Instructed Eucharist 2.0: Rich Tradition, Layered Meanings – We are not worthy…The Prayer of Humble Access
The church I attended in Chicago mixed up the liturgies throughout the month. First Sundays were Rite I, second, third and fourth Sundays were one of the four prayers from Rite II (usually Prayer A or Prayer B), and if there were a fifth Sunday, we said Morning Prayer. The language of prayer and worship is rich and varied, and having these different liturgies in a month is something I still cherish. But on first Sundays, the Prayer of Humble Access found in Rite One right before Communion would unfailingly catch my attention, making me uncomfortable.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
The Prayer of Humble Access is almost identical to a prayer found in the first BCP, published in 1549. In the Episcopal Church, we don’t use ancient things just because they are old, but because there is some lasting value, some thread of truth that is embedded there that has awakened the spirits and nurtured the souls of people across time and place. The Prayer of Humble Access is not merely a prayer that reminds us that we are utterly dependent on the gifts of God—it also frames both Jesus’ mission, and Jesus’ own change of mind.
Embedded in this prayer are two pivotal Bible passages. The first is from Matthew 8:8, a passage when a Roman centurion whose servant is suffering at home tells Jesus “‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” The second is from Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30 when a Syrophoenician woman begs the Jewish Jesus to heal her sick daughter. When Jesus refuses her with an insult, she says to Jesus, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’”
These are striking passages in the Gospels. In both cases the person begging Jesus to use his healing powers are outsiders, non-Jews. I am particularly drawn to Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman’s story because in that moment we see Jesus change, Jesus come into his own about who he is and what his purpose is. A distraught Gentile mother begs Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus first refuses, telling her that he is here to feed the children, not the dogs. This quick-witted and determined woman claims Jesus’s power despite her outsider status: even dogs eat the crumbs. We see Jesus’ human identity here: after a dismissive and cruel response to an anxious mother, Jesus changes. Admiring the woman’s faith, Jesus heals her daughter.
Lent is a sacred time to remember and to change. We remember that we are dust—and we remember to grasp our moment, this moment, to embrace the opportunity to make change and be changed in this dusty compromised life. All things come to us as gifts of God, we and everything in the world are created ex nihilo, from nothing, and we are the blessed results and recipients of those gracious acts. No matter how good we are or how rich we are or how powerful we are, we cannot create from nothing, and the life we live and all that is in it are gracious gifts, not earned wages. Although it may be framed in an idiom of the past, the language of Rite I’s Prayer of Humble Access invites repentance—and rejoicing.