His great lifelong sacrifice from off the rood-screen of the skies at Bethlehem. They are with Him at His Credo in the temptation. They wait beside Him at His act of penitence in the garden. They abide in silent adoration about His cross. They minister at His resurrection and ascension. He came to gather in one all things which are in heaven and earth. So in the very central portion of the Liturgy, amid the agony and betrayal and outward wrong and inward woe, the Sursum Corda opens the vision of heaven, and we are one in our worship with the angels and saints.

But the drama hastens with a divine impulse of love to its consummation. Christ, de]ivered into the hands of wicked men, goes forth bearing His cross, and as He goes He falls beneath its weight. In two places, and two places only, in the Anglican rite is the celebrant bidden to kneel—once as he says the confession, in union with Christ in the garden, and again at the prayer of humble access, in union with Christ as He goes to Calvary.

Then, in the reverent hush that tells that God is near, the Liturgy proceeds with the canon. First comes the consecration. In the American rite there follows the oblation of the holy gifts, called gifts after the union by the consecration of the inward and outward parts of the sacrament, called creatures only before. Then the sacred memorial is offered to God, the Holy Spirit is invoked, and intercession is made for the whole Church. The communion comes next. The offering on Calvary's cross was for all mankind. We appropriate its work by faith, and by our communion and reception of Christ's body and blood are incorporated into it.

And when the dear and precious memorial before God has been presented and pleaded, and the communions made, the priest is bidden reverently to place upon the Lord's table what remaineth of the consecrated elements, covering the same with a fair linen cloth. It was to protect the sacred elements that the Reformers added this rubric, so distinctive a feature of our rite. Surely we may plead for its literal observance, which the use of a small cardboard, according to the Roman rite, does not fulfil. The symbolical reason for the use of this special veiling makes the act of loyalty the more dear. Does it not bring to mind the descent from the cross and the tender entombment of the body by loving hands, which wrapped it in linen and bore it to its burial?

Then follows the fourth and last great division. It is full of the spirit of the risen and ascended Christ. As the first two portions of the Liturgy set forth His prophetical and priestly work, here He is brought before us as our risen and ascended King. The Roman mass practically ends with the priest's communion, and then he consumes the elements. Is it not something worse than disloyalty for an Anglican priest to imitate this in the face of our rubric, which enforces the reservation of the sacrament until after the benediction? If it was for communion only that the sacrament was instituted, we might conceive that as soon as the communions were made the sacrament should be consumed. But the Prayer-Book orders its reservation and that the Benediction shall be given in its presence. Like the apostles, we assemble about our risen Lord, and are with Him, like them, in the sacred enclosure of the closed doors. He is in the midst of us, and we have received Him, and He is in us and we in Him. We rejoice in Him and adore Him as our King. We are incorporated into His mystical body, and are ready to do all such good works as He has prepared for us to walk in. We gather about Him as when the disciples took their last walk with Him in the glorious sunlight of His resurrection, and He led them out as far as Bethany. Not unfittingly does our Liturgy reserve the Gloria in Excelsis for this place. It is the triumphantly filled-out response made by the Church to the angels’ song at Bethlehem. We have been raised up and made to sit in heavenly places. We gaze not up into a material heaven, but into the heaven whereof we form a part and wherein we are one with the apostles, as when they gathered beneath the benediction of the uplifted hands, and worshipped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

And then, after the blessing, the priest immediately and reverently consumes the sacred gifts, and can we but think of the saying: "He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight."

Neither disparaging other liturgies nor seeking to imitate them, we may be humbly thankful for that which, through all the trials and purifications of our own communion, God has preserved to us, and try more fully to enter into its spirit and be reverent in its celebration.

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