Understanding the Great Thanksgiving
The Lord be with you….
And the people respond, “…and also with you.”
You begins the conversation that marks the beginning of the communion ritual for many mainline traditions. These words go back centuries. Hippolytus, the 3rd Century commentator on the worship practices of the church mentions them as a part of the Easter ritual for bringing new converts into the church. This prayer, now known as The Great Thanksgiving in my tradition, connects us to the practices of the church from long ago.
What most folks don’t realize is that this prayer (and it is a prayer) has three distinctive parts. There are technical names for each section, but I’m too lazy to remember them or look them up. The thing to remember is that the first section focuses on praising God for what God has done; the second section remembers the acts of Jesus Christ, including the institution of the sacrament; and the third section invokes the presence of the Holy Spirit to come upon the element and infuse them with God’s presence so that those who partake of this mysterious meal will experience something of the presence of God.
One way that I have helped my congregation to understand this is through doing this prayer corporately, most often at our Christmas Eve service where I have the children help me. What I do is to explain the three parts of the prayer and then begin by having the kids (and the adults as well) shout out things that they are thankful for, praises that they want to offer to God. Then, as we move into the second part, I have the folks tell me everything they remember about Jesus, concluding with the words of institution. Finally, I lead the congregation in a prayer over the elements asking for God’s spirit to be with us.
This is a non-liturgical liturgy which has the function of teaching the congregation what we are doing when we say the long prayer on Sunday mornings. By using the kids, it allows me to offer basic teaching that connects with the adults but doesn’t seem condescending. It’s been pretty helpful in the places that I have served.