Liturgy Matters — What is the Eucharistic Prayer?

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Judy-Bullock-2013-fWhat is the Eucharistic Prayer?

The Eucharistic Prayer is described in the liturgical documents as the “center and high point of the entire celebration.” However, without some understanding of the important elements within it, we may only think of this prayer as the long prayer of the priest.

The Eucharistic Prayer begins with the priest’s dialogue with the rest of the assembly: “The Lord be with you. Lift up your hearts, etc.”

The Eucharistic Prayer ends with the doxology, “Through him, with him, in him,” and the congregation’s response of affirmation, the “Great Amen.”

What are some general characteristics of the Eucharistic Prayer?

The Eucharistic Prayer is addressed to God the Father, first person of the Trinity. Since the priest is voicing the prayer in our name, the prayer text uses plural pronouns: we, us, our.

There are two postures that the congregation takes during the Eucharistic Prayer. For the first part — the preface dialogue, the preface and the singing of the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) — the assembly stands. This standing posture is taken due to the nature of this part of the prayer which expresses praise and thanksgiving to God.

After the Sanctus, the congregation kneels for the remainder of the Eucharistic Prayer. The kneeling posture intensifies the level of prayer and emphasizes our humility in light of the awesome power of the Holy Spirit in this prayer of transformation.

What is the origin of this prayer?

It is a commonly held belief by scholars that the origins of the Eucharistic Prayer can be attributed to the table prayers used for meals in the Jewish community.
We hear some of these texts in the prayers during the preparation of the gifts.

In the Christian era the earliest actual account we have of a eucharistic prayer in the liturgy comes from Justin Martyr around 150 CE. In his descriptions of the liturgies of the day, it is remarkable how similar they are to the way we celebrate today. There is, however, one notable exception. There is no set formula for the
Eucharistic Prayer, this great prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification.

Justin says, the “president (presider) prays and gives thanks according to his ability.”

From this model of creativity in the early years of Christianity came the written texts of eucharistic prayers from many different cultures and regions of the Christian world. With the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563, the Eucharistic Prayer became a set form with only minor variations for different occasions. This Roman Canon, now called Eucharistic Prayer I, was the only prayer used for approximately 400 years prior to the Second Vatican Council.

After the Second Vatican Council, additional texts were once again approved for use at Mass. Many of these prayers, called “canons” in Latin or “anaphoras” in Greek, which are now included in the Roman Missal, actually predate the Roman Canon. Eucharistic Prayers II, III and IV were added to the missal right after
Vatican II and have their provenance as early as the third century.

Today, in addition to these four, the Roman Missal contains two eucharistic prayers for reconciliation, four options for special needs and occasions, and three eucharistic prayers for written children.

For the celebration of the Mass the priest selects one of the numerous options for the Eucharistic Prayer approved for use in the Mass. Although the choice of words, imagery and poetry of each individual prayer are quite different, each one of them contains the same eight elements.

The next article will address these eight elements in the Eucharistic Prayer.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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