Epiclesis: Body, Blood, Word, Spirit

The epiclesis is the part of the communion prayer in which the celebrant, calling on the Holy Spirit, asks God to make Christ’s body and blood real and present in the bread and wine. This, for example, is the epiclesis from a current United Methodist communion liturgy:

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

Within the framework of the current ecumenical consensus, the epiclesis occurs near the end of the Eucharistic prayer, but it has not always been so.

Sixteenth century reformer Huldrych Zwingli denied that the bread and wine were Christ’s body and blood at all. The supper was a memorial. Although this is still a popular view, in this post I am more interested in those Protestants who remained firmly in the “real presence” camp. While they denied the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, they affirmed that communicants actually receive Christ’s body and blood during the holy meal. Their communion liturgies, however, did not require the Holy Spirit to effect a miracle to make this occur. They arrived at Christ’s “real presence” in his body and blood by another route.

I don’t know Calvinist worship history enough to comment on the Reformed tradition in Protestantism, but both the Lutheran and Anglican streams offered versions of the Eucharist without an epiclesis, and both strongly affirmed that communicants truly receive the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Of the Eucharist, Luther said, “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.” (Small Catechism) Luther not only removed the epiclesis from the communion prayer, he removed the prayer itself. In his German Mass, Luther directs the pastor simply to give this exhortation to those approaching the table.

I exhort you in Christ that with right faith ye take heed to the Testament of Christ: and specially that ye hold fast in your hearts the Word whereby Christ gives us His body and blood for remission of sins; that ye bethink you of, and thank Him for, the infinite love which He has shown us in that through His blood He has redeemed us from God’s wrath, from sin, death, and hell: and then take to yourselves outwardly the bread and wine, which is His body and blood, for an assurance and pledge thereof. In such wise will we, in His name and as He commanded in His own Word, handle and use His Testament.

Then follow the bare words of institution and the distribution of the elements, accompanied by the singing of hymns.

Luther was afraid that the congregation might mistakenly believe the priest was somehow turning the bread into Christ’s body by the power of his prayer, a kind of superstitious magic in Luther’s view. Christ is present because of the power inherent in word of God, not because of the power delegated to the priest. Christ gives us his body and blood because he promised to do so, not because we are pious enough or virtuous enough to ask him. Christ comes at his own initiative and on his own terms. Luther’s view of communion was consistent with his understanding of the Gospel: the sacrament of the table is not a human work by which people earn God’s favor or convince God to do their bidding, but simply a matter of pure grace.

I first became engaged with Lutheran worship during the era of the Lutheran Book of Worship (the Green Book), first published in the 1978, and replaced for the ELCA by the Red Book in 2006. Although Lutherans were deeply involved in the 20th century liturgical renewal, the Green Book still displayed a historical distaste for anything that smacked of sacerdotalism. Two forms of the Eucharistic consecration are present in the Green Book, one with a Eucharistic prayer and one with only the bare words of institution. Even today, when I hear the celebrant invoke the Holy Spirit in a Lutheran communion prayer, the words are carefully chosen to respect the Lutheran emphasis in this regard. The celebrant is not turning the wine into Christ’s blood, either by his own power or by asking God to do so.


Now let me turn my attention to a tradition closer to home.

The Church of England and its worldwide Anglican cousins see themselves as a kind of middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was more influenced by the followers of John Calvin than by the teachings of Martin Luther. Reformed theology spread from Calvin’s Geneva to take root in parts of western Germany, the Netherlands and the British isles, among other places. The movement greatly influenced the Anglican way of worship. Anglicans created a communion liturgy that in some ways resembled the Catholic Mass, but still strongly emphasized reformation themes. Beginning with the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, the prayer of consecration at communion emphasized Christ’s finished work on the cross, the memorial aspects of celebration and the significance of Christ’s institution. Overall, the liturgy was filled with pages and pages of instruction and exhortation. Still, during the prayer of consecration, the celebrant asked God to:

Bless and sanctify these thy gifts, and creatures of bread and wine, that they may be unto us the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved son Jesus Christ. (modern spelling)

Although these words come in the beginning of the prayer and do not specifically invoke the Holy Spirit, they are still a kind of epiclesis. Three years later, in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, the language changed. In their place, the new prayer read:

Grant that we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed body and blood: (modern spelling)

Gone are the words asking God to bless and sanctify the bread and wine, so that it might be the body and blood of Jesus.  In their place, the prayer asks for those who receive the elements according to Christ’s institution and in remembrance of his death to partake of his body and blood.

Article 28 of the 1571 Articles of Religion demonstrate why the Book of Common Prayer stopped asking for God’s blessing on the elements.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of bread and wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ, but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions. The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.

The church harshly rejected anything that could conceivably lead one to see transubstantiation at work in communion. Even mild and ambiguous words like “bless and sanctify” might be misconstrued. Christ’s body and blood are to be received and eaten only by faith. In this view, it is in receiving the elements according to Christ’s institution and purpose that they become Christ’s most blessed body and blood, not in the actions of the celebrant at the table. It is in faith-filled eating and drinking of the sacrament that Christ gives himself to us, not in the act of priestly consecration.

For Christians in the Wesleyan or Methodist tradition, the most important Book of Common Prayer was the one published in 1662. That was John Wesley’s prayer book, and the book on which he modeled his 1784 Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer continued the 1552 model, without the “bless and sanctify” wording of 1549. Wesley copied the words for his prayer of consecration directly from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Early Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists, then, all offered Eucharistic liturgies which affirmed that communicants consumed Christ’s true body and blood, but did so without the language of epiclesis.

Somewhere along the line, both Anglicans and Methodists restored a modified version of the “bless and sanctify” language of 1549 blended with the “according to Christ’s institution” language of 1552. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer in the United States offers this prayer of consecration:

Bless and sanctify, with thy Word and Holy Spirit, these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine; that we, receiving them according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.

And while the church’s liturgy asked to God to “bless and sanctify, with thy Word and Holy Spirit” the elements of bread and wine, it retained the 1552/1662 language emphasizing faithful reception as the means by which communicants partake of Christ’s body and blood.

The language in the 1964 Methodist Book of Worship for Church and Home was similar.

Bless and sanctify with thy Word and Holy Spirit these thy gifts of bread and wine, that we, receiving them according to thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his passion, death, and resurrection, may be partakers of the divine nature through him: 

For some reason, Methodists in 1964 were reluctant to affirm that communicants partake of Christ’s body and blood. (Really bad decision, guys!) Otherwise, the Methodists added Christ’s resurrection to the memorial, and eliminated the word “creatures” following “gifts.”

While it is possible for a communion liturgy to affirm the presence of Christ’s true body and blood in Holy Communion without an explicit invocation of the Holy Spirit, I think the example set by the 1928 BCP is best. While We ask God to bless and sanctify the elements by his word and the Holy Spirit.

Without the word, the invocation of the Holy Spirit would be superstitious nonsense or (worse) idolatrous presumption. Without the Holy Spirit, the spoken word would fall on spiritually dead ears. Without the Holy Spirit, the written word’s promises would be empty of power. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, then, there will be no faith by which Christ’s living body and blood might be received. While all of this is theoretically true, it is also true that the word is never alone. The Holy Spirit always attends and empowers God’s word. No special priestly act is required. Still, the church should recognize and honor the Holy Spirit’s place in the sacred mystery of Holy Communion.

Christ gives himself to us in Holy Communion because he promised to do so. The bread is his living, spiritual body because he said that it is. The Holy Spirit makes it so, in the eating of it, for those who trust Christ’s promise. The Holy Spirit enables and empowers faith in Christ wherever faith is found, even at the communion table. All these affirmations, I believe, are true.

Our communion liturgy, however structured, should recognize the foundation of what we are doing is Christ’s command, recalling how he gave himself for us. It should call communicants to faith in Christ, who gives himself to us in bread and wine offered to him. And it should recognize both the authority of Christ’s word and the power of the Holy Spirit working together to make Christ’s body and blood present to those who eat and drink in faith.

This is one model of how I might incorporate some of our theological heritage in a revised epiclesis.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine, that we who receive them according to our Lord’s institution, in remembrance of his passion, death and resurrection, might partake by faith of his body and blood, abide in him continually, obtain forgiveness for all our sins and be empowered to live godly lives. By your Spirit, keep us one with Christ, one with the whole church of God, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

Compare it with the current and previous Methodist versions. You can see how I think an entire service in the Anglo-Methodist or “Reformational Catholic” tradition might fit together in A Service of Word and Table.