By Will Wright, (c) 2020
The Eucharistic Preface
The first essential part of the Eucharistic Prayer is the Preface. However, let us step back and put the Preface in context.
The Holy Mass began with the Sign of the Cross, we asked for God’s forgiveness, we sang His glory, and the priest collected all of our prayers and offered them to the Father. Then, we heard the Readings of the day proclaimed. A homily may be given. Then, on solemnities, the Creed is recited, and the Universal Prayer may be done. This concludes the Liturgy of the Word which then flows into the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
After the beginning Offertory Prayers, the priest turns to the people and says to them, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” This is not a prayer. This is an invitation. This is a command. The people then respond, speaking to the priest saying, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” This beautiful exchange is a call to action. The priest is about to enter into the Holy of Holies to offer the one Sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Person of Christ, Head of His Body. The people offer sacrifice as well, but in a different way as members of the Body of Christ.
Then the Eucharistic Prayer begins with the Preface Dialogue. In this call and response of acclamations to God, the priest and people say, “The Lord be with you… And with your spirit. Lift up your hearts… We lift them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God… It is right and just.”
The Preface for the day is then offered by the priest. These prefaces change depending on the the season of the Church liturgical year and the feast, solemnity, or memorial that is being celebrated.
Directly following the Preface and just before the beginning of the Roman Canon comes the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy). This ancient prayer was added to the Sacred Liturgy in the first half of the fifth century and is drawn from Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9. The Preface and the Sanctus specifically call to mind the angels and remind us that we are praising God, with all of the angels and saints in Heaven present with us. Heaven is touching Earth and we are present for this spectacular event.
The Preface prepares our hearts and minds for what we are entering into as Head and Members of the Body of Christ. We are approaching the Roman Canon, by which the Sacrifice and Resurrection of Christ are made present to us and ordinary bread and wine become His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity!
In the 1962 Roman Missal, there is an beautiful insight in the rubrics. At the word Sanctus, the priest joins his hands and bows in humble adoration of God. Then, at the words Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord), he stands fully and makes the Sign of the Cross. In the midst of the angels and the saints, the grace of God is pouring out upon us and blessing us as we enter into the great Action of Jesus Christ in the remainder of the Eucharistic Prayer.
Epiclesis and the Institution Narrative
The second and third essential parts of the Eucharistic prayer are the Epiclesis (Greek: Epiklesis, Latin: Invocatio) and the Institution Narrative. The Epiclesis is the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine that they may become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Every Western and Eastern liturgy contains this essential prayer. The Institution Narrative is the full narrative of the Last Supper in which Christ instituted the Eucharist as the New Covenant, including the words of consecration (This is My Body… This is My Blood…).
In the Catholic Church, there has always been an understanding that this invocation of the Holy Spirit was essential, along with the words of consecration.
We may be tempted to ask exactly when does the Eucharist actually become Jesus Body and Blood? Is it at the Epiclesis or is it at the Institution Narrative? This has been a source of tension through the history of discussions between the East and the West in the Church. The important thing is to recognize the essential nature of both.
Without the words of consecration, there is no Eucharist. But without the power of the Holy Spirit, there is no Eucharist. This is absolutely not to say that the Holy Spirit waits for the priest to call on Him. The whole Holy Mass is the prayer and working of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But God has designed that His creatures should cooperate with His sacred Action. Therefore, the invocation of Holy Spirit and the words of consecration of the Son are both to the glory of the Father and the making holy of the people, which are the two main ends of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
We take our cue of the importance of both elements, the Institution Narrative and the Epiclesis, from the posture of the people at the Holy Mass. Following the Preface and the Sanctus, the people kneel. In the Roman Rite, the posture of kneeling is twofold: humility and adoration. We kneel in humble adoration because God is sending His Holy Spirit in power to consecrate the bread and wine to become the Most Holy Eucharist, at the hands of the priest. We are humble because we understand who God is and who we are in relationship to Him. We adore because it is right and just, especially given the miracle that is taking place in front of us.
During the Epiclesis, the priest’s posture changes as well. He extends his hands, palms facing down, over the gifts to show the calling down of the Holy Spirit. The bells are also rung at this time to draw our sense’s attention to what is happening.
During the Institution Narrative, the priest is engaged in the Sacred Action of Jesus Christ. When speaking the words of consecration, he bows and speaks in a straight tone. This is to show that the words are not his own, rather Jesus Christ is speaking through him at that moment. Then, the priest genuflects before the King of kings now present on the altar and the bells are rung drawing all to adoration and praise. The Institution Narrative is the climax, the highest point, of the Holy Mass. Everything that comes before, including the whole Liturgy of the Word is preparing us and leading us to this moment where Jesus Christ becomes present in the Holy Eucharist on the altar in front of us.
The fourth essential part of the Eucharistic Prayer is Anamnesis.
During the Institution Narrative, the bread and wine are consecrated separately, first the bread then the wine, and they become the Body and Blood of Jesus. The result of separating blood from a body is death. In this way, the Institution Narrative makes present the Passion and Death of Jesus. Is this just a metaphor? Is it symbolic? Far from being merely a symbol, this means the Holy Cross is made present to us in the here and now, outside of time, by the power of God. Rather, we could say that we are transported to the foot of the Holy Cross where the Son of God shed His blood and life for our sake. When we begin to see with the eyes of faith that this is a reality and not simply symbolic, we begin to understand anamnesis.
Anamnesis in Greek literally means bring to mind. We could translate it also as a deliberate recollection. Anamnesis in the context of liturgy is more than just a memory or a calling to the mind in some abstract way. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the mediation of Jesus Christ, our High Priest, the One Sacrifice becomes present once again in an unbloody manner. This word anamnesis is what Jesus says in the words of consecration when He says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The Anamnesis makes present the Sacred Action of Jesus Christ to our senses through external signs and symbols. It is a reminder on the surface level. But if we push past the veil, God allows us to see and to receive the full power of His saving Mysteries which were so powerful that they cannot be contained in a single moment of history. The Cross was two thousand years ago, but it comes present once again at every single Mass. What we see as signs and symbols are made truly present to us, in reality.
Of course, after the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest puts a piece of the Sacred Host into the Sacred Chalice in the Fraction Rite. In this action, anamnesis makes the reunion of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Resurrection, present to us once more. He who died will not die again. The whole Christ is risen. This is why the faithful receive the full risen Christ in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in every particle of the Host or every drop from the Chalice.
This reality of Anamnesis is not confined to the Liturgy of the Eucharist alone. For example, when we look at the liturgy on Good Friday, when the Eucharist is not celebrated, we still see anamnesis. We do not “venerate” the Holy Cross on Good Friday when we approach it. Instead, the Church uses the phrase the “Adoration of the Holy Cross.” We can venerate holy people, places, and objects. However, the only one who is worthy of our adoration and praise is God. Yet, the Church says that we adore the Holy Cross on Good Friday. In this liturgy, the Holy Cross is present to us in a pronounced way by the power of God, outside of time. The Holy Cross that we touch or kiss is the true Cross, drenched in the Holy Blood of Jesus Christ offering Himself up for our sins. So, we are adoring Jesus Christ in Whose Blood we are washed clean by adoring the Holy Cross.
The fifth main part of the Eucharistic Prayer is the Intercessions. Intercession means to intervene on behalf of another. From the outset, it should be clear that the Roman Canon must essentially be intercessory because it makes present the Saving Mysteries of Jesus Christ who suffered, died, and rose to redeem all mankind.
St. Paul says to St. Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus… (1 Timothy 2:5).” Jesus Christ is our mediator. He is the Pontifex Maximus (the “Greatest Bridge-Maker“). He stands in the gap between mankind and the Father, a gap which was caused by Adam’s first sin and perpetuated by each personal sin of every sinner. He is the only Way to the Father. He is the Bridge. And so, in the Eucharistic Prayer, we see this reality take form especially with the Intercessions.
The Sacred Liturgy is a priestly action. It is the prayer of our High Priest, Jesus Christ, active in a special way through the instruments of the ordained minister and the baptized faithful as Head and Members. The Sacred Liturgy is the work of God for His glory and for the sanctification (making holy) of His people and the whole world.
As the Roman Canon begins, the priest asks in the confidence of Jesus Christ for what we need, in and through Jesus Christ. The priest asks for the gifts of bread and wine, and the personal intentions and sacrifices of those gathered, to be accepted and blessed by God.
In this way, our own personal sacrifices and intentions are being offered to the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is interceding for us to the Father. He intercedes for the whole world, beginning with the Church. We ask that God may give the Church peace, guidance, union, and governance throughout the world. Then we offer intercessory prayer for the Pope and for our local bishop.
Then, there are prayers of intercession for “all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.” This means, firstly, the whole college of bishops who are the successors of the Apostles. But, it also means all those throughout the entire Church. The Church exists in order to evangelize. She exists in order to bring glory to God and full, abundant life to all men and women. This happens by fidelity to the catholic and apostolic faith which must be handed on without change or lessening.
The Roman Canon is replete with examples of intercessory prayer in which we ask for God’s grace and blessing on everyone, living or dead. This is precisely because the Roman Canon is the prayer of Jesus Christ, Who is the great Mediator. As we continue to walk through the Canon, line by line, this will become clearer.