Turn to page 316 in the Book of Common Prayer.
No, seriously, go ahead.
If you’re in the office or on the bus or in a class and don’t happen to have your prayer book with you, click here and scroll down to page 316.
What you’ll find on this mystery page in the prayer book is something called “An Exhortation.” An exhortation like this has been a part of Anglican prayer books since the very beginning, making its first appearance in Cranmer’s prayer book of 1549. It was originally intended to be read weekly, either following the sermon or before the confession. Even in our earliest American prayer books, the expectation was that the exhortation would be read aloud within the liturgy, first weekly, then, in later editions of the prayer book, monthly or seasonally.
In the 1979 prayer book, the exhortation became completely optional, something that “may be used” – but also may not. And so, as these things happen, most Episcopal churches choose the “may not” option. Which is, I think, a shame. Because the exhortation in our prayer book is a beautiful reminder of the gift given to us each week in the Eucharist. These “holy Mysteries” remind us of our creation, of God’s providence, and of our redemption through our Savior Jesus Christ. The exhortation is a concise and effective description of our tradition’s Eucharistic theology – this is what we give thanks for, why we give thanks, to whom we give thanks.
More than this, though, the exhortation is a reminder to us of the need to take this Holy Sacrament seriously, to honor it within our lives. If we have wronged someone, we are reminded to reconcile before coming to the altar. If we have sinned, we are reminded to confess. If we have been living a largely unconscious life, we are reminded to repent and to turn back to God, and there to find Grace and forgiveness.
Most importantly, though, we are reminded to come to the altar. Yes, examine your life; yes, be reconciled one to another, repent, return, confess. Do all that you need to do to be as receptive to the Grace that is found in the bread and the wine as you can be – knowing, of course, that even then you will find a gift beyond your earning. But then do come to the altar. Show up, here, at church, in the flesh, bringing your reconciled and restored hearts, bringing your questions and your uncertainties, bringing those places that still need healing and transformation. Bring all of this and come. Allow yourself to be drawn back to this altar by the yearnings of your God-created heart. Come back, come home, each and every week, each and every day.
Beloved in the Lord: come to the altar.