One may hear a collective groan when, during the Prayers of the People, the reader begins to list the names of those who are ill “in mind, body, or estate,” as the old Prayer Book succinctly put it. But beware the ire of those who placed Uncle Bert’s name on the list, if he is pruned at the end of the month.
Before the 1979 prayer book, the Prayers for the Whole State of Christ’s Church had remained largely the same since 1552. The 1549 book placed these intercessions as the first part of the consecration prayer, which gives us a clue about their purpose. To the Holy Table the people of God bring bread and wine, their offerings, and their prayers. Each symbolizes different aspects of “the trivial round, the common task,” as George Herbert put it. We ask the Angels of the Presence to bring these gifts of “ourselves, our souls and bodies” to the eternal altar where Christ unites them to himself, offers them to the Father, and then through the Holy Spirit returns them to the baptized people of God. Each of these offerings is now changed, charged through and through with Jesus’ life and consecrated to his mission.
These “gifts of God for the people of God” are returned to be used in God’s mission as we “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” It is easy to assume that the offering completes the task, that the Church, the world, the needy, those without faith, the sick, the suffering and the departed are sanctified by the ritual offering alone. We assume that our monetary contributions are sanctified and recognized merely by the ritual act, and that Jesus comes to us in recognition of our ritual act alone. Jesus becomes the drug of choice to heal us and make us feel good. Having offered, in a sense, we can feel pious. We’ve handed it all over to God, who has approved of us, and that is that.
Perhaps not quite. The more active of us may make a choice to tithe, to evangelize, to champion those in need, perhaps to visit the sick, and to engage in some form of spirituality. These choices may change according to circumstances, or in response to whatever cause becomes popular. In our media-driven society, the projects we take on may swiftly change. Nothing captures our attention for long nowadays. There’s no time to become a saint. It becomes easier to dump our concerns and our choices on the altar and piously leave them to God. And then we can get on with life.
Thus we return to Uncle Bert and his place on the prayer list. Charles Williams, friend of C.S. Lewis and fellow Inkling, developed a theology of connection. He posited that through our union together in Christ, we are connected to the world, the Church, and each other. He called this coinherence. By it he suggested that we are to share each other’s lives in Christ, and thus the sufferings of each other. He went further than most of us would dare to contemplate when he taught that we should pray for God to transfer to us the sufferings others are too weak to bear. Thus we would “bear each other’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Far from dumping everything on the altar for God to deal with, that which we offer to him at the Eucharist becomes our collective responsibility. Our gifts are returned and charged through and through with the love of Jesus, for the Church to embrace and take on. “We should be careful what we pray for,” as the old saying goes. To stretch out our hands to accept back our gifts in the form of Christ’s life and then to slam the door because it is up to God is part of what St. Paul means when he tells the Corinthian Christians the perils of receiving the sacrament unworthily. The great sin he attacks in I Corinthians 11 is that of divorcing the presence of Christ in bread and wine from the presence of Christ in the people of God. He teaches us that what we offer in the Eucharist we receive back as Jesus’ body, connected invincibly to, if you will, Uncle Bert.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry urges us to become the Jesus Movement. We devoutly accept the challenge and cut funds for evangelism and church growth. We pray for Uncle Bert, but don’t regularly visit him, call him, buy groceries for him, or do his laundry. Priests become rectors but are too busy administering the organization to sit and listen to a lonely person. We campaign for the homeless, but have never eaten a meal with a woman in a shelter. It’s easier to write a check and comment on Facebook than to love a suffering individual. The difference between a politician and a communicant is that a communicant takes on the lives of those in need.
Those who design the prayers of the people for a parish should ensure that the things we pray for together are the things the parish embraces collectively in its program, or at least it is made clear that, at some level, the themes we place on the altar are connected to the parish’s mission. To pray for the church in South Africa when we don’t support our diocese is a sin. To pray for the unity of Christ’s Church when we don’t even talk to the members of the nearby Lutheran parish is a sin. To offer our gifts when the parish spends all its money on itself is a sin. What we place on God’s Table is our mission statement.
Our church’s recovered doctrine of the Real Presence can easily become unbalanced if we neglect the eucharistic offering. All those solemn processions of the elements, the collection following the Prayers of the People, and the collective offering of our sins become bare ceremonial unless we recognize that God intends to return them to us for use in his service. Receiving Christ together commits the congregation to Jesus’ mission.
Thus it is in the trivial round, the common task, that we discover who we are and whom we serve. Placing names on the prayer list commits the parish to be involved in the lives of those for whom we pray. Offering our money commits us to the recognition that our money is God’s gift to us. Offering bread and wine, the staples of life, demonstrates the recognition that without the presence of Christ, our parish is dead and we are dead. Sighing with exasperation when the reader reaches the 31st name on the prayer list may not be a bad thing after all. Is your congregation ready to interact with those people in a manner that demonstrates the presence and love of Christ? If not, should Uncle Bert perhaps be your personal project?