Liturgy Matters - Part VIII

We have reached the Eucharistic prayer. There are various elements to this which are worth expounding, to better understand what we are doing when the president says this on behalf of the whole congregation. And perhaps that is the first point to mention - it is the whole congregation who consecrates, albeit the president says the words and performs the actions, she or he does so as representative of the whole community.

Took, blessed, broke, distributed - four verbs, four actions, which we see Jesus doing in various places in the scriptures. Think of the feeding of the 5000, itself symbolic of the Eucharist that was to be given as a gift to the Church, where it says of Jesus: 'Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people' (Mark 6.41a). Think of the scene from the Last Supper, where we are told Jesus 'took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me" ' (Luke 22.19). Not just the wording of that second quotation from scripture - the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, but the four actions are exactly what we use in the eucharistic prayer.

We begin with the traditional response greeting between priest and people (reminding us this is all a dialogue between priest and congregation, and they are part of this prayer), called the sursum corda, 'up hearts': - when we say 'lift up your hearts', the early Christian rights said more directly, 'Up with your hearts!' As Timothy Radcliffe says in Why Go to Church?, 'It carries us up into the presence of the heavenly liturgy, with all the angels and saints.' It is a prayer of rejoicing, of God's presence with us. This leads us into the Preface. One might think the word preface simply means the bit that goes at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer. But it doesn't. It comes from the Latin prae-fari, which means 'to proclaim in the presence of'. Again, it is Timothy Radcliffe who says, 'Originally the whole of the eucharistic prayer was called 'the Preface' because it is all proclaimed in the presence of God... this is Christ's great prayer of hope proclaimed in the presence of the Father.' The Preface is usually a seasonal variation - it might note a particular saint's day, or a liturgical season such as Advent or Lent. It locates the 'across time and space events of the eucharist', with both the particular entry of Christ into our world in a genuine historical, incarnational moment, and with our own life's rhythm through the days and year. As Radcliffe says, it earths us, and so the Preface has the function of both lifting us up and bringing us down.

After the Preface, we all sing the Sanctus. (Holy, holy, holy Lord..) As 'Come to the Feast: A Companion to Common Worship' puts it, 'In response we join with the song of the angels, recorded in Isaiah's great vision (Isaiah 6.3) and sung in the Temple in Jerusalem.'

After that we reach the heart of the eucharistic prayer. Whilst there are different views as to when the moment of consecration actually happens, particularly between east and western churches, it can be said that the whole of the eucharistic prayer is important in that. So the recalling of the last supper and those words of Jesus we have just quoted from Luke 22 (the Anamnesis if you want the technical word - literally 'a recalling to memory; the complete history recalled and remembered') is as necessary as the Epiclesis (when we ask God to send the Holy Spirit down upon the gifts of bread and wine). Between the two, an acclamation, which the congregation joins in with, recognises Christ's death and resurrection and 'the victory of the cross remembered in broken bread and wine outpoured' (Come to the Feast).

Common Worship has a choice of 8 Eucharistic prayers - we tend to use 2 or 3 or them in our churches on a usual basis, and occasionally it is appropriate that a different one is selected, due to its different length, its focus on children, and so on. The prayer ends in a doxology (from the Greek word doxa δόξα - glory) words of praise of God, and so ends as it began, in praise to God.

We have reached the moment of The Lord's Prayer and the Breaking of the Bread, with which we will resume next time.

Helen Bailey