Having considered the matter of self-examination as it is, the indispensable, spiritual preparation for participation in the Lord’s Supper and having seriously pondered the purpose or end unto which this means of grace has been instituted in the church, namely, to commemorate the death of our Lord as the only ground and foundation of our salvation, the church is readied for the solemn act of prayer.
The prayer before communion is necessitated by the fact that “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him and are thankful for them.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 116) The church desires and is seeking the spiritual benefits of the table of the Lord in the consciousness that these benefits are not physically affixed to or inherent in the natural elements of the Supper. Her desire is not for bread but for grace. Grace is not in things, but is imparted by the Holy Spirit through the appointed means. The means, therefore; must not only be used, but the use of them must also be proper. The physical act of eating the bread and drinking the wine of the Lord’s Supper does not guarantee the reception of the benefits of grace signified in the sacrament. There must be an activity of faith reaching out with fervent, longing for the spiritual benefits of Christ’s atonement. That faith leads us to the throne of grace where asking it shall be given unto us, seeking we shall find and knowing it shall be opened unto us, (Matthew 7:8)
It must also then be evident to us that the mere outward formality of a prayer before communion is not adequate. The ritual of prayer is not the same asprayer. Prayer, our Heidelberg Catechism instructs us, is “that we from the heart pray to the one true God only. . . .and that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and misery, so that we may humble ourselves in the presence of His divine majesty.” (Lord’s Day 45) It is exactly in this spiritual attitude that we must come to the table, for hearts thus disposed God will not reject. We must realize our emptiness and seek GOD, the fulness of all in all. We must know our sin and wretchedness, and believing that Christ has obliterated our guilt we turn to Him for righteousness. We must fully realize our utter inability to acquire any of the true benefits of life, and in the consciousness of our dependence on Him we make our supplications and needs known. To make us fully aware of this the prayer of the communion form is prefixed by the following statement: “That we may obtain all this, let us humble ourselves before God, and with true faith implore His grace.” Humble, dependent, seeking, hungering and thirsty children shall surely be fed at His table.
One more thing must be said before we enter into consideration of the communion prayer proper. What we have thus far written must not be construed as though the Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ must wait to dispense the blessings of His grace until we are ready and see fit to pray to Him for them. Although it is certainly through prayer and through our humbly and sincerely seeking these blessings that God dispenses them, yet the relation is never such that He is dependent upon us but it is just the opposite. We are always dependent upon Him. The fact, therefore, is that our being in a proper, spiritual disposition in which we are able to pray is already the fruit of His grace in us. We love Him because He first loved us. We seek Him because He has drawn us. We hunger and thirst for the blessings of His communion because He has made us alive in Christ and created by His grace these hunger pangs in our hearts. And all this accentuates the truth that the blessings of salvation signified in the Supper of the Lord are not for one and all without distinction; they are not for all who partake of the external elements of the sacrament either, but these spiritual blessings are for those and those only who are spiritually disposed to seek God in truth with all their heart. They pray! They alone pray! They pray because they are spiritually disposed and their prayers are heard and through them God imparts the benefits of His grace.
The prayer of the communion form may be divided into three parts. Following the address, “O most merciful God and Father,” the first part of the prayer is devoted to a series of petitions in which the blessings of the communion table are sought. Oh, what a high spirituality is requisite to make this prayer. It may not be read by the minister as a matter of form. Then it is quite meaningless. Each petition uttered must be the expression of the heart and the sincere desire and longing of each one who prays. Praying is a most serious, spiritual activity and in the exercise of it we may not be hypocritical. We may not pretend to ask for those things we do not in reality desire. Our most merciful God and Father to whom we direct our prayer knows our heart and the secrets within and hypocritical prayers are an abomination to Him. Do we then sincerely mean what we say when we give expression in our prayer before communion to these requests?
1) That God through the Holy Ghost in this supper may work in our hearts.
2) That we may more and more give ourselves up unto Christ.
3) That our hearts may be fed with His body and blood, yea, with Himself as the true heavenly bread.
4) That He may live in us, and we in Him, that thus we, may be partakers of God’s eternal covenant.
5) That we may be assured that God is our gracious Father, forgiving our sin, providing us with all things necessary for soul and body.
6) That we may have grace to bear the cross cheerfully and to confess Christ.
7) That in all our tribulations we may look up and put our trust and expectation in our Lord Jesus Christ, resting alone in His promise.
It is not our purpose now to discuss each of these petitions, although this could easily be done and it certainly is necessary that each one of us who come to the table of the Lord give careful ponderance to each request before we utter it. We want to make some general observations on this part of the prayer as a whole. Then we notice that the petitions are of two kinds. First of all there are those that ask for the impartation of spiritual gifts. We desire to receive the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work. We ask that God will work in our hearts, feeding and nourishing us, forgiving our sins, providing our needs and taking us into the intimate fellowship of His covenant. Now it follows that when this is done this work of God will not leave us unaffected and, therefore, the second series of petitions deal with those needs that arise as a result of the impartation of these gifts. When God works in us by His grace He sets us apart as His peculiar people and we must then give ourselves more and more to Christ. Doing this it is unavoidable that we shall also bear the reproach of His cross and be made to suffer manifold tribulations in this present world that is out of communion with God and labors militantly against His Cause. The core of these petitions then is that we ask for grace whereby we may faithfully persevere with all patience and longsuffering, “looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” (Titus 2:13, 14)
These two series of petitions may never be separated or divorced from one another. We are inclined to do that. We are quite willing to receive the benefits of the Lord’s table as long as these do not interfere with our own carnal “pursuit of life and happiness,” and then it is not very long after we have been to the communion table that we reveal our unwillingness to sacrifice for the cause of God and our reluctance to give ourselves in wholehearted dedication to the service of the body of Christ, His church. But this can never be. Without a cross there is no crown. Through much tribulation we enter into the Kingdom of God. If the world hated Christ, (and it certainly did) they will hate those that are of Christ, and that hatred will come to manifestation as soon as we begin to live the life of communion with Him and with the body of His people. Communion with God is not something we can pray for and receive only around the communion table. It must be a perpetual experience, a living reality day by day, and it is experienced through fighting the battle of faith and wrestling constantly with our own flesh, the godless world and its prince, Satan.
We observe further the high spiritual tone of this prayer. Nowhere in it do we ask for earthly things except perhaps in the one phrase: “providing us with all things necessary, as well for the body as the soul.” But even here it must be observed that it is, not a petition for these things, but the prayer is a request for grace that “we may not doubt that our gracious Father will provide these necessities.” And then we must not ask that He will assure us that He will give us an abundant life in the great society of this world so that we may wallow in luxury but our prayer is and must always remain a prayer for assurance that ournecessities will be provided. That is the only assurance we can ever have. God will take care of us as long as He needs us to serve His cause in this world, and then He will take us out of this world. And that is all we need. He does not assure us that He will provide for us until we have realized our own ambitions, attained our own goals, etc. Of course not, because where we have ambitions and goals apart from Him they are carnal and unworthy of attainment. Our sole purpose in life must be HIM, and when that is the case, we may be assured that He will provide what is necessary in order that in body and soul we may attain that goal. When this is our striving we will “no longer live in our sins, but He in us, and we in Him, and thus truly be made partakers of the new and everlasting covenant of grace.
This part of the prayer is followed by a recitation of the prayer which the Lord taught us to pray and which is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer.” This is not to be construed as a supplemental addition to our prayer. This it could never be, for the prayer of our Lord is a perfect and complete entity by itself. Rather, by its insertion here is expressed that it is our desire to be the disciples of the Lord and through His grace we endeavor also in our prayers to be in conformity with His will. We pray as He taught us to pray. We pray now at the communion table in harmony with the underlying principle of His prayer, which is that we must seek the heavenly and spiritual. This is the motivation of our prayer throughout as we ask for the benefits of His table.
The prayer is then concluded with the so-called “Apostolic Confession” preceded by the petition: “Strengthen us also by this Holy Supper in the catholic undoubted Christian faith.” although the historical origin of this confession or creed is uncertain, our Heidelberg Catechism maker the significant observation that this creed gives expressions to “the articles of our Christian faith.” Thus, by incorporating this into our prayer, we make confession of our faith before God and declare that in this faith we come to His table in the unity of the church of all ages, and as it is extended throughout the whole world. We are ONE body and ONE head, Christ Jesus, and in the communion of that body we receive the blessings of everlasting life.