Chapter 6: Praying at the Lord’s Supper

Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 6: Praying at the Lord’s Supper

From earliest days the Christian fellowship has celebrated the Lord’s Supper as its greatest act of worship. We are told in Acts how the first Christians met "to break bread." And from that time to the present, the distinctive aspect of their worship, distinguishing them from other people in their religion, has been this continuing "memorial of the death of Christ." Only the Society of Friends, among regularly organized traditional Christian groups, has not observed this sacrament; yet for them, every meal together, they tell us, has the character of a holy communion. So too with the more recently founded Salvation Army.

As we shall see, this sacramental observance has its associations with Jewish worship. It also brings to fulfillment pagan sacred meals, accomplishing what they were unable to do although their intention was a communion of some sort with whatever divine power they worshipped. But the Christian sacrament is especially related to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that it "recalls," as the phrase so often used tells us. It is the way in which the Lord who lived in Palestine in the days of his flesh becomes a living presence, in all his genuine presentness, to his people. Not that it is the only way, of course, for in all our praying (and otherwise, too) he makes himself known; but in this way, he is known in a special and peculiarly intensive manner.

In some Christian churches, the Lord’s Supper is the chief service every Sunday and is often celebrated on weekdays too. Luther and Calvin wished that on every Lord’s Day there should be one great service, including sacrament and sermon. For various reasons, this desire was not realized; and only in recent years has there been a return, in many places, to more frequent observance of the Supper. Nonetheless, its centrality and importance have always been stressed and anyone who has attended the quarterly celebrations in, say, the Scottish Highlands can see how profoundly significant the Supper is even when only celebrated four times a year. During my own lifetime I have observed the way in which more and more Christian groups are holding the Holy Communion with increasing frequency; and surely this is all to the good. The day may yet come when in Reformed churches, as in Catholic ones, it will be a regular weekly action; thus the intention of Luther and Calvin will be fulfilled at last.

In this chapter we are to consider the ways in which Christian prayer is carried on and carried out at the Eucharist -- from the Greek word for "Thanksgiving" which was the name given the sacrament in early Christian days. But before we do this, it will be well to say something more about the origins and earliest development of the rite. Often we are enabled to understand some practice by knowing how it came to be and how it has been understood in the past; then we can interpret it for ourselves, in our own time.

It seems that during his days in Palestine Jesus held meals of table fellowship with his disciples and followers; the gospel stories of the so-called "feedings" would suggest this. But on the evening before his crucifixion and death, he gathered his friends with him in an "upper room" to join with him in a particular meal that recent scholarship implies was a regular Jewish observance. This meal always included conversation on matters of faith, but it found its climax in the breaking of bread before the repast proper and the sharing of a common cup when it was finished. We even know the words Jesus probably said in "blessing" the bread and wine. Jewish "blessings" were in the form of thanksgiving addressed to God; and the appropriate words on that occasion would have been something like this: "Blessed be thou, Lord God of the universe, who hast given bread for man’s sustenance. . . . Blessed be thou, Lord God of the universe, who hast given wine for man’s rejoicing in heart."

But because on that occasion the Jewish Feast of the Passover was at hand, there must have been some note of that festival in the meal. The Jewish Passover is the recalling of God’s deliverance of his people from the Egyptians; it is a feast remembering God as the savior of the Jews. Just how this played its part in the Last Supper we do not know, and the experts have different theories about the matter. Yet in some way Jesus’ reference, in breaking and distributing the bread and in giving the cup, seems to point to his intention of indicating the significance of his approaching death as well as entering into fellowship with his friends. He said, "This my body broken for you. . . . This cup the new covenant in my blood, shed for you," or some variant of these words. This is the historical beginning of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus evidently meant to make his disciples sharers, there and then, in the new relationship with God that his own body broken and his own blood shed would establish for men. And every time they "remembered" him, by doing at their fellowship meals what he had done on that last occasion, they would find him present with them, until his "coming again."

With the resurrection of the Lord, the disciples were assured that he was still with them, victorious over all that had brought him to his death; and as they met for those continuing meals of fellowship they found him "in the breaking of the bread." His promise had been fulfilled. They experienced the joy of the Kingdom, whose coming was anticipated in the meal; as they ate the bread and drank of the cup they were already with the risen Lord who would come again to them and to all men. Throughout Christian history, this has been experienced again and again. Christians have had the same sense of his presence, the same certainty of his living reality, the same joy in being inheritors of the Kingdom of God -- all made known and assured to them as they have gathered at the Lord’s Table and have done what Jesus commanded men to do in his "remembrance."

Of course the way in which the sacrament has been understood has developed from the early days; of course the manner of its celebration has changed greatly over the years. But it is the same action, whether it be conducted elaborately, with great splendor, color, lights, and music, or very simply and plainly. Both ways of doing it are appropriate -- the simple ones because often the significance of an action is best known in stark simplicity, the elaborate ones because it is natural for men to wish to surround a treasured occasion with as much dignity as they can manage. In whatever way it is done, it remains what Thomas Aquinas once finely called it, "the summing up of the whole mystery of our salvation." All Christians, Catholic and Reformed, Evangelical and whatever else, would agree with him.

A service like this can have many meanings, not all of them immediately obvious to the occasional attendant. We shall now consider some of these meanings, which will suggest to us ways in which we may most effectively pray at the Holy Communion. But first of all we must insist on the fact that we have to do here with an action, with something that is done. That is of enormous importance for our proper grasp of its significance.

The Lord’s Supper includes words, since its meaning must be expressed. But it is not fundamentally a form of words, any more than it is a set of pious thoughts in which Christians unite. In the gospel narratives of the Last Supper Jesus is reported to have said, "Do this in my remembrance," not think this or say this. He was performing an action in which others were to engage. They were not just to say things to one another nor by mental reverie remember (in our modern sense) events in the past. They were to take bread and wine, do things with them and share them. Any speaking or thinking would be the consequence of this doing. We shall say more about the kind of remembrance here in view when we come to the "memorial aspect" of the Eucharist.

First, then, the action is an action of the Christian community; it is a social matter. That is why it is so important that Christians should be present at it, as a family of faithful men and women. Here in this social act is the expression of a common allegiance to Christ and the reality of a common sharing in his life and what he has done -- his "benefits," as theologians would say. We may not feel particularly "pious" at the sacrament; this will be largely a matter of our temperament. But that does not matter, since it is not our feelings but our presence, with the right intentions, that counts most. We shall know ourselves unworthy; but this is food for sinners, not for saints already made perfect. Dr. James Stewart has told of an old Scots minister who said to a girl who held back from receiving the bread because she felt her great unworthiness, "Take it, lass, it’s meant for sinners!"

In the second place, the Lord’s Supper is an expression of Christian joy in accepting what Christ has done for men. An old phrase used to describe it is, "This our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving." We are there to thank God for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. That redemption was wrought through his suffering and death, to be sure; but he is risen in triumph, his deed done, his work confirmed when "God raised him from the dead." How can a Christian fail to rejoice? How can he be other than glad for so great a redemption, now "shown forth" in the sacred meal? Here is our opportunity to give praise, adoration, and thanks to God, in company with our Christian brethren, as we know Christ’s presentness with us, his victory for us, and his assurance of continuing grace given to us, sinful men though we are.

Third, the sacrament is the "remembrance" of Christ. But we must be careful lest we use this word in its modern sense, where it suggests our turning back simply in thought to events in the past. The Hebrew idea was very different -- and it still is different. When the ancient Jews (and modern ones too) engage in their Passover, they do not regard this as a memory in our modern sense; rather, it is for them an action -- sharing a meal, telling a story, doing certain things -- that makes present for them in the here and now what they believe God did for them when he delivered them from the Egyptians and led them safely into the promised land. The memorial is thus a vital recalling of the past into the present, so that it becomes a reality in which they now genuinely share.

So, too, in the Christian memorial or remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many know the Negro spiritual, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" When the believer is at the Lord’s Supper he is sure that he is present at the crucifixion -- and at the resurrection too. Here Christ’s presentness, in all that he was and did, in all that he still is and does, is known. Thus in the Church’s sacramental remembrance there is a living presence, not a dead reverie or a merely mental recollection.

In the fourth place, the Christ who is thus remembered is the Christ whose death was a sacrifice for men. That death must be seen in the context of his whole life, for tota vita Christi mysterium crucis, as a medieval saying has it: "the whole life of Christ is the mystery of the Cross" All of his life was an offering of himself to what he knew to be the will of the Father; it was summed up on Calvary when he "was obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross." When at the Eucharist Christian people remember Christ, his sacrificial life and death are there with them. They are incorporated into that perfect offering and empowered, in their own small degree, also to offer themselves a "living sacrifice, acceptable to God." What William Law, an old English writer, once called "the process of Christ" is to be worked out in them: they, too, are to know obedience, sacrifice, death, and resurrection. And in consequence they become "other Christs" to their brethren in the world, as Benedict in the early Church and Martin Luther in the sixteenth century were bold enough to affirm.

How all these things are accomplished we do not know. There have been many theories, all of them speculative and most of them elaborations from philosophical or theological ideas popular at a particular time and place. If we are to have any theory at all, maybe we should accept them all, trying to find some truth in what they are saying! But it is best to have no theory -- or at least, not to set up any exclusive theory or set of theories about how Christ is at the Eucharist, what is going on in detail, and the like. Some of us would be content simply to use the words of an Elizabethan English rhyme:

He was the Word that spake it;

He took the bread and brake it.

And what his word did make it

That I believe and take it.

This is a reverent agnosticism about the how, refusing to speculate overmuch about the rite but rejoicing in Christ as a present reality known in the sacrament.

For Christian devotion, surely, it is sufficient to know that Christ comes to those who believe in him. It is sufficient to know that he is truly there by the instrumentality of bread and wine taken, blessed, and shared. His people feed on him in their hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving. Need we say more? God was in Christ, but no man can say exactly how this could be. Christ’s presentness is in the sacrament; and again no man can explain just how this is possible. We need not try to exceed our limited human capacity for knowing.

For the Christian who wishes to learn to pray, no better occasion is given than at the Lord’s Table, for the Holy Communion is Christian prayer in a supreme mode. For one thing, it is a means of fellowship with God and with our brethren. It is fellowship with our brethren, since Christ is both the Brother of all men and the "Head" of the human race. He is Man as man is meant to be; and each of us can find in him the pattern of manhood. But in him, as Man, God was actively present, incarnate among us. Thus there is fellowship with God. If the purpose of prayer is such a communion with God, by identification with him in our desires and willing, here is the accomplished fact, once for all effected in history.

Here, too, is opportunity for confession of sin and the receiving of God’s pardon, for prayer for ourselves and for others, for thanksgiving to God, and for sheer adoration. In other words, all the elements of prayer, as we have described them, are gathered up and given new and vitalizing expression.

Several times we have used the word "Eucharist" as the name for the sacrament; we pointed out that it is the Greek word for "Thanksgiving" and was employed regularly for the service in the early days of the Christian Church. It is appropriate to take that word and apply it to the Christian himself: he is to be a ‘living eucharist," a living thanksgiving to God for all that God has done, now does, and will do. At the service itself, this becomes clear. And when the believer leaves the church building and goes out into the world, his life of thanksgiving is to continue unchanged. What happens after the sacrament is a demonstration of what takes place during it.

So it is that on weekdays, in office or store or school or home or factory, the Christian is the eucharistic man, living in thankfulness to God and showing his thankfulness in all that he says and does. He is a placarding of Christ before men. Perhaps he is not an especially notable person, but he has the root of the matter in him. His daily private prayer, his public worship, and above all his participation in the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or Eucharist, now find outward manifestation in "the works of love," wherever he may be. They used to say of the first Christians that "men took notice of them, that they had been with Jesus." So it should be with modern Christians too -- and the place, opportunity, and occasion to be "with Jesus" in a very special way is at the sacrament.

It may be well to conclude this chapter with some practical hints. Here they are:

(1) Attend the Lord’s Supper regularly and faithfully, however difficult it may be to get to it and however dim one’s devotion may seem at the time.

(2) Receive the sacramental elements as often as you can, whenever opportunity offers -- perhaps your congregation could be persuaded to make it available more frequently.

(3) Do not look for special thrills or "shivers up your back," as an old friend once put it. The purpose of the sacrament is not to stir our emotions so much as to enable us to grow in Christ, to the "measure of the stature" of his manhood and as faithful children of God who is our Father.

(4) Prepare for the service, simply and without any fuss; and afterwards give thanks for it, equally simply and without fuss.

(5) Remember afterward that you have "been with Jesus"; and try to carry out in your daily life what you have seen, known, and received.

Thus you will find yourself growing in prayer and you will know the joy of Christian living.