Thomas Cranmer’s Homily on Holy Communion

This is Cranmer’s homily on common prayer and the sacraments, first published in the mid 1550s, and now gently updated. Article 35 of the Articles of Religion requires this homily (along with others) to be read regularly in the churches — “diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.” However this is not done today.

From the Homilies on Common Prayer and Sacraments and the Worthy Receiving of the Sacrament

By Thomas Cranmer

Dear Christians: Among the many exercises of God’s people, none are more necessary than public prayer and the proper use of the Sacraments.

On prayer

In prayer we ask from God all such things as we cannot otherwise obtain.  In the Sacraments, God embraces us and offers Himself to be embraced by us.  Let us consider what prayer is and what a Sacrament is.

Saint Augustine teaches that prayer is the devotion of the mind; that is to say, returning to God through a godly and humble affection, inclining the mind towards God.  As for the Sacraments, he calls them “holy signs.” Writing about the baptism of infants, he says, “If Sacraments had not a certain likeness to those things whereof they are Sacraments, they would be no Sacraments at all.” From this likeness they receive for the most part the names of the things they signify.  By these words Saint Augustine allows the common description of a Sacrament: that it is a visible sign of an invisible grace, which sets before the eyes and outward senses the inward working of God’s free mercy, and seals in our hearts the promises of God.

As to prayer, in the Scriptures we read of three sorts. Two are private, the third is common [that is, shared by the congregation].

The first sort of private prayer Saint Paul speaks of in his first epistle to Timothy: “I will that men pray in every place, lifting up pure hands without wrath or striving.”  It is the devout lifting up of the mind to God without speaking aloud the heart’s grief or desire.  We have examples of this: Anna, the mother of Samuel, in the heaviness of her heart, prayed in the temple, desiring to be fruitful.  She prayed in her heart; no voice was heard.  This way must all Christians pray…as Saint Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “without ceasing.”  Saint James writes, “The continual prayer of a just man is of much force,” or is very effective.

The second sort of prayer Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew: “When you pray, enter into your secret closet, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” Cornelius, a devout man, said to Peter that when he was in his house in prayer at the ninth hour, there appeared to him one in a white garment.  This man prayed to God in secret and was rewarded openly.  So the first form of private prayer is mental, the other vocal.

The third form of prayer is public, or common.  Our Saviour Christ speaks of this prayer when he says, “If two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” By the histories of the Bible it appears that common prayer avails greatly before God, and must be esteemed among us who profess to be one body in Christ.

When the city of Nineveh was threatened to be destroyed within forty days, the Prince and the people joined themselves together in public prayer and fasting and were preserved.  In the prophet Joel, God commanded a fast to be proclaimed, and the people to say with one voice: “Spare us, O Lord, spare thy people, and let not thine inheritance be brought to confusion.”…When Peter was in prison, the congregation joined themselves together in common prayer, and Peter was wonderfully delivered.  Common or public prayer is of great force to obtain mercy and deliverance at our heavenly Father’s hand.

I beseech you, brethren, even for the tender mercies of God, let us be no longer negligent in this behalf: but as the people willing to receive at God’s hand such good things as in the common prayer are asked, let us join ourselves together, and with one voice and one heart ask all these things of our heavenly Father.

On the Sacraments

Turning to the Sacraments, you will hear how many there are, instituted by our Saviour Christ, to be continued and received by every Christian in due time and order, for the purpose our Saviour willed them to be received.  As for the number of those which should be considered according to the precise sense of a Sacrament – namely as visible signs, expressly commanded in the New Testament, which are joined with the promise of free forgiveness of our sin and of our holiness and union in Christ – there are but two: Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.

For although Absolution [Penance] has the promise of the forgiveness of sin, the promise is not joined with the visible sign, which is the laying on of hands.  For this visible sign is not expressly commanded in the New Testament to be in absolution, like the visible signs are in Baptism and the Supper of the Lord. Therefore Absolution, lacking the visible sign, is not a Sacrament like Baptism and Communion are.  And the ordering of Ministers lacks the promise of the remission of sin.  Therefore neither it nor similar things are sacraments in the same sense as Baptism and Holy Communion.

In a general sense, a sacrament may be anything by which a holy thing is signified.  The ancient writers gave the name “sacrament” not only to the seven Sacraments but also to other ceremonies, such as the oil, washing of feet, and the like, not meaning them to have the same significance as the first two named.  Saint Augustine, weighing the true significance and meaning of the word, affirms that the most excellent Sacraments of the Christians are few in number, and makes mention expressly of two: The Sacrament of Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.  Although by the order of the Church of England there are certain other rites and ceremonies— the institution of Ministers in the Church, Matrimony, Confirmation of children, and likewise for the Visitation of the Sick – yet no man ought to take these as Sacraments like Baptism and Holy Communion.  They are godly states of life, necessary in Christ’s Church, and therefore worthy to be set forth by public action and solemnity through the ministry of the Church; or for the instruction, comfort, and edification of Christ’s Church.

On the use of a known tongue (language)

Now let us see if the Scriptures or examples of the primitive Church allow any spoken private or public prayer, or any manner of Sacrament or other public rite, in an unknown tongue [or language], which is not understood by the Minister and people. To this we must answer, no.

As for Common prayer and the administration of the Sacraments, reason, if it ruled, would soon persuade us to have these in a known tongue. To pray commonly means that the people are asking one and the same thing, with one voice and agreement of mind.  But we do not need to flee to reasons and proofs.  We have both the plain and manifest words of Scripture and also the consent of the most learned and ancient writers.

St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Let all things be done for edifying” [that is, for instruction and building up in understanding].  This cannot be done without prayers and administration of Sacraments in the language known by the people. When the trumpet blown in the field gives an uncertain sound, no man can tell what is piped.  When prayers are in a language unknown to the hearers, who will be stirred to lift up his mind to God?  Who in the administration of the sacraments will understand what invisible grace is to be wrought in the inner man?  Saint Paul says, “He who speaks in a tongue unknown will be to the hearer a stranger and foreigner.” This, in a Christian congregation, is a great absurdity.  For we are not strangers one to another, but citizens with the Saints, and of the household of God.

From the time of Christ until Rome began to spread itself and impose on the nations of Europe the Roman language, there was no strange or unknown tongue used in the congregations.  St Justin Martyr, who lived 160 years after Christ, said of the administration of the Lord’s Supper in his time, “The head minister offers prayers and thanksgiving with all his power, and the people answer, Amen.”  These words plainly declare that not only were the Scriptures read in a known language, but also that prayer was made in the same.  Saint Ambrose says, “If you speak the praise of God in a tongue unknown to the hearers, there is no profit.”  Nothing should be done in the church in vain and to no profit.

On the benefits of the Lord’s Supper

[As for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper], the great love of our Saviour Christ towards mankind appears not only in the dearly bought benefit of our redemption and salvation by his death and passion, but also in that he so kindly provided that this merciful work may be had in remembrance.  As a tender parent, our Lord and Saviour thought it not sufficient to purchase for us his Father’s favour again (which is the deep fountain of all goodness and eternal life) but also wisely devised the ways, [or means of grace,] whereby they might redound to our benefit and profit.

So our loving Saviour has ordained and established the remembrance of his great mercy expressed in his Passion, in the institution of his heavenly supper. In this we all must be guests, not onlookers, but feeding ourselves.  To this his promise beckons: “This is my body which is given for you,” and “This is my blood, which is shed for you.”  So then we must of necessity be partakers of this table.

But Saint Paul says, “He who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks his own condemnation.”  Therefore we must clearly understand that three things are requisite: First, a right and worthy estimation and understanding of this mystery; second, to come in a sure faith; and third, to have newness or pureness of life in order to effectively receive and possess the Sacrament.

We must be sure especially that this supper be ministered as our Lord and Saviour did and commanded to be done, as his holy Apostles used it, and as the good Fathers in the Primitive Church practised it.

Saint Paul blamed the Corinthians for profaning the Lord’s Supper. He demonstrates that ignorance of the thing itself and its true meaning was the cause of their abuse, for they came irreverently, not discerning the Lord’s Body.  What has been the cause of the ruin of God’s religion, but ignorance of it?  Let us try to understand the Lord’s Supper, so that we are not the cause of the decay of God’s worship or of idolatry, so we may more boldly have access, for our comfort.  We need not think that such exact knowledge is required that everyone must be able to discuss all the high points of doctrine. But we must be sure we understand that in the Supper of the Lord there is no vain ceremony. It is not just a bare sign. It is not an empty figure of something that is absent. As Scripture says, it is the Table of the Lord, the Bread and Cup of the Lord, the memory of Christ, the Annunciation of his death, and the Communion of the Body and Blood of the Lord, in a marvellous embodiment and realization which, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, is wrought through faith in the souls of the faithful. By it not only do their souls live to eternal life, but they trust confidently to gain for their bodies a resurrection to immortality.

Holy Communion: Union between the body and the head

This result and union which is between the body and the head — that is, the true believers and Christ — the ancient Catholic Fathers both perceived themselves and commended to their people. Some of them were not afraid to call this Supper the “salve of immortality” and “sovereign preservative against death.” Others called it a “deifical Communion” [that is, a communion that is deifying, or makes us to be holy like God]. Others called it the sweet food of the Saviour, and the pledge of eternal health; also the defence of the Faith, the hope of the Resurrection; others still, the food of immortality, the healthful grace and conservation for eternal life, as we find in the writings of St Irenaeus, Origen, St Cyprian, St Athanasius.

All these things both the Holy Scripture and godly men have correctly attributed to this celestial banquet and feast.  If we would remember them, O how they would inflame our hearts to participate in these mysteries… always holding fast and cleaving by faith to the rock from which we derive the sweetness of everlasting salvation.  Here the faithful may see, hear, and know the mercies of God sealed, Christ’s satisfaction for us confirmed, the remission of sin established.  Here they may experience the tranquillity of conscience, the increase of faith, the strengthening of hope, the spreading abroad of brotherly kindness, with many other sundry graces of God.

That faith is a necessary instrument in all these holy ceremonies, we may assure ourselves.  As Saint Paul says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” As the bodily food cannot feed the outward man unless it be truly digested in the stomach, no more can the inward man be fed unless his food be received into his soul and heart in faith.  St Cyprian said, “With sincere faith we break and divide that whole bread.”  The food we seek in this Supper is spiritual food, the nourishment of our soul, a heavenly reflection.

Thus, beloved, we see that when we gather to this table we must pluck up all the roots of infidelity, all distrust in God’s promise, so that we may make ourselves living members of Christ’s body; so that we receive not only the outward Sacrament but the spiritual thing also: not the figure, but the truth; not the shadow only, but the substance; and this not to death, but to life; not to destruction but to salvation… which thing may God grant us to do through the merits of our Lord and Saviour, to whom be all honour and glory for ever.  Amen.