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The Prayer of Humble Access: The Case of a Missing Phrase

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, [that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and] that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

In this second part of my reflections on the Prayer of Humble Access, I want to consider the phrase that was left out of the current American prayer book, namely, the following portion of the conclusion: that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood. Let’s call it the “petition for cleansing.” It makes a distinction between the effects of the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ, connecting the first with the cleansing of the body and the second with the cleansing of the soul.

The liturgical scholar Marion Hatchett dismissed this distinction as “a medieval concept,” but its roots extend down through early Christian teaching, down into the deep soil of Scripture. The fourth-century Latin writer known as the Ambrosiaster, in a passage that influenced medieval theologians, expressed the teaching thus:

… the mystical cup is for the protection of our bodies and souls, because the blood of the Lord has redeemed our blood, that is to say, it has saved the whole human being. The flesh of the Savior is given for the health of our body, but his blood was shed for our soul, as Moses symbolized. For Moses had said: Flesh is offered for the body, but blood is for the soul …” (comment on 1 Corinthians 11:26)

The allusion here appears to be the overall shape of the sacrificial system — in which generally the flesh of sacrificial animals is offered to deal with bodily impurities and their blood is offered to make atonement for sin — rather than to a specific text of Scripture. Yet in the background there is a text of Holy Scripture that specifically relates blood to the soul: “The life [Latin Vulgate: anima, “air, breath, life, soul”] of every creature is its blood” (Lev. 17:14).

With the weight of biblical authority explicitly relating blood to the soul, it was only natural for the Latin tradition to apply this to thinking about the effect of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. The obvious correspondence of our bodies to the body of Christ was complemented by relating his blood to our souls. And while it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees, notice how the overall thrust of the argument is to show the reasonableness of claiming that the sacrament is for “the protection of our bodies and souls,” for the salvation of “the whole human being.”

What I love about the petition for cleansing is the way in which, taken as a whole, it acknowledges the redemption of my whole self: the Lord Jesus gave himself to redeem not only my soul, but also my body. To quote William Durand of Mende (c. 1230–96), the great liturgical commentator: “Christ assumed the totality of human nature — namely, a body and soul — so that he could redeem it in its entirety” (Rationale 4.42.1, trans. Thibodeau).

The prayer acknowledges that our whole nature must be cleansed and healed if we are, for evermore, to dwell in Christ, and he in us. It asks that eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood will not leave us as we are. It desires the body and blood of Christ to be the means of our healing, the source of new life. It emphasizes, as it were, the therapeutic nature of the Sacrament, that it is, as Ignatius of Antioch put it, “the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Eph. 20:2). Holy Communion is a foretaste of the resurrection of the dead. As our Lord himself promises, “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever” (John 6:51), and again, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54).

Notice, too, how the petition for cleansing recalls the Collect for Purity, in which we pray: “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name.” There, at the beginning of the liturgy, we asked for cleansing; here, just as we approach its consummation in Communion, we ask again to be made clean, to be cleansed and sanctified through and through (cf. 1 Thess. 5:23). We pray that our whole selves — our souls and bodies — might be made fit for union with the Lord of all.

The mercy of the Lord extends beyond mere acceptance; it involves our transformation into the likeness of the Lord Jesus. Our merciful Lord, “in his manifold and great mercies,” makes us fit to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), to be made like God. This is the great theme of patristic theology, which the formula of St. Athanasius expresses so cogently: “For [the Word of God] was incarnate that we might be made god” (On the Incarnation, 54, trans. Behr). And it seems to me that this theme echoes in our prayer: 

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

The Prayer of Humble Access: The Case of a Missing Phrase

3 COMMENTS

  1. This all hinges on the *need* to be made clean. This thought is anathema to modern people. The resurrection is more acceptable! There is nothing more counter-cultural in Christianity that this.

  2. I believe the point of its omission was the idea that our bodies are somehow the problem and are inherently sinful…as opposed to the whole person. The church has a long history of denying the goodness of our bodies and of all creation.

  3. Excellent essay! I always thought the “petition for cleansing” was like the Hebrew poetry of the psalms: say the same thing in two different ways—but I like the connection of body/Bread and soul/Blood very much! Thank you!

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