The Words of Institution

I’m in the middle of reading 1 Corinthians right now for The Bible Podcast. This morning I recorded myself reading 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul smacks the church in Corinth upside the head for their mishandling of, well, pretty much everything. But in this chapter, mostly communion.

It’s the chapter that the famous “Words of Institution” come from …

The Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

For every time you eat this bread, and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

In the middle of recording myself reading that chapter, I had a sudden vivid memory of the last time I had said those words out loud.

Our pastor Doug was out of town, it was toward the end of summer, I think, and he had asked me to preach. It wasn’t the first time I had given the message, but it was the first time that it had landed on Communion Sunday, which we celebrate on the first Sunday of every month.

I come from the low church tradition, Baptist and later Evangelical Free. We didn’t have much in the way of ritual, or liturgy. We believed strongly in the priesthood of all believers, in the personal dimension of each person’s relationship with Christ, in the primacy of the preached word, and our corporate worship was constructed along those lines. We celebrated baptisms with great fervor, because baptism meant conversion. We observed communion, but it seemed more out of obligation than any great sense of purpose or meaning.

That might be too harsh. Let me leave it this way – we were never taught to understand the value of ritual itself, how to find meaning in the repetition of words or actions.

When Pope John Paul II died, the funeral was televised live in the middle of the night here in LA. I was just coming home from a gig, and flipped on the TV to unwind. I watched, transfixed, as the BBC newsperson explained the meaning of every movement, every word, each act in the unfolding drama. Everything had purpose, everything was a symbol and a reenactment. As the choir sang songs composed 800 years ago, as the cardinals recited prayers written 1600 years ago, I had a profound sense of standing in the stream of history.

I had been raised in a tradition that viewed ritual as “dead acts”, a lifeless repetition of habit in the place of real worship, by people who didn’t have the Holy Spirit in them. But there was nothing lifeless about what I saw that night. It was made alive in the people who reenacted it, step for step. It had the breath of the Holy Spirit in it, from first note to final prayer.

I watched the whole thing. When I finally shut off the TV and crawled into bed, I lay awake for a while, thinking about what it means to be connected to 2,000 years of Christ’s People.

Rituals are reenactments of the sacred themes of life. Placing the ring on the finger, going under the water, eating the bread and wine, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, they are all reenactments of true themes.

And in each ritual, there is a part to play. The bride and groom play the roles of Christ and Church, the child in soaking white robes is Good Friday and Easter, the leader and the congregation reciting the creeds become Prophet and Israel.

And on Sunday morning, when I raised the bread, and broke it, and spoke out loud the words of institution, “This is my body, and it is for you,” I become suddenly, manifestly aware of my role in the ritual.

It is Christ who lifts bread, and breaks it. It is Christ who drinks the wine. It is Christ who feeds his people, and who proclaims their unity. And in this reenactment, this remembrance, I was standing in his place for that congregation, that day, in that place.

The words caught in my throat that morning. I’m glad that they did. I would not like to be the sort of person who suddenly pictures himself in Christ’s sandals, and keeps right on going. The words caught in my throat, and I felt tears gathering in my eyes. I felt the crushing weight of my own dark soul, made evident in the glare of that moment.

It can be a beautiful thing to have such clarity right before you eat at the Lord’s table.

stained glass communionI finished the words of institution, and the elders distributed the bread and cup throughout the congregation. They returned, and knelt on the front step of the platform to receive their own portion. I handed bread and wine to these men and women, years ahead of me in faith and dignity, any one of whom would have been a more fitting representative of Christ that morning.

But the ritual doesn’t depend on the worth of the players. The proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection, the power of grace, the unity of all believers, these are the beautiful truths that the ritual proclaims. Maybe it’s better to have someone in the role at the head of the table who no one would mistake for the real thing.

And so, when I ate the bread, and when I drank the cup, the entire congregation did too. And I was with them, again, eating at the same table, receiving the same grace.

That morning, as I moved through the scenes of the play, and followed the motions, as I spoke the words of Christ by way of Paul, and played the part of Christ to his people in that place, I was doing two things.

I was remembering Christ.

And I was remembering his people, that great cloud of witnesses who, for 2000 years, have used this ritual to make present the mystery of grace.

14 thoughts on “The Words of Institution

  1. Chris

    I was raised pentecostal. My father was ordained in the Four Square Church and pastored one for most of my childhood. Because of this, I can definitely relate to the whole “low church tradition” that you spoke about. Nowadays, my family and I are very much involved in a church that is very liturgical, my dad was re-ordained in the Anglican church ( AMIA to be exact ) and what you said in this blog has definitely summed up my feelings exactly. There’s a reason you have degrees and I’m only working on one right now. But it really is incredible to be immersed in the tradition of liturgy. I know a lot of people consider any form of a structured service to be a spiritual cop out, but for me at least, it has the respect and honor that a lot of times a “regular” church service might lack. Maybe it’s just me, but I think you’re spot on.

  2. Morphea

    Wow, Michael. It’s been a while since I’ve truly been able to say “I never thought of it that way before”. Your humility gave me pause.


  3. Cliff

    Well said, Michael. As a lay person in the Anglican tradition, I cannot serve the Eucharist, but I have served the wine many times, and often found a similar sense of wonder.

    Right now, I serve at most services at my little church. Every week, I offer the Blood of Christ to my friends and my pastor. It is such sweet service – often the best part of Sunday for me. I am freed from my own worries and grievances as I offer Christ to my friends. Jesus, in my hands, enters my heart through their trusting, kind eyes and I am blessed even as I offer a blessing to them.

  4. Gloria

    Richard Foster teaches about these ‘streams’ and how the church has several. I think when streams lap over you get some interesting outcomes. Great storytelling, powerful message.

  5. Josh Frank

    Wonderfully told. We need more storytelling like this in the Church.

    One of the strongest senses of calling over the last 10 years of my life has been, over and over, as I participate in the celebration of the Eucharist. From the time I was a teenager, it’s always been a pull towards ordination for me. What a blessing that you have been able to serve. Perhaps someday I’ll have a similar humbling experience.

  6. Morphea

    Cliff, I experienced the best, if shortest, moments during the Eucharist when I attended an Episcopalian church. Those moments were the smiles I shared with the people serving the host and wine – especially the wine people, since there’s a measure of trust and humor and cooperation that goes along with both of you levering the big cup towards your mouth whilst NOT spilling it down your front.

    The moment when I looked into their eyes and smiled was a split second where it was just me, them, and, you know, god. I do miss that.


  7. michael lee Post author

    I wonder if the value of ritual as a teaching tool is coming back into use more widely – I’ve heard people say we’re moving to a post-literate culture, and in those waters we might find that reenactment is a powerful tool for communicating and teaching.

  8. june

    Michael, I appreciate your insight and ability to communicate so well. I’ve thought long about this very thing as I grew up in a church tradition similar to what you described growing up in and at times I intensely long for more church liturgy/structure/meaning/less flip-flops. I have several friends who are in their 50′s and 60′s who did indeed grow up with liturgy and structure and an annual calendar of ‘do this on this day at church for this historical/biblical reason’ who would never, ever, ever go back to any of it because what they experience in the “low church” setting is, basically, what you described thinking and experiencing through watching the Pope’s funeral: everything had a purpose. I’ve heard said friends talk about the freeing experience of not being held to an ancient calendar and liturgy and how it opened the way for them to think and feel and relate to God in a personal way and how then they were able to figure out if they actually believed in God at all and what that meant. I know what I’m saying is obvious and has been better said, but nonetheless, I’m sayig it. (Every class needs it’s C average student!) It is interesting how a person such as I can just ache for more ritual (or whatever you want to call it) as the casual, evangelical free, everybody grab a geetar and let’s love on Jesus style sometimes seems almost profane or at least not nearly meaningful enough given what Christianity has been/is/will be while the person right next to me can be thinking “Oh thank God…at THIS church they are actually REAL and we’re not just all faking it with a bunch of meaningless rituals!”

    I’m just saying.

  9. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="74603"]It is interesting how a person such as I can just ache for more ritual (or whatever you want to call it) as the casual, evangelical free, everybody grab a geetar and let’s love on Jesus style sometimes seems almost profane or at least not nearly meaningful enough given what Christianity has been/is/will be while the person right next to me can be thinking “Oh thank God…at THIS church they are actually REAL and we’re not just all faking it with a bunch of meaningless rituals!”

    I’m just saying.[/quote]

    That’s very true. I’m a big fan of variety in the church, I think we need a wide range of spiritual expressions, for exactly this reason.

    I think it’s also important, though, that the church give people the tools to participate in worship experiences that are outside of their own comfort zone. People who are at home in an Evangelical style of worship should be given the instruction and means to understand the power and significance of liturgy, and likewise those in ritualized traditions should be taught to understand the value of freedom in worship.

    If for no other reason, then because it’s a good basis for charitable understanding of our brothers and sisters, and how they pursue life with God.

  10. june

    [quote post="1351"]People who are at home in an Evangelical style of worship should be given the instruction and means to understand the power and significance of liturgy,[/quote]

    …Indeed. I think this is where the baby was thrown out with the bath water…I’m convinced that the key to meaningful liturgy making a lasting and meaningful resurgence in evangelical churches is for pastors, Sunday School teachers and most importantly, parents to make a point of explaining the reasons/meaning behind liturgy/rituals/reenactments to the up and coming generation. I tend to think that people not doing this is why, in part, such things became meaningless and stale and then abandoned by some. Most kids are simply not going to ‘get it’ unless It is explained to them. Repeatedly.

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