Monday, March 18, 2013

The Divine Liturgy: Part 3 (Preface through the Distribution)


This is the third installment in a four part series explaining the various parts of the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Common Service.  To view the first and second installments of the series, click here and here.

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Preface: Sursum Corda and Vere Dignum
The Service of the Word now complete, the pastor turns toward the people with the familiar greeting, Dominus Vobiscum.  After the people’s response, he intones the Sursum Corda, which means “lift up your hearts” and comes from Lamentations 3:41.  After the people assent, he bids them to make eucharist; that is, to give thanks to God.  The people respond by saying Dignum et iustum est; that is, “it is meet and right.”  This dialogue between pastor and people has been used in a multiplicity of liturgical traditions since the 3rd Century.  It leads directly into the Proper Preface, also known as the Vere Dignum.  Notice the people’s last response also began with Dignum ("meet"); the pastor draws from the people’s response and affirms that “it is truly meet, right, and salutary” to give God thanks.  In this way, the Sursum Corda serves as a formal assent to the pastor's "making eucharist" on the congregation's behalf, indicating that with one mind we lift our hearts before the Lord in gratitude and humility.  

The Proper Preface also serves to hone our thanksgiving into the context of the theme of the day; each season of the church year has a unique Preface that accompanies it.  The Preface concludes with a sort of doxology, saying that with Angels and Archangels and the whole company of the heavenly army we praise and magnify God’s Name with the song of heaven:  the Sanctus.

Sanctus with Benedictus
The Sanctus (meaning “holy”) is an ancient hymn that comes from the Old and New Testaments.  It is the song that the Prophet Isaiah heard the Blessed Seraphim singing before the Throne of God (as recorded in Isaiah 6:3).  St. John also heard the “four creatures” that surround the Throne of God singing a version of the Sanctus (Revelation 4:8).  In a sense, then, the Sanctus is the Song of Heaven - that which the Angels sing before the very presence of God.  It is most fitting to sing this hymn directly before the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament, at which point heaven deigns to be on earth.  This is where, with Angels and Archangels, we laud and magnify the Lamb Who - though He sits upon the Throne - in wondrous mystery sits upon the Altar in the Holy Supper. 
Also befitting this mystery is the text of the Benedictus (“blessed”), which comprises the second half of the Sanctus.  The Benedictus, originally based on Psalm 118:26, is the song (“Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord!”) that people of Israel sang as the Lord triumphantly entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, as recorded in St. Mark 11:9-10.  It is surrounded by the refrain “Hosanna in the highest” (hosanna is a Hebrew word that is related to “Savior” and was probably used as an expression beseeching Divine aid).  It is appropriate for these words to be used as we beseech the good graces of Him “that cometh in the name of the Lord.” 
Even more symbolic is the fact that the Benedictus represents the people of God’s earthly song of acclamation, while the Sanctus represents the heavenly song of acclamation.  In a very real sense, the Sanctus with Benedictus represents the meeting of heaven and earth - the ultimate expression of the fact that heaven and earth become indistinguishable as we progress toward the celebration of the Holy Supper, where Saints and Angels regardless of time and space join together in adoration of the King of kings.

Pater Noster with Doxology
Following the Sanctus, the pastor begins chanting the Pater Noster, also known as the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer.”  It is the prayer our Savior taught us and has long been used in the Service of the Sacrament.  In it, we specifically pray for God to “give us this day our daily bread,” which is none other than Christ Himself - that Bread of Life we are about to receive in the Blessed Sacrament.  But in a real sense, all the petitions of this venerable prayer find their completion in the Holy Supper.  God’s Name is hallowed by the work of His Son, in Whose presence we are soon to dwell.  God’s Kindgom most literally comes to earth as the Communion of Saints is manifested in the Body and Blood of Christ.  And His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  How is it done?  By the giving of this wonderful bread from heaven, which surely forgives our sins and empowers our Christian living as we forgive those who sin against us, are led away from temptation, and are delivered from evil. 
In joyful response to these blessed truths, the Common Service tradition has the people respond by happily singing the doxology; for the Kingdom, Power, and Glory truly belong to God for ever and ever, Who has bestowed upon us these wonderful gifts, the work of His hand alone.

Verba Christi and Pax Domini
With our minds focused on the gifts about to be received, the pastor chants the Verba Christi, the Words of Institution that are recorded in the three synoptic Gospels and St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians.  Beyond all human comprehension, when the Pastor recites these Words of consecration, the powerful Word of God effects the Sacramental Union by which the earthly elements of bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We leave to Him alone how this can be; His Word alone is sufficient.  It is historically appropriate - and endorsed by the blessed Dr. Luther himself - for the pastor to elevate the consecrated elements in recognition of the Lord’s sacramental presence.  After the consecration, he turns toward the people with the host and chalice in hand and speaks the Pax Domini - that is, the “Peace of the Lord” - to the people.  Luther recognized this little saying as one final, comforting form of absolution before the reception of the Sacrament, to which the people emphatically respond "Amen."

Agnus Dei
After receiving Christ’s peace, the people sing in humble adoration the Agnus Dei, the great hymn to the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world (based on St. John the Baptist’s acclamation in St. John 1:29).  In this canticle, we beseech Christ’s mercy and peace before approaching His Altar to receive the gifts He has prepared for our benefit.  The text takes us to Good Friday, the day on which the Lamb of God completed the task for which He was sent by suffering and dying - taking away the sins of the world.  The only time of the year that this canticle is omitted is during the great Paschal Vigil; the day the Church celebrates Christ’s victorious resurrection from the dead.

Distribution

After the Agnus Dei, the people of God take part in the Distribution of the Holy Sacrament.  This is the highest point of the Service of the Sacrament, where the people of God literally and physically receive forgiveness by receiving the Body that was broken and the Blood that was outpoured for their sins.  They also experience the Communion of Saints; for where Christ is, there His members are too.  In the Blessed Sacrament, all the saints of God - living and dead - are united as one.  In the Holy Supper, death has no power over us and we are given a brief foretaste of the Endless Day, wherein all who have been made one with Christ in Holy Baptism live and reign with Him forever.  In short, at the Altar we experience heaven on earth with all who are in Christ.

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