Each week at Grace we participate in the Lord’s Super. (This sacrament is also know as Communion or Eucharist and I will use “Communion” because it’s the shortest.) There are two prayers which are connected to the celebration of communion, both of which have different emphases. This week we’ll tackle the prayer before the sacrament.
As I’ve said before prayer reflects theology so what I’m praying reflects my belief in Christ’s real presence (also called “spiritual presence”) in Communion. So I do not pray that the bread and wine before us will somehow be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Neither do I simply pray for a more accurate or enlightened memory of Christ’s death on our behalf. Both of these prayers flow from different theologies of communion (Catholic & Zwinglian) whereas I would look to the tradition as articulated in this short quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith (doctrinal standards for the Presbyterian Church in America, PCA, my denomination)
Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They were directly instituted by God to represent Christ and his benefits and to confirm our relationship to him. They are also intended to make a visible distinction between those who belong to the church and the rest of the world, and solemnly to bind Christians to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.
Five Pieces to Praying Before Communion
1. Rescue: In Communion we remember that “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God” – 1 Peter 3. We also remember that Jesus is risen and reigns at God’s right hand. There is so much that God has done for us in sending his son to rescue us through his life, death, and resurrection. I call to mind some of these benefits and thank God for all that he has done for his people.
2. Embodied: In communion we experience our salvation communicated to our physical senses in the bread and wine. I thank God that he is both creator and rescuer and that these two roles are not at odds. Salvation does not take us out of the world God has made, but comes into our physical reality, even promising restoration of the created order. I think about all that has gone into the bread and wine before us: sun, rain, soil, cultivation, harvest, and processing. God nurtures our souls, not only with created things but with products of human culture. It is not water and seeds but bread and wine. Sadly there is usually not time to pray through all of this.
3. Consecrate: I ask God to set apart this regular bread and wine to his holy purpose. Much of what has been prayed thus far could fit with praying before a meal (i.e. thanking God for his rescue, being Lord of all). Yet at this point, I ask for the secret power of Holy Spirit so that as we speak the words of institution and administer communion according to Christ’s command he would be present. This request flows from my theology in which sacraments are not merely symbols for something, but in some sense confer that which is symbolized. This is where the mystery comes in, but even if I do not fully understand how this works I can still ask for, and even expect, God to do it. So I thank him for once again pledging his love to us and renewing his promises to us.
4. Faith: I ask God to give us faith so that we do not mechanically participate in some ritual. Instead, as we eat and drink, we believe again all that Jesus has done for us and actively rest our souls upon him. I pray that that as we participate by faith our souls would be nourished and we would grow in grace.
5. Affection: In anticipation of receiving God’s grace through this sacrament I express our love for God and joy in him. As God says, “I love you” and we see the great cost, it is right to say, “we love you” in response.
The shape of these prayers arises from practice, reading, and reflection over the past ten years:
Memorial Presbyterian Church – the first congregation where I experienced the practice of weekly communion and learned so much.
Given for You – I read this in seminary and it was foundational for shaping my theology of communion.
Leading in Prayer – mentioned already in this series, a summary of church practice through the years with contemporary examples.
Ordination – in studying for ordination in my denomination (PCA) I memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism which has some brief but deep sentences about the meaning and practice of communion. Also since being ordained in 2008 I’ve helped lead communion services about every other week.