One of the jewels of the Prayer Book communion service is a prayer that has become known as the Prayer of Humble Access. I regard its removal from many contemporary liturgies as a retrograde step, as I believe it is the quintessential expression of Anglican piety.
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 our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
This prayer has been described as being like an onion, for you can peel off layer after layer of profound biblical imagery as you make your way to the heart of it. We hear echoes of the Old Testament prayer of Daniel, who pleaded with God on behalf of himself and his people, “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy” (Daniel 9:18b). We hear the centurion who came to Jesus on behalf of his servant who was at the point of death and confessed, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Matthew 8:8). We hear the Canaanite woman who desperately wanted her daughter healed and was not satisfied with Jesus’ apparent rejection of her because she was a Gentile. “Yes, Lord,” she said to him, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27). We hear a prayer of David in the Psalms, “Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name” (Psalm 119:132). And lastly we hear the words of our Lord himself following the miraculous feeding of the five thousand: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
If it does nothing else, perhaps this prayer can serve to remind us of the profound mystery that lies at the heart of Holy Communion: that people such as you and I should be called to dine at the table of God; that Christ the pure and spotless Lamb of God, who suffered and died for us on the cross, holds out his grace and his very self for us today; and that at the last we shall stand in the company of angels and archangels in blood-washed robes of spotless white as guests at the Supper of the Lamb.