The richness and beauty of the Eucharistic prayers

By Father Joseph Gallenstein.

In his exhortation at the end of the Synod on the Eucharist in March 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said, “The spiritual life of the faithful can benefit greatly from a better appreciation of the richness of the Eucharistic prayer.” My own spiritual life has been greatly blessed by the observations and insights of parishioners who, having celebrated Mass, make a comment on one or more aspects of the Eucharistic prayer.

The origins of the Eucharistic prayers are found in the table prayers of Jewish meals and the prayer of blessing known as the berekah, which praised and blessed God. At feasts such as Passover, the inclusion of the Haggadah, integrated the special meaning of the feast as one that made present God’s liberating deeds from the past and applied its power of those celebrating the feast. Similarly, during the course of the Eucharistic prayer, Christ becomes uniquely and truly present, under the forms of bread and wine. But Christ’s saving action also becomes present again for us, here and now, in this time and place.

Jesus, while using traditional Jewish meal blessing prayers, gave new dimension with his words “This is my body,” “This is my blood” and “Do this in memory of me.” However, in the earliest years of the Church there were no liturgical books and improvised prayer with themes of praise, thanksgiving and supplication were used. Justin Martyr (c. 150 AD) writes: “bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability and the people assent, saying, ‘Amen.’” By the 4th Century, the extemporaneous Eucharistic prayers gave way to written prayers.

The Preface is the part of the Eucharistic prayer that comes before the “Holy, Holy, Holy” and begins with the dialogue: “The Lord be with you.” In the name of the people, the priest praises the Father and gives him thanks for the work of salvation or for some special aspect of it in keeping with the day, feast or season. The text of the various prefaces (there are many!) is a statement of the special reason for praising God. For example, there are various prefaces for the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in salvation history. Likewise, there are different prefaces for Apostles, pastors, martyrs, etc., as well as Sundays and weekdays of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time.

Jesus’ “Words of Institution” that is, those words echoing Jesus himself at the Last Supper are found in all the current Eucharistic prayers — “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you. Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” With very few exceptions, those words are found in all the ancient Eucharistic prayers of East and West, even if the exact wording differs slightly.

The Lord’s command to “Do this in memory of me” is the reason for “doing” the Eucharist. The earliest Christians understood the Passover invokes a special kind of remembrance of the whole saving and liberating actions of God. In Greek the word is “anamnesis.” Since God is ever faithful to the divine Covenant, the past deeds become present and efficacious to those partaking in the ritual. The Church in her Eucharistic prayers make explicit anamnesis, especially recalling the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Eucharistic Prayer for Children II says it simply: “And so, loving Father, we remember that Jesus died and rose again to save the world. He put himself into our hands to be the sacrifice we offer you.”

An acclamation in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer is relatively new in the Roman liturgy. In the East, there are some old Eucharistic prayers were the people acclaimed “Amen!” after the words of institution over the bread and then again over the cup. The priest gives the invitation “The Mystery of Faith” to which the assembly has three options of response: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again;” “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again;” or “Save us, Savior of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.” What is the mystery? Jesus’ Eucharistic presence captures the larger “mystery” of Christ’s living, dying, rising and presence among his people and the whole plan of God realized in Christ’s saving love.

Although the language varies, there is a statement of “offering the bread and wine” in all the Eucharistic prayers. For example, Eucharistic Prayer II speaks of offering “the bread of life and the chalice of salvation.” Eucharistic Prayer III says, “We offer you this holy and living sacrifice.” The intention here is that the whole Church, but especially the particular assembly, is offering to the Father the spotless victim (Jesus) and also attempting to learn how to offer ourselves and daily be drawn into more perfect union with Christ.

There are also intercessory prayers in the body of the Eucharistic prayers. These include mentioning the pope and local bishop by name, invoke the saints and martyrs, prayer the community and for the dead. These intercessions make it clear that the Eucharist is being celebrated “in communion” with the whole Church of heaven and earth, and that the offering is made for the Church and all its members living and deceased.

The traditional conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer is a (sung) statement of praise and thanksgiving in the form of a Trinitarian doxology. The assembly responds, “Amen.” Justin Martyr attests to the significance of the “amen,” writing: “When the prayer of thanksgiving ended, all the people present give their assent with an ‘Amen.’” The assembly assents to the Eucharistic prayer and make it their own in the Great Amen.

 Father Joseph Gallenstein is pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, Alexandria.