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"The Lord Be with You"

The Language of Gesture in the Eucharist

When my now-grown sons were young, we took a lot of car trips. On one particularly long journey, after we’d exhausted the usual repertoire of the license plate hunt, Riddly Riddly Ree, and Twenty Questions, the boys came up with a game of their own. They made two signs on pieces of drawing paper. One sign said “Hello!” That one went in the front passenger window. The second said “How is your day going?” The boys held that one up in the back passenger window. It then became my job to pass as many cars as possible.

We were surprised, then delighted, by how many people responded to the signs. The driver of nearly every car we passed gave us an honest answer, using the only method of communication available: his or her hands. We got some “thumbs up” signals, some fingers circled in an “OK” sign, a few “thumbs down,” and quite a number of hands wavering back and forth in a “so-so” pattern.

This game was great entertainment—and a reminder of how much a wordless gesture can communicate. This is true in cars, but it’s also true in churches. Even simple gestures can express something of the joyful and mysterious gospel we proclaim.

The best worship leaders understand that effective presiding involves both intellectual engagement and spiritual vitality. Many of us, however, have a harder time bringing our bodies to the task of leading worship. Except for the dancers—and perhaps the athletes—among us, many Reformed worship leaders act as if their capable minds and faithful spirits are utterly detached from the torsos and arms and legs that reside below their necks. Worshiping, however, is a fully embodied act, and presiders necessarily lead worship as embodied people. We bring our minds, spirits, and bodies to the work of leading worship.

It is, of course, particularly appropriate to consider the embodied nature of worship when presiding at the Lord’s Supper, where we are immersed in layers of language about the body. We hear it in the account of Jesus taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to his disciples, and in Jesus’ assertion that the bread he gives is his own body. When we preside at the table, then, it is natural for us to use not just our voices but our own bodies, especially our hands—not only in the taking, the blessing, the breaking, and the giving, but also in the praying of the Eucharistic prayer.

Gestures at the table are intentional yet organic to the action; in other words, they are not so much prescribed as they are expressive of what is happening. For example, when the presider says to the people, “The Lord be with you,” it is natural to extend the arms toward the people, hands open and outstretched, palms upward. In turn, the people might extend a hand toward the presider as they reply, “and also with you,” in a sharing of that affirmation that Christ is indeed in our midst.

Likewise, the presider who embodies the words “lift up your hearts” might quite naturally lift the hands upward (and so might some brave folks in the congregation!). When speaking, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” it seems natural to bring the hands downward and in front of the body, clasped or pressed together in a gesture of thankful prayer. This series of movements need not be done with military precision but rather as simple, flowing, and connected expressions of the spoken words.

In the early days of my ministry, I was grateful to have a book to clutch as I stood trembling at the Lord’s table. In more recent years, however, fear has given way to joy as I have lived into the gorgeous logic of classic, Trinitarian, Eucharistic prayer.

What a remarkable, awesome, joyful story we get to tell when we remember before God all the amazing things God has done for the people—the creation of a wondrous world, the making of a covenant with us, deliverance from bondage to freedom, living in our flesh as Jesus Christ to feed and teach and heal, and sharing in our dying that we might share in his rising. It is as if we are recalling our favorite stories with a beloved spouse or parent or child: Remember when you did this. . . . Remember when you said that. . . . Remember when. . . .

Each story reminds us of God’s faithfulness in the past, God’s promises for the future, and why we are so filled with love and gratitude in the present. In lifting this prayer to God, we embody thanksgiving as we extend our arms outward and upward, palms open to heaven. This posture inherited from early Christians (sometimes called the orans position), embraces the congregation, presents the gifts of grace on the table, and opens us to communion with Christ.

The next part of the Eucharistic prayer, the epiclesis, is the part of the prayer where we ask for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine and on the people. Presiders might continue in the orans position for this, or they might touch the bread and the cup. Or they might simply allow their hands to move first over the elements, and then over the people—not because some magic is passing through their fingers, but as a way of enacting what the words say and participating with the Spirit’s action. Again, these gestures need not be forced or precise, but they can flow organically as an outgrowth of the words being spoken. The presider can then move gracefully back into the orans position for the concluding Trinitarian doxology.

One might ask why the presider should gesture at all if everyone is praying with heads bowed and eyes closed. In fact, Eucharistic prayer is a time when people may very well pray with eyes wide open. Although we are indeed praying with words, at the heart of it all we are participating in a ritual act. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is something we do; it is not primarily something we say.

As John Calvin explained, Christ’s union with us is a mystery so incomprehensible that in this act God communicates with us “in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity” (Institutes, IV.xvii.1). It is, then, utterly appropriate that presider and people alike pray this prayer while looking at each other and the elements. And, if the presider (and the people, too) adopts a position of prayer with arms outstretched and hands lifted toward heaven, the dual nature of the Great Thanksgiving as both proclamation and prayer is well expressed.

Once the words are all spoken, it is time to break the bread, pour the wine, and give these good gifts to God’s people. It is nothing less than a mystery that we enact. For in this simple meal is a vast universe of meaning, far more profound than we will ever grasp on this side of heaven. We can never explain it; all we can do, really, is act it out.

And so we take the bread with humility and confidence, and we tear it. It should take some effort, this tearing of bread, for it is a body being broken. No neatly sliced loaf can convey it so well. And when the bread is broken, it is held up for all to see before it is set down again. Then the wine is poured, the liquid arc visible to all, so that the people might see the blood that is shed for them. It can take a little time. It can happen in silence. These are holy things for holy people. Finally, the gifts of bread and wine are lifted toward the people, as Christ himself offers them the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

There is no one prescribed way of doing all of this. As Calvin put it nearly five centuries ago, “as for the outward ceremony of the action . . . these things are indifferent, and left at the church’s discretion” (IV.xvii.43). What is important, however, is that we give thanks, that the bread is broken and the wine is poured, and that the people eat and drink—to remember all that God has done in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, to anticipate the joy we shall all share at that great heavenly banquet, and to claim the promises of God in the here and now.

To pray the prayer with our bodies as well as our words is to live out our incarnational faith in worship. The presider’s grateful posture and thoughtful gestures help to demonstrate that our sharing in the Lord’s Supper is not just an academic exercise—or even just a spiritual one—but that we bring our bodies to this table to be fed with Christ’s own body, so that, nourished and strengthened, we might feed a hungry world.