Worship on the eve of the Reformation, Part 2: the Eucharist

For those of you just tuning in, we’re trying to retrace the average layperson’s experience of the Mass as it would have been on the eve of the Reformation. If you want to hear some of my fabulous qualifying about some of the issues with doing that, please read this post. If you want to read about the first half of the mass, start here!

When we last left Georg and Elsa, they had quite possibly just heard the Bidding of the Bedes (Prayers of the People) and heard the parish announcements. And now, it is time for the first part of the Eucharistic action:


First up: the offertory!

In the Lutheran liturgies I’m used to, this part looks like this:

  • The ushers pass the plate around while the choir sings an anthem.
  • Once the anthem is over, everyone stands and we sing the offertory. The plates are brought forward, and sometimes, the bread and wine are too. (Sometimes they’re sitting up on a credence table and get moved to the altar. Or, in layman’s terms, they get moved from the little table to the big table.)

This bringing forward of the bread and wine hearkens back to the practice of the early church, (and by early, I mean roughly the first thousand years) when the members of a parish really would bring bread and wine offerings, as well as money. The clergy would sort through the food, reserving the best for the celebration of the Meal and keeping the rest to distribute among the needy.

This practice had disappeared by Georg and Elsa’s time for at least two reasons that I can find:

First, over time there came to be more and more concern from the clergy about the casual way in which laypeople would positively slurp down the blood of Christ. Eventually, the Church decreed that if you receive in one kind (i.e.: if you only eat the bread), you’ve received the substance of Christ, and you’re good. Shortly thereafter, clergy began withholding the cup from the laity. So, you really weren’t going to need to worry about bringing up much wine.

Second, it became popular sometime in the middle of the middle ages to actually start using unleavened bread, just like Jesus would have et. There sprang up a sort of cottage industry in monasteries for making unleavened communion wafers stamped with devotional images, meaning that the bread no longer came from the people either.

Communion wafers. A.K.A.: Jeez-its. Wikimedia Commons

So, as Georg and Elsa listen to the clergy choir launch into the offertory, there may have may not a collection of money. Georg and Elsa, however, are saving up to purchase a votive mass to be said on behalf of Georg’s dead uncle, and opt out. If bread and wine were brought up from the midst of the congregation, it wasn’t because Georg or Elsa had any meaningful role in putting them there.

One way or another, a chalice with some wine in it and the bread stamps would have made their way to the altar. Remember, the altar is likely set against the east wall of the church, so as the priest says an offertory prayer over them (different for each Sunday of the year, much like the collect), he turns his back to the congregation.

What happens after the offertory prayer is called the Canon of the Mass (canon missae). This canon had a few moving parts that depending on the liturgical year and regional variations, but I’m going to include below an example from 7th century Rome, as recorded in Maxwell and Johnson’s Eucharistic Liturgies. The form, if not the exact content, would have remained pretty much the same up through Georg and Elsa’s time.

The priest begins by singing the Sursum Corda (Lift up your hearts):

P: The Lord be with you.
C: And also with you.
P: Lift up your hearts….

You guys know this one. Incidentally, it’s unclear whether by this point, the congregation really did respond, or whether the choir took care of it. (My money’s on the choir.) And yes, this would have been in Latin.

The priest continues with the Preface, which is basically a moment to tell God that God is really awesome, as evidenced by creation and everything continually adoring God. It leads into…

The Sanctus (Holy). You know this one, too. “Holy, holy, holy are you, God of power and might….” It’s a paraphrase of Isaiah’s vision of God’s heavenly court, and again, would be sung by whichever C was allowed to sing it by this point.

The next bit is the Te igitur. This is where people thought the canon of the mass officially started, because some medieval monk got the bright idea of taking the “t” in “Te” and linking it to the image of the crucifix while he was illuminating a liturgical manuscript. Other monks caught on, and this illumination got fancier and fancier until it took up the entire page, and was considered, by virtue of its size and fanciness, to mark the beginning of the canon.

A 1962 Roman Missale. Wikimedia Commons.


The Te igitur kicks off a series of petitions that each have their own names (which just happen to be their first couple words in Latin):

  • Te Igitur: that God accept and bless the gifts of bread and wine and bless the Church….
  • Memento, Domine: … that God will remember those who offer God this sacrifice for the redemption of their souls….
  • Communicantes: … that the prayers of the saints on behalf of the people assembled will be heard….
  • Hanc Igitur: … that God will accept this offering, order the days of those assembled, and save them from damnation….
  • Quam oblationem: … that God will make the offering acceptable, so that it will become Christ’s body and blood….
  • Qui pridie: …The Words of Institution, (“who, in the night before he was handed over, took bread, gave thanks, and gave it to all, etc…”) spoken as part of the ongoing prayer.

Ok, the canon isn’t done yet, but THIS IS THE BIG MOMENT. During the middle ages, church theologians conclude that this moment, when the Words of Institution (a.k.a. the Verba) were spoken that the bread and the wine became the body and blood of Christ. At the words, “took bread,” the priest would indeed take bread, and raise it up for everyone to see. Bells would ring. Georg and Elsa would crane to see. Because:

This was the big fat reason to come to mass every Sunday: to see Jesus come among them and be present in the assembly, looking like bread and wine, but definitely and indisputably actually Christ. Georg and Elsa, if they understood nothing else in the course of this Latin liturgy that they didn’t get to sing in, would have gotten that.

Orden de los Trinitatios, Juan Carreno de Miranda (1666). Wikimedia Commons. It is totally worthwhile to click so you can go look at the full-size image.

The cup seems to have been not as big a deal, partly (says Senn in Christian Liturgy) because you can’t see the wine in the cup, and partly because of fear of spillage.

The canon continues, one long uninterrupted prayer:

  • Unde et memores: … that God will accept from the priest on behalf of the people “a pure victim,” [the bread and wine]…
  • Supra quae: … that God will accept this sacrifice as God accepted those of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek….
  • Supplices te: … that angels bear the sacrifice to the heavenly altar, conveying blessings, grace to those who partake on earth…
  • Memento etiam: … on behalf of the dead, that God might grant them a place of refreshment, light, and peace….
  • Nobis quoque: … that God will grant those assembled fellowship with the holy apostles and martyrs….
  • Per ipsum: The closing of the eucharistic prayer, giving glory to God through Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Lord’s Prayer. You guys know this one. Only the priest would say it, and it would come with a bonus prayer for extra deliverance from evil.

Much of this would have sailed right over the heads of Georg and Elsa, since the priest spoke huge chunks of this prayers quietly, or even silently, while the choir sang. This includes the Words of Institution—a fact that Martin Luther really hated, as we shall see shortly.

Now the choir sings the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Originally, this was supposed to cover the dead air time while the priest broke the common loaf into pieces. Now, it simply covers the priest crumbling a bit of bread in the wine (for reasons unknown), and communing himself.

And now Georg and Elsa get to commune?

Fifty-one Sundays out of the year, the answer is No.

Instead, they wait for the pax-brede to come around. The pax-brede (or pax-board) was another medieval innovation: a piece of wood overlaid with metal, often engraved with a devotional scene like the Annunciation or the Crucifixion. This would be brought around the congregation, and Georg and Elsa would kiss it as it came by them. This was what the kiss of peace (sharing of the peace) had turned into after a thousand years.

After the canon of the mass ended, things wrapped up pretty quick. There would be a post-communion prayer, a blessing, and a dismissal: ite missa (the mass is ended). Ta-daaaaa!

Tune in next week, when we discover why poor Elsa and Georg only communed once a year, among other fascinating medieval mass facts!


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