Scholars have noted that the Eucharistic prayer has roots in Jewish table prayers recited at every meal. Near the start of the meal, the father of the family or the one presiding over the community would take bread and speak a blessing (barakah) which praised God, saying: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has brought forth bread from heaven.” The bread was then broken and given to the participants, and the people began eating the various courses of the meal. In the Passover meal, there also would be a reading of the haggadah, which re-told the story of the first Passover in Egypt and interpreted that foundational event in Israel’s history for the current generation. This made God’s saving deeds of the past present and applied the story to their lives.
When the meal neared its conclusion, the presider prayed a second and longer barakah over a cup of wine. This blessing had three parts:
1) Praise of God for his creation;
2) Thanksgiving for his redemptive work in the past (for example, the giving of the covenant, the land, the law); and
3) Supplication for the future, that God’s saving works would continue in their lives and be brought to their climax in the sending of the Messiah who would restore the Davidic kingdom.
The early Eucharistic prayers seem to have followed this general pattern. They included reciting a blessing over bread and wine, re-telling the foundational saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the three-fold structure of offering praise to God for creation, thanksgiving for his saving deeds and supplication. And as we will soon see, these ancient Jewish elements are also found in the Eucharistic prayers of the Mass today.
The Eucharistic prayer consists of:
- the Preface;
- the Sanctus;
- the Epiclesis;
- the Words of Institution/Consecration;
- the “Mystery of Faith” and
- the Anamanesis, Offering, Intercessions, and Doxology.
We’ll look at the Preface in today’s post.
The Eucharistic Prayer opens with a three-part dialogue that has been recited in the Church since at least the third century:
Priest: The Lord be with you. People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.
This dialogue is first reported in the Eucharistic prayer of St. Hippolytus (c. A.D. 215). Now, eighteen centuries later, we continue to say the same words, uniting us with the Christians of the early Church.
The Lord Be With You
The opening exchange (“The Lord be with you… And with your spirit”) we have heard before. It was used in the Introductory Rites at the start of Mass and just before the reading of the Gospel. W have seen that, in the Bible, greetings like this were used to address those whom God called to an important but daunting mission. They needed the Lord to be with them as they set out on their charge. Here, the greeting is fittingly repeated as we embark upon the most sacred part of the Mass: the Eucharistic prayer. Both the priest and the people need the Lord to be with them as they prepare to enter into the mystery of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Lifting Our Hearts
Next, the priest says, “Lift up your hearts” (Sursum corda in Latin). This prayer brings to mind the similar exhortation in the book of Lamentations: “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (Lamentations 3:41).
What Does It Mean To “Lift Up” Our Hearts?
In the Bible, the heart is the hidden center of the person from which one’s thoughts, emotions and actions originate. All intentions and commitments flow from the human heart. Therefore, when the priest at Mass says “Lift up your hearts,” he is summoning us to give our fullest attention to what is about to unfold. This is a “wake-up call” to set aside all other concerns and focus our minds, wills and emotions — our hearts — on the sublimity of what is happening in the Eucharistic prayer.
This summons is reminiscent of St. Paul’s words to the Colossians: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). Just as Paul called the Colossians to seek the “things that are above, where Christ is,” so are we bidden to direct our entire being toward the things of heaven, for that is where Christ is. And that is where we are going in the Eucharistic prayer.
Our Fullest Attention
St. Cyprian (d. A.D. 258), a North African Church Father, explained how this prayer draws our attention away from worldly distractions and is meant to lead us to ponder the awe-inspiring action taking place in the Eucharistic prayer:
When we stand praying, beloved brethren, we ought to be watchful and earnest with our whole heart, intent on our prayers. Let all carnal and worldly thoughts pass away, nor let the soul at that time think on anything but the object only of its prayer. For this reason also the priest by way of preface before his prayer, prepares the minds of the brethren by saying, Lift up your hearts, that so upon the people’s response, We have them before our Lord, he may be reminded that he himself ought to think of nothing but our Lord.
[St. Cyprian, De dominica oratione, c. 31. As translated in Thomas Crean, The Mass and the Saints, pp. 93-4.]
Another Church Father, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, made a similar point and warned believers of the seriousness of this moment.
Lift up your hearts: For in this sublime moment the heart should be lifted up to God, and not be allowed to descend to the earth and to earthly concerns. With all possible emphasis the sacrificing priest exhorts us in this hour to lay aside all the cares of this life, all domestic worries, and direct our hearts to God in heaven who bath so loved men…. Let there be none among you, who shall confess with his lips: We have lifted up our hearts, and allow his thoughts to remain with the cares of this life.
[St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catholic Mysteries, 5, 4-5. As translated in Pius Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, p. 216.]
Cyril goes on to acknowledge that being attentive to the Lord is something we should do always, but is difficult because we are fallen and weak. Yet, if there ever is a moment to concentrate most intently and give God our fullest attention, it is now at the Eucharistic prayer: “We should, indeed think of God at all times, but this is impossible because of our human frailty; but in this holy time especially our hearts should be with God.”
[St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catholic Mysteries, 5, 4-5. As translated in Pius Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, p. 216]
The Great Thanksgiving
In the last liturgical exchange, the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God….” As we already have seen in the Gloria (“We give you thanks…”) and in the response to the Scripture readings (“Thanks be to God”), thanksgiving is a common biblical response to God’s goodness and to his saving works in our lives. The priest directing us to give thanks to the Lord echoes the similar exhortation found in the Psalms: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good…” (Psalms 136:1-3; see also Psalms 107:8, 15, 21, 31). In the Jewish tradition, thanksgiving is one thing we can actually offer the Creator that he does not possess already. The first century Jewish commentator Philo expressed this point:
We affirm that the activity most characteristic of God is to give His blessings. But that most fitting to creation is to give thanks, because that is the best it can offer him in return.
For when creation tries to make any other return to God it finds that its gift already belongs to the Creator of the universe, not to the creature offering it. Since we now realize that to give due worship to God only one duty is incumbent upon us, that of giving thanks, we must carry it out in all times and in all places. [Philo, De Plantatione, 130-31, as translated in A.G. Martimort, The Sign.the New Covenant (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1963), p. 169.]
St. Paul similarly teaches that the Christian life should be marked by prayers of thanksgiving. We should be “abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:7), giving thanks to God in all we do (Colossians 3:17) and “in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18; cf. Philemon 4:6), especially in worship (see 1 Corinthians 14:16-19; Ephesisans 5:19-20; Colossians 3:16).
Following this biblical tradition of offering prayers of thanksgiving, the priest invites us to “give thanks to the Lord our God.” And there is a lot to be thankful for at this point in the Mass. Like the ancient Israelites who thanked the Lord for delivering them from their enemies, so we now should thank God for sending his Son to save us from sin and the Evil One. That redemptive act of Christ’s death and resurrection is about to be made present to us in the liturgy, and we humbly express our gratitude.
We also should be thankful for the miracle about to take place in our midst, as the bread and wine on the altar will be changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Our Lord and King will soon be with us in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Our hearts should be filled with gratitude as our church becomes like a new holy of holies, housing the divine presence. What an awesome privilege it is for us to draw near!
We are like the ancient Israelites who approached the temple of God’s dwelling with joyous psalms of praise and thanksgiving. In fact, we should hear in the priest’s instruction, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” an echo of the Psalmist’s words to those pilgrims as they drew near to Jerusalem: “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Psalms 95:2) or “Enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Psalms 100:4).
There is so much to be thankful for at this moment in the Liturgy! We therefore acknowledge that gratitude is the only fitting response to the mysteries about to unfold before us. In answer to the priest’s invitation to thank the Lord, we say, “It is right and just.”
After inviting us to give thanks to the Lord, the priest now talks to God in a prayer of thanksgiving. The opening line is addressed to the Father and expresses what we have seen throughout Scripture: the duty of God’s people to thank the Lord. One option for the Preface prayer, for example, begins, “It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father most holy….” But the priest does not say this prayer for himself. He offers it on behalf of the people who just expressed their desire to join the priest in thanking God when they said that “It is right and just” to give God thanks and praise.
St. John Chrysostom made this point, noting how the priest (envisioned by Chrysostom as the bishop) represents the people in this prayer: “The prayer of thanksgiving is made in common. The bishop does not give thanks alone, but the whole assembly joins him. For, though the bishop speaks for the people, he does so only after they have said that it is fitting and right that he should begin the Eucharist.”[ St. John Chrysostom, Homily on 2 Corinthians 18:3, as translated in A.G. Martimort, The Signs of the New Covenant, p. 170.]
This Preface prayer follows the pattern of thanksgiving in the psalms in the Old Testament. Thanksgiving in general was offered for the gift of God’s creation (Psalms 136:4-9), for his provision in their lives (Psalms 67:6-7), for his wondrous deeds (Psalms 75:1) and for his saving acts (Psalms 35:18). In these kinds of psalms, God’s people responded with gratitude for the Lord rescuing a person in a particular way, whether it be healing (Psalms 30, 116), saving someone from their enemies (Psalms 18, 92, 118, 138) or delivering them from some trouble (Psalms 66:14). The psalmist gives an account of his trials and how God rescued him, which serves as the basis for the praise and thanksgiving.
This pattern can be seen in Psalm 136, which starts with the Psalmist thanking God for his marvelous works of creation: for making the earth, the waters, the stars, the sun, and the moon (Psalm 136:4-9). The Psalm then moves to recount God’s saving deeds in Israel’s history: bringing them out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea, overthrowing Pharaoh in the waters, leading them through t the wilderness and defeating Israel’s enemies. Next, the Psalmist proclaims how this same God, who rescued their ancestors long ago, has also performed an act of deliverance for God’s people in the present.
This same God who delivered their ancestors from Egypt has also “remembered us in our low estate” and “rescued us from our foes” (Psalms 136:23-24). Therefore, the community gathered with the Psalmist has great cause for thanksgiving. God’s love for his people has been steadfast throughout history. He has been faithful to his people from the time of the Exodus to the present. The Psalmist thus concludes, “O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalms 136:26).
The Eucharistic prayers follow this biblical pattern. For we, like the psalmists of old, have much to be thankful for. Like Psalm 136, the Eucharistic prayer recounts God’s marvelous deeds in salvation history. This recounting may take on various forms, as there are several options for the preface. Some forms of this prayer thank God for his work of creation. Others highlight specific aspects of Christ’s saving work, depending on the feast or season. For example, in the Christmas season, the priest thanks God for becoming man. In Holy Week, the priest refers to how the hour is approaching when Jesus triumphed over Satan. In the Easter Season, the priest thanks God for the eternal life Christ has won for us. But all these prayers focus on thanking God for the very heart of his saving plan: Christ’s life-giving death and resurrection.