Liturgy of the Eucharist: Part Two

By Father Kevin Kennedy

This article is the last segment of the Know the Mass series.

We complete this series on the Mass by providing the second part of our reflection on the Liturgy of the Eucharist, examining the basic structure of the very heart of the Mass, which is the Eucharistic prayer.

Thanksgiving constitutes a fundamental element of Christian worship. As God’s own people, we are called to offer praise and thanksgiving for the gifts of creation, salvation and sanctification. Indeed, from the Greek, the word Eucharist means thanksgiving or to give thanks. Originally, the entire liturgical offering of thanks was a single or whole prayer which, by the seventh century, had been divided in two by an introductory part of the Eucharistic prayer called the preface and a hymn called the Sanctus.

Preserving the original and essential focus on thanksgiving, the preface begins with a dialogue between the priest and the people common to ancient liturgical tradition, both East and West. Then, on behalf of the people, the priest proclaims the prayer in which God is glorified for the whole work of salvation. There are a rich variety of prefaces composed for specific days or seasons of the liturgical year. The preface is then followed by the angelic prayer of praise and adoration (Holy, Holy, Holy, etc.) from Isaiah 6:2-3, along with a verse from Psalm 118.

The next major part of the Eucharistic prayer is called the epiclesis which, in Greek, means invocation or calling down. This prayer is a petition or supplication in which the priest asks that God the Father send down the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine so that they may truly become the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the different Eucharistic prayers of the Roman rite this invocation occurs in slightly different forms and with varying degrees of specificity, but the intention is the same.

The calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts is a preparation for their consecration or transformation. However, there is another, second epiclesis in which we pray that the same Spirit descend upon us, the assembly, so that we might become one body, one spirit, in Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit we receive the Lord in the Eucharist and are thus enabled to become He whom we receive.

In Eastern Christianity there is yet a third form of epiclesis. In a dialogue between the priest celebrant and the deacon before the Eucharistic prayer, the deacon says to the priest: “May the Holy Spirit descend upon you and the power of the Most High overshadow you” (Byzantine Anaphora). In this beautiful epiclesis the Church prays that the Spirit who descended upon and overshadowed the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation may also descend upon the priest so that through his words, acting in the person of Christ, the sacrificial offering of the Lord may be renewed and the people fed at the Eucharistic banquet.

After the epiclesis there is the institution narrative and consecration. What happened at the Last Supper is remembered and the words and actions of the Lord are proclaimed and repeated by the priest: “This is my body which will be given up for you” and “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting eternal covenant which will be shed poured out for you. Do this in memory of me.” Thus the gifts of bread and wine are transformed and the sacrifice of the cross is reactualized.

The Greek word “anamnesis” means remembrance. In the Mass it refers to the › memorial character of the Eucharistic prayer in which we call to mind the paschal mystery, namely the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord. In the Jewish context of the Last Supper, remembrance of God’s saving deeds brought forth a renewal or reactualization of those deeds for the believing/worshipping community. It is the interpretative key for understanding the words of the Lord: “Do this in memory of me.” In the Eucharistic prayer what is remembered and renewed is the Lord’s sacrificial love, His offering of himself to the Father for us and on our behalf.

We then remember the needs of the Church and all of humanity, both the living and the dead, in intercessory prayer. The Eucharistic prayer is completed by a glorious doxology in which we give praise to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, joining heaven and earth, and sealed by the great Amen.

Finally, we are ready to be fed by “the precious and holy body and blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and everlasting life” (Byzantine Divine Liturgy), and to go forth and share with all the world the love we have received from the Lord Himself.

–Father Kennedy is pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, administrator at St. Monica-St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in San Francisco and formation adviser and spiritual director at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University.