On the Holy Communion 4
Friends, were going to continue our series looking at the Holy Communion and this week I want to spend some time looking at whats known as the Prayer of Humble Access. Its a great prayer, full of wonderful themes and ideas and some of whats said is actually quite challenging. What I want to do, then, is slow down and work our way through it because, as it was originally placed, it provides the entrance into the last cycle of the Communion service, the Communion itself.
Before we look at the text in detail lets remind ourselves of what weve already seen so as to provide some context.
First, we noted that the Communion service is in 3 cycles, with each cycle having 3 basic elements acknowledgment of sin, pronouncement of grace in the gospel and then the response of faith by us, the believer.
Sin, grace, faith. Not just the rhythm of the Communion service but the reality of the Christian life we see that we are sinners under the judgement of God, we hear the words of grace spoken to us in the gospel of Jesus and we respond in faith, in trust, to those words.
As we enter the final cycle I also want us to keep in mind the issues that we began to raise in the last few weeks as I and then the Rector worked through our liturgy readings in John 6 the question of what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus. If youll remember we saw that what Jesus was saying was simply that we come to him in faith, that we must trust him.
However, in order to provide some historical context we also began to investigate the question of how those words have been understood in other places and so we looked briefly at the issue of transubstantiation, the theory that somehow the elements at communion, the bread and wine, actually become the body and blood of Jesus and so it is Jesus himself that is sacrificed at each Communion. We saw that such a view certainly cant be sustained from John 6 but its worth remembering that at the time the Anglican Reformers were putting together the Book of Common Prayer that was the prevailing view and it was certainly what Rome taught and still teaches today.
What well find, then, is that the nearer in the service we get to the communion itself, the more deliberate the wording of the liturgy is to prevent any misunderstanding over this issue in particular Cranmer was very deliberate about both the words he used andthe position that he places them in the liturgy so that you and I are left in no doubts that a Roman understanding cannot be accepted. So lets see how he does that. And, of course, were not only interested in what he is avoiding but what he is positively endorsing as well.
The prayer of Humble Access was found in the Roman liturgy after the prayer of consecration and before the distribution of the bread and wine. It was obvious to Cranmer and his colleagues that this was ripe for misunderstanding and so they moved it to a position before the prayer of consecration but after the prayer of thanksgiving. In our prayer books that would, then mean it would appear just after the Sanctus, that is the Holy Holy Holy Lord, God of power might. Thats where it appears in our blue prayerbooks but not in the yellow where it comes before the confession.
In a sense, both are helpful positions, the yellow book in particular for it means that our focus while saying the prayer is on the confession, not the communion elements. In terms of the cycles of the communion servicein the 1662 service and in our blue books, it served to open up the 3rdcycle so you have the 2nd cycle closing with the Sanctus. Lets look at that in the blue books now. The acknowledgement of sin comes in the confession on page 7, then we have grace proclaimed to us in the absolution and we respond in faith with the prayer of thanksgiving which begins with those great statements lift up your hearts we lift them to the Lord and Let us give thanks to the Lord our God it is meet and right so to do. What were basically doing is thanking God that he forgives us even when we dont deserve it. You then get more prayers of thanks culminating in the Sanctus where we join with the angels themselves praising God.
And then the 3rdcycle, the Communion Cycle, opens up with the prayer of humble access. So, once more, were back thinking about our sin.
So, the prayer of Humble Access. Let me read it to you.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, 0 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, andour souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
What I love so much about this prayer is the strength of the language. Its drawn from a passage in the bible which well look at in a moment, but even if you didnt know where it was drawn from you can still understand the force. The scene is a table with a feast set out and although we are invited to it we find it hard to take our seats because we understand that we really shouldnt be sitting there.
At Gods table, surely, only righteous people can sit down! That much is clear. God is a Holy God weve just said that much in the Sanctus. Holy Holy Holy Lord. When Isaiah says those very same words in Isaiah 6 as he gazes upon the Lord on his throne his very next words are “woe is me!” or, if you like, “I’m stuffed!!” God is Holy, I am not, he says, and His holiness should just burn me up to a crisp.
So, we could never come to Gods table trusting in our own righteousness, because we dont have any! Theres nothing righteous about us. We need another basis by which to approach God. And that basis is what the prayer calls his manifold and great mercies.
Now, I know that by now you understand that this is the gospel. We have nothing and we can do nothing, God is the One that does everything and He does it out of mercy.
And, just so we get the point, the prayer goes on.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.
Now, this language is drawn straight from the Bible from the gospel of Matthew so let me just read it to you because the allusion here is so strong that we must understand it rightly.
Matthew 15:22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 23But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 26“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Jesus has just been chastising the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and has then moved to the area of Tyre and Sidon outside the land of Israel. A Canaanite woman approaches him. She is, therefore, a gentile – not a Jew. But she comes to him anyway with a big problem but Jesus, at first, blanks her. The disciples want rid of her because shes annoying and Jesus, at first sight, agrees and says I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus came for the Jews, apparently.
But the woman is persistent and so Jesus answers her as any Jew would have it is not right to take the childrens bread and throw it to the dogs. Now, it was common for Jews to speak of Gentiles, of non-Jews, as dogs. Thats what they honestly thought. They were the chosen people, the gentiles werent they were dogs.
But the woman keeps going with words that we recognise: Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.
Shes basically saying look, I might be a dog but dogs get to join in the meal, even if its just the scraps. Just throw me a scrap and that will be good enough. Ill be part of the meal even though you and I both know that Im still a dog. And Jesus responds favourably to this attitude:
28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
She has great faith her trust is Jesus is great. And thatis the trust that we are proclaiming when we pray that we come to the table trusting in Gods manifold and great mercies.
As we say that prayer we join in with the Canaanite woman. Were saying that were dogs! Were Gentile sinners. We have absolutely no right whatsoever to come to Gods table and receive His mercy in Jesus Christ. That’s who we are. Mangy dogs! How could we have any faith in ourselves then?
But, God is the same Lord, whose property, whose nature is always to have mercy. How wonderful it is that God is merciful!
If God were fair then we would be in great trouble for we are the lowest of the low. But if God is merciful we can have great confidence, great faith like that Canaanite woman even though she counted as nothing.
And, on the basis of this confidence, not our own righteousness but Gods mercy, we make the request of the second half of the prayer.
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood,
Now, weve seen over the past few weeks that this is not a reference to the Communion but to the cross itself, where Jesus gave up flesh and blood for us. To eat his flesh and to drink his blood is to trust in what He did on the cross and that is how our sinful bodies are made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood.
So its actually ingenious. It uses the language of the Table, since we are going to the Table, but everything else doesnt point forward in the service to that table but back instead to the Cross.
So we end up where weve ended up each week, going to the cross. And if that seems to be repetitive then youre right. You really have understood what Cranmer is doing in the Communion service for he wants everything to point us to the cross!!!
Next time well take a look at the Communion itself, looking at the prayer of thanksgiving and the prayer of consecration. But, for now, lets own this prayer for ourselves. It certainly would not be wrong for us to pray it together now. Lets pray.
WEdo not presume to come to this thy Table, 0 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.