The four basic gestures—taking, blessing, breaking, and giving—at the center of the eucharistic prayer provide a shape or outline for Christian life. As we consider the pattern of prayer at Table, these gestures provide a basis for Christian action at the Lord’s Table and at the other tables around which we gather. The shape of the prayer at table builds on the shape of the gospel as it provides a pattern for our lives.
In a world driven by consumption and greed, the notion of taking can easily be misconstrued as an excuse to grab what one wants. In a time when there is an ever-growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, taking is not a justification for personal gain at another’s expense. Instead, taking is rooted in the language of the prayer at table. In this context, taking is more akin to the act of receiving. For example, in the Gospel scenes of the feeding of the multitudes, the act of Jesus’s taking bread is rooted in an act of generosity—in one instance shared by a young boy who offers his lunch and, by the presence of God, provides enough for all to eat. Jesus accepts what is offered. Similarly, at the table we practice receiving in gratitude that which is handed to us as a sign of God’s faithfulness.
Blessing is the peculiar act of naming God’s presence in our actions. To invoke God’s name in our daily lives is to recognize the presence that is already there. In this act of naming, we look for the sacred characteristics that run through our lives. All times have the potential to reveal the divine presence as we name and discover God’s presence. As we take bread, we give thanks for it so that we are open to encountering God as we gather around the table. At other times in our lives, we look back like Jacob and declare, “Surely God was in this place.” The act of blessing recognizes God’s presence and favor on those who have gathered.
Breaking is the most problematic of these practices. In one sense, breaking is simply the act of dividing what we have to share with those around us. It is rooted in the vision of the early Christian community in Acts 2, which shared all things in common and distributed as any had need. In another sense, breaking the bread metaphorically acknowledges the brokenness of our lives and our need to seek God’s healing. This form of brokenness is rooted in the Gospel narrative of Christ’s brokenness on the cross. Christ’s act of faithful witness over against the power structures of the day leads to God’s work of resurrection.
Giving begins with the simple acts of sharing that are noted above, but in following the pattern of Christ, it moves to the point of self-giving. As the communion prayer offers the gospel proclamation, it claims us as participants in this narrative. As we respond fully to the invitation to the table, we find our lives reshaped in the pattern of Jesus Christ.
These central gestures of the Christian life are offered in memory and hope. In memory of Christ’s faithful witness of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving, we participate in this pattern. We offer our lives in hope that the One who was present in Christ’s ministry will be present in our service. We anticipate God’s multiplying the gifts that we bring in order for God’s reign of peace and justice to take hold. In the face of death, we cling to the promise and power of the resurrection.
This is the eucharistic life. It is receiving and accepting the mark of Christ’s life upon our own lives. It is trusting the Spirit to call us away from the selfish patterns of greed, consumption, self-absorption, and deceit. Celebrating communion regularly in a community that fully participates in the prayer at table allows the narrative of thanksgiving to take root and grow in our lives. Congregations that steadfastly hold and embody the prayer and action around the table discover reliable resources for growth and maturity in the Christian faith.
Similarly, regularly gathering around the table to participate in communion provides a template for Christian virtues and practices: living with thankful hearts, forgiving our neighbors, depending on God’s provision, welcoming strangers, practicing hospitality, sharing our belongings, recognizing Christ’s presence, caring for all of God’s creation, and giving up power.
In the end, this vision of congregational life that is grounded in worship renewal draws on the admonition to the church in Colossae. There the author encourages the community to make room for the Spirit to bring gifts for the upbuilding of the community: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12). Wrapped up, clothed, in these virtues, Christians grow into the image of Jesus Christ. Acts of charity and love hold us together in harmony and serve as a sign of peace to those around us. When we gather around the table, we practice these virtues. When we break bread with those with whom we disagree, then our differences are set aside in light of this common table practice that we share. When the cup is passed for all to share, our tendency to think primarily of our own needs is challenged. In this way, eating and drinking together at the table create a community grounded in the language of thanksgiving. When thanksgiving becomes the primary focus of our lives, then the prayer in Colossians becomes our own: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God” (Col. 3:17).
Adapted from Leading from the Table , copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute.
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Leading from the Table by Paul Galbreath
Developing leadership skills that connect the congregation’s eucharistic practice to the life and work of the church is essential to moving toward unity within congregations, denominations, and throughout the church. This book is a series of reflections about the way the prayer at the communion table provides a pattern for our lives. The goal is to shift our understanding of table prayer from a formula led by the pastor to a road map that highlights intersections between the practices at the table and the daily practices in the life of the community.
A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice by Jane E. Vennard
Pastors and others who want to develop their skills as teachers of prayer and spiritual practices will find in this book not only wisdom for them
selves but easily accessible lesson plans, so that they can share Vennard’s insights with others while infusing the activities with their own spirit and creative ideas. Through this book, readers’ hearts are made ready to explore the wonder of strengthening their relationship with God through prayer.
The Work of the People: What We Do in Worship and Why by Marlea Gilbert, Christopher Grundy, Eric T. Myers, and Stephanie Perdew
The authors of The Work of the People simply and clearly explain the structure of worship, the actions and words we use in liturgy, the environment in which it all happens–in other words, what we are doing and why. This book will guide congregations in worshiping in a way that encourages participants’ spiritual growth, welcomes new participants into faith, and sends people out as the body of Christ to transform the world.