Bearings, Part III E: Between Table and Sending

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

This is part 5 of a seven part miniseries. Part 1, introducing this miniseries, is here. The rest of the series is listed in the links below the conclusion of this post.

Worship planning bearings 3e 300x225
Number 608 miniature bearings. Used by permission.

This is part 5 of a seven part miniseries. Part 1, introducing this miniseries, is here. The rest of the series is listed in the links below the conclusion of this post.

If the bearings between Word/Response and Table have been the hardest for most Christians over time, the bearings between Table and Sending may be a close second.

This is in part because for most Christians in the West, at least, the framing of the end of worship as Sending rather than Conclusion or Closing is a relative latecomer.

Sendings in Early Christianity
To be sure, the roots for this movement of Sending are ancient. But those ancient roots became obscured as the other "sendings" (or dismissals) which had been part of Christian worship in the earliest centuries fell away.

In addition to the final Sending from worship, we know of three other kinds of dismissals/sendings in the second through fourth centuries. All three appear to have happened just before the "prayers of the people."

The most commonly recorded dismissal was the dismissal of catechumens (persons preparing for baptism). In Orthodox liturgies, a deacon still must say "The doors, the doors," a vestige of the ancient practice of actual dismissals.

In Sarapion's Prayer Book (ca 356, Thmuis, Egypt), we also have record of a dismissal of "energumens" (persons possessed by an evil spirit, baptized or otherwise). This dismissal is accompanied by a prayer blessing them and praying for their full healing and deliverance.

And in Syria, there was a dismissal of persons who were in conflict with others (Didascalia, 230 and Apostolic Constitutions, 380). These persons would be escorted out by deacons who would then represent their "cases" on Monday morning to the bishop. The bishop would judge the case and offer remedies to help the aggrieved parties repair damage in their relationships and move toward reconciliation with God and each other.

All of these dismissals were "missional." "Missional" comes from the Latin mittere, "to send." (We get our English word "Mass" from this word as well!). They weren't simply told to go away. They were sent for a purpose-- to experience God's mission at work in their lives in their particular circumstances. For catechumens, the purpose was continued learning of the way of Jesus and preparation for baptism. For energumens it was healing and deliverance. And for persons it conflict, it was to make progress toward genuine reconciliation.

From Sendings to Endings
In the West, all of these Sendings all disappeared fairly rapidly by the middle of the fifth century. The catechumenate had all but collapsed, so there weren't catechumens to dismiss. Energumens never seem to have had a special place in Western liturgies. And by the late fifth century, the Syrian "bishop's court," whose original purpose was primarily to find practical ways to support reconciliation among the laity, had already begun to morph into what would later be called the Roman Curia, a court for dealing with discipline of the clergy.

So by the sixth century all that was left of actual dismissals was the final dismissal-- the sending into the world to live as missionaries of Christ in the world.

But even that had begun to change. It was starting at about this time that the words of the dismissal in the West had become almost cryptic: Ite, missa est.

Ite, missa est is nearly untranslatable. The first word is clear enough: "Go." Missa est is more problematic. Something is missing. We do not know what noun or pronoun missa refers to. Missa est could mean "it is sent" or "she is sent" or "these things" are sent. There are arguments offered for each and more beside. I tend to lean toward an original reading of something like [Ecclesia, tu] missa es "Church, you are sent" or [Ecclesia] missa est [in mundum], "The church is sent [into the world]." But there's just not sufficient textual evidence to reach any conclusive answers.

Whatever the words Ite, missa est originally may have meant, there is little debate that they quickly came to have a different meaning in actual use. They were no longer understood to be about sending so much as ending, with the perfect passive verb (missa est, "having been sent") now functioning as a noun and a present tense verb. "Go. The mass (missa) is [ended] (est)." Put in more common parlance, the message was, "It's over. We're done here. Let's play or sing some nice closing music and go home."

When worship was work in which the gathered people were actively engaged, the final action involved sending the people to continue to live as Christ's representatives in the world. And so they would actually process into the world, rather than recess from worship.

But by the late sixth century at the latest, in many places in the West, worship had become more of a ritual drama performed by expert actors and singers on behalf of the people. People don't get sent sent from a drama. The drama ends, usually with some music (postlude) and maybe a recessional from the stage. Then the people leave, perhaps offering a word or two to the director or a few actors about how they thought the performance went.

One finds similar patterns in most Protestant Sunday morning worship forms through the mid-20th century as well. The sermon often concludes with a prayer summarizing its main points. The congregation sings a closing song. The pastor offers a closing prayer. Then the choir offers a quiet "sung benediction" or Amen that finalizes the closure. Show's over. Energy winding down. Denouement and ending, not Sending.

Recovering the Sending
Vatican II and the ecumenical work on early Christian liturgy that had been underway for nearly a century helped change that. The Sending of the assembly to be the body of Christ in the world was recovered, first by Roman Catholics, and quickly in the revised prayer and worship resources of Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, United Methodists, United Church of Christ, Reformed Churches and many others beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The final actions of the service would no longer be determined by the denouement of either sermon or communion. There would now be a distinct, energetic movement again, a clear Sending. Those who who had offered themselves fully to God in Entrance, Word and Table were now sent as Christ's body renewed, fed, and empowered by the Spirit.

For Sending to be sending in its own right, though, we need bearings between the end of Word (in services without the sacrament) or Table and the Sending itself.

Why? It's about the energy. Both Word and Table can easily move toward denouement left to their own devices. In most mainline "preaching" services, the energy at the end of the sermon is often more about creating a satisfactory conclusion-- intellectually or emotionally-- than moving the people to much further response. And the time after receiving communion is itself largely devoted to personal acts of quiet, often introspective prayer.

The energy of Sending, however, is extroverted, active and expressive.

So what functions as bearings to redirect energies of denouement toward the final, active movement of Sending?

In contemporary worship, it's usually the music. As we've seen with bearings between other movements, it's usually music whose dynamics and texts capture two things at once. The spoof video Sunday's Coming accurately described it this way: "This is the closing song, with strings that'll make you cry."

If you listen to the music of the video, you know just what the narrator is talking about. The music itself, its form and format, raises the emotional energy from conclusion to catharsis. The text being sung in an actual service of this kind typically connects with a major theme of the sermon (or communion, when celebrated) and transforms it to an act of commitment. Singing such a song means participants speak a commitment to God with passion on the lips and in their hearts.

For some of the contemporary services Michael Eldridge visited in his research on megachurch worship, this song functioned as both bearings and Sending at once. For others, however, there would be an additional word from a pastor, reinforcing the act of Sending, and then a reprise of the chorus to enact the Sending more fully. Either way, Sending has its own integrity in such settings, and this "closing song" functions as bearings.

For Episcopal and "traditional" United Methodist worship alike, the Prayer of Thanksgiving after Communion forms the bearings between Table and Sending (see UMH, p. 11). For both denominations, this is a unison prayer. Even if there is provision for congregational singing during communion, my observation in a variety of congregations in both denominations is that most people do not sing, or if they do, they sing more quietly, more as if to themselves, than they do for a "regular" congregational hymn. Instead, they are engaging in a variety of individual actions, whether waiting to receive, receiving, or praying or reflecting quietly in their seats after receiving. Corporate energy is waning. Worshipers in this state are not yet primed to be sent.

This is why the unison prayer at this point is so important as bearings, and that it matters that it is unison! The unison nature of the prayer, whether offered while kneeling (Episcopal) or likely sitting (United Methodist), regenerates flagging corporate energy. It immediately re-syncs us as "body of Christ" acting together. The text of these prayers provides an act of thanksgiving for what has just happened (participating in "this holy mystery") and a prayer for what is about to happen-- the Sending itself.

Both denominations also have essentially the same actions in the Sending itself, even if in a different order: a Trinitarian blessing, an hymn of sending (which may also be accompanied by a processional), and words of sending proper. All three are energetic. All three are focused outward. All three reinforce not only with words, but with action and emotion, that we have been empowered and sent by the Holy Spirit to live out our discipleship to Jesus faithfully in the world.

And here, as with the transition from Entrance to Word, it is an act of prayer that helps that sense of empowerment both emerge from Table and come to full fruition in a natural, fluid way.


What do you do where you are to create the bearings between Table and Sending?

How might you do this even more effectively?

The Entire Series
Part I: Good Mapmaking
Part II: Playing with the Angles (this one addresses the need for rehearsal)
Part III A: Fluid Motion in Four Movements (and introductory article to the next several pieces)
Part III B: Bearings before the Entrance
Part III C: Between Entrance and Word/Response
Part III D: Between Word/Response and Table
Part III E: Between Table and Sending (this post)