The Elements on the Table – Displaying or Offering?

The pastor may hold hands, palms down, over the bread, or touch the bread, or lift the bread. UMC Rubric for Holy Communion at the Words of Institution

It has been my custom to take the bread and the cup into my hands at the point in the Eucharistic prayer when I recall the words of institution. This is my body, given for you. This is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Lifting the elements from the table, I thought, would make them more visible to the people. And, as the rubric directs, I face the congregation as I pray. I am increasingly convinced, however, that I am facing the wrong way. I think I should be leading the Eucharistic prayer more like most churches do the part of the service called “the offering.”

I’ve been watching as I visit from church to church how my fellow United Methodist pastors lead the congregation when the morning offering of cash and checks is received. In many American churches, the offering is the most “high church” element of the worship service.

After the gifts are collected, the congregation stands to sing a liturgical response, giving thanks to God, while the ushers bring the offering plates to the front of the sanctuary. The ushers hand the offering plates to the presiding clergy, who then turn away from the congregation. The pastor and the whole assembly face the cross hanging at the front of the sanctuary. The pastor lifts the plates in the air to offer their contents to God and then prays, dedicating the money to accomplishing God’s purposes. In my experience, this practice is nearly universal in United Methodist churches.

In liturgical practice, this is known as praying “ad orientem” – or toward the liturgical east – as opposed to praying “versus populum” – or facing the people.

I’ve been watching Protestants – mainline and evangelical – receive the offering like this for decades. In the Army, I’ve seen clergy from other denominations – without a high-church bone in their body – still turn their backs to the congregation to “face God” and lift the morning’s monetary collection in the air as a sacrificial gesture. The instinct is a good one, just misplaced in the liturgy. It’s almost as if the church’s Eucharistic practices had shifted to the financial collection.

I did not grow up in a tradition that described the Lord’s supper as an offering, a sacrifice or – to use a word nobody uses in daily life – an oblation. It now seems strange to me that so many Christians who speak of money in a collection plate as an “offering” cannot bring themselves to use the same word of bread and wine offered to God in the celebration of the Eucharist.

So, back to my recent blinding flash of the obvious. When I hold the bread and wine at the communion table, maybe I should not just think, “Look here, people, Christ is present as he promised in this memorial of our redemption.” Maybe I should also think of myself more like the pastors who offer the people’s money to God. “Here, Lord, is this bread and wine. With them, we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a living sacrifice. Use our lives for your purposes in the world, and use this bread and wine for your purpose at this table. As our savior promised, feed us with body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

If I am lifting the bread and wine as an offering to God, maybe I’ll lift it a little higher next time.