After the readings, we move to the table. As at a meal in the home of a friend, we 1) set the table, 2) say grace and 3) share the food (we eat and drink). At Mass these ritual actions are called 1) the Preparation of the Gifts, 2) the Eucharistic Prayer, 3) the Communion Rite.
Preparation of the Gifts: The early Christians each brought some bread and wine from their homes to the church to be used for the Mass and to be given to the clergy and the poor. Today a similar offering for the parish and the poor is made with our monetary contributions. Members of the parish will take up a collection from the assembly and bring it to the priest at the altar with the bread and wine to be used for the sacrifice. The priest places the bread and wine on the table.
When all is ready, he elevates first the bread, then the wine, pronouncing a blessing over each. The blessing, which begins, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,” echoes the blessing Jesus pronounced at the Last Supper, the blessing of the Passover meal, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine.” It also echoes the blessing of Melchizedek in Genesis 14: 19-20.
Importantly, before pronouncing the blessing over the wine, the priest mixes into it a small amount of water. He does this in continuation of the custom of Jesus’ time, where wine was diluted before it was drunk, and as a symbol of the blood and water that gushed forth from Christ’s side on the cross (Jn 19:34).
Next, the priest washes his hands, following St. Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy 2:8, that when praying, men should lift up “holy” or “clean” hands.
Finally, he invites us to pray that the sacrifice be acceptable to God. We respond “Amen” to the Prayer Over the Gifts and stand to participate in the central prayer of the Mass.
The Eucharistic Prayer: The long prayer which follows brings us to the very center of the Mass and the heart of our faith.
For this prayer, the priest has four options: Eucharistic Prayer 1, published in 1570 but virtually identical to the Eucharistic prayer used by St. Ambrose in the fourth century and St. Augustine in the fifth century; Eucharistic Prayer 2, drawn from the Greek liturgy of St. Hippolytus in 215; Eucharistic Prayer 3, an abbreviated twentieth-century version of Eucharistic Prayer 1; and Eucharistic Prayer 4, a 20th-century prayer adapted from the ancient liturgies of the Eastern Churches.
Although the prayers differ in length and phrasing, they all have the following structure: 1) We call upon God to remember all the wonderful saving deeds of our history. 2) We recall the central event in our history, Jesus Christ, and in particular the memorial he left us on the night before he died. We recall his passion, death and resurrection. 3) After gratefully calling to mind all the wonderful saving acts God has done for us in the past, we petition God to continue those deeds of Christ in the present: We pray that we may become one body, one spirit in Christ.
Invitation: The prayer begins with a dialogue between the leader and the assembly. First, the priest greets us with “The Lord be with you.” He then asks if we are ready and willing to approach the table and to renew our baptismal commitment, offering ourselves to God: “Lift up your hearts.” And we say that we are prepared to do so: “We lift them up to the Lord.” We are invited to give thanks to the Lord our God. And we respond: “It is right and just.”
This dialogue has remained virtually unchanged for the past 1800 years. In the early 200s, St. Hippolytus’ account of the Mass in Rome included the dialogue between priest and people that enjoins the congregation to “Lift up your hearts to the Lord” and “Give thanks to the Lord our God.” His contemporary in North Africa, St. Cyprian, records the same dialogue in his description of the liturgy, a dialogue intended to remind Christians that “wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21).
Preface and Acclamation: The priest enters into the Preface, a prayer which prepares us to come before the face of God. We are brought into God’s presence and speak of how wonderful God has been to us. As the wonders of God are told, the assembly cannot hold back their joy and sing aloud: “Wow! Wow! Wow! What a God we have!” In the ritual language of the Mass, this acclamation takes the form: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts. / Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
This is a reminder that we are praying “with the angels and saints”. And it is taken from Isaiah 6:2-3 and Revelation 4:8. This hymn, as we know from a letter from Pope St. Clement (martyred in A.D. 99), has been sung in the Mass since at least the first century of Christianity.
Consecration: After the Sanctus, the congregation kneels, assuming a posture of reverence in preparation for the central act of the Mass. The priest continues the prayer, giving praise and thanks, and calling upon the Holy Spirit, the Epiclesis, to change our gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, for nothing in the Eucharistic sacrifice happens by man’s effort alone.
Institution Narrative: He then recalls the events of the Last Supper—the institution of the Eucharist, taken from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. This also includes the elevation, first the sacred Host, then the sacred Chalice, often to the sounds of ringing bells, proclaiming that a great miracle has occurred: Bread and wine are no longer bread and wine. Christ is now present in the Eucharist, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
At this important moment in the prayer, we proclaim the mystery of faith: a summary of the paschal mystery, which affirms the reality of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, the saving power of the mystery unfolding before us, and the anticipated second coming of Christ.
Prayer for unity and intercessions: The grateful memory of God’s salvation leads us to make a bold petition, our main petition at every Eucharist: We pray for unity. To this petition we add prayers for the Bishop of Rome and for the bishop of the local Church; we pray for the living and the dead and especially for ourselves that through the intercession of the saints we may one day arrive at that table in heaven of which this table is only a hint and a taste.
We look forward to that glorious day and raise our voices with those of all the saints who have gone before us as the priest raises the consecrated bread and wine and offers a toast, a doxology, a prayer of glory to God in the name of Christ: “Through him, and with him, and in him, / O God, almighty Father, / in the unity of the Holy Spirit, / all glory and honor is yours, / for ever and ever.” Our “Amen” to this prayer acclaims our assent and participation in the entire Eucharistic Prayer.
Next week we shall reflect on the Communion Rite.
Click below to read the rest of this 5 part series on the Eucharist...
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