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The Heart of Holy Communion

What is "The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving," and what does it have to do with Reformed worship?

Although that title, and another term, the "eucharis-tic prayer," may sound unfamiliar to some of us, the prayer itself is not. It's a prayer all of us have joined in many times—the central prayer in the celebration of Holy Communion. Eucharist is the New Testament Greek word for "thanksgiving." So the "eucharistic prayer" is often called "The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving." It is a unique prayer with a distinctive pattern, provided by the Lord Jesus Christ himself on the very first Easter.

As Jesus walked to Emmaus with two of his disciples that day, he recounted the story of salvation: "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27, RSV). Then, when he was eating with them, he did four more specific things: he took the bread, he blessed it, he broke it, and he gave it to them. As soon as he did these things, they recognized him.

It's no wonder that their eyes were opened; only three days earlier, in the upper room, they had seen that same fourfold pattern: taking, blessing, breaking, and giving (Matt. 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19). And later, as we discover in that passage we call the "Institution" (1 Cor. 11:23-26), the Lord delivered the identical pattern to the apostle Paul.

Two Kinds of Blessing

The "blessing" that was part of those early suppers was not some magical formula. It was a specific kind of prayer that first  blessed God and then asked God to bless the food.

We know the first kind of blessing from Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, O my soul,... and forget not all his benefits." This attitude of "blessing God" was an important part of the traditional Passover liturgy that Jesus and his disciples would have followed in the upper room. It was especially connected with the third cup of wine, the "Cup of Blessing." As Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover together, Jesus would have recited a prayer (well-known to his disciples), thanking God for creation and then for redemption, recounting the history of salvation, and using phrases from the Psalms. We don't know what Jesus prayed at Emmaus, and we are not certain what Paul prayed at Corinth, but we do know, from Patristic documents, that the early Christian church developed its eucharistic prayers out of these Jewish roots.

We know the second kind of blessing from hearing children at the dinner table:

"Lord-bless-this-food-and-drink-for-Jesus'-sake-Amen." Jesus pronounced this kind of blessing at the feeding of the five thousand. He would also have pronounced it in the upper room as another part of the Passover liturgy, praying for God's blessing on the unleavened bread and on the cups of wine. This type of blessing, therefore, also became part of the early eucharistic prayers.

But before long, members of the early church began insisting that the blessing in the Lord's Supper should be more special than the general mealtime blessing used in the Jewish Passover. Since this was a special kind of bread and wine—since it was the communion of his body and blood in which Christ could be recognized—these early Christians wanted the blessing of Jesus' actual presence. They asked that Jesus Christ would be as fully present as he had been at Emmaus—not only in the elements, but even more, as the host of the meal, offering himself to his disciples, just as he did in the upper room. They asked the Holy Spirit to come down and accomplish this miracle, a request we call the epiclesis.

Thus, although the earliest Christians continued to use the Jewish forms for worship, gradually these Jewish roots began to bear new fruit. The Passover prayers were rearranged into the more unified eucharistic prayer, which included the request for Jesus' presence at the supper.

Although there are many different versions of this prayer, all of them have one basic structure, framed in Jesus' fourfold pattern:
1. Take the bread and wine.
2. Give thanks.
Sursum corda (see p. 36)
—Bless God for creation
—Bless God for redemption
Sanctus and Benedictus:
"Holy, Holy" and "Blessed is ..."
—Institution, from 1 Corinthians
11:23
Epiclesis of the Holy Spirit
—The "Sacrifice of Thanksgiving"
(Psalm 116:17, Rom. 12:1)
—The Lord's Prayer
3. Break the bread (fraction), pour out the wine.
4. Give them to Christ's disciples (distribution).
Some versions of the prayer put the Sanctus earlier, some inserted intercessions, some skipped the epiclesis, and some added a reference to the second coming. The medieval Roman version lost the epiclesis and most of the thanksgiving. The Dutch Reformed liturgy scattered the prayer's parts throughout the whole Communion form.

One can discern the pattern in the liturgical forms of Reformed denominations. See, for example, "The Service of the Word and Sacraments" in the Psalter Hymnal pp. 973-4, and the "Order of Worship" in Worship the Lord.

The Pattern of the Creed

Is the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving essential to a proper celebration of the Supper? Put it this way: no other pattern available to us gets us closer to Jesus' model. Nor is any other pattern closer to the message of the gospel. The same Trinitarian pattern that summarizes the gospel promises in the Apostles' Creed (creation, redemption, epiclesis) provides the structure for the Great Prayer. So when you pray the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, you are praying the gospel promises, and you are walking with Jesus on the Emmaus road as he recounts the history of salvation.

A good eucharistic prayer gives thanks for creation and then for redemption, moving through Christ's conception and virgin birth to his suffering and death and then to his resurrection and ascension. Then, because of the ascension, the prayer claims fellowship with Christ and entrance into heaven itself, and the local congregation dares to join the worship around the throne when it sings the Sanctus and Benedictus (taken from Ps. 118, Isa. 6, and Rev. 4). The congregation begins to experience the Holy Spirit, who miraculously unites "the holy catholic church" in heavenand earth and works "the communion of saints" around the table.

The prayer then asks that, in our remembering and by the Spirit, the Lord Jesus himself might be present, that the bread and wine might be what Jesus said they'd be, and that through flip working of faith the congregation might fully share in Christ. Usually the prayer ends in a note of praise.

Holy Communion is many things, and it has many benefits, but all are lost unless prayer is at the heart of it—not just any prayer of the preacher's own invention, but a biblically patterned prayer. If you need to shorten your Communion service, or make it less didactic and more direct and powerful, don't cut out that biblical fourfold pattern and its prayer. Without that prayer, the Lord's Supper is nothing but a ceremony or an empty chancel drama.

Prayer is how we open wide the mouths of our souls for God to feed us. It is in prayer that we "lift up our hearts to God," and it is that Great Prayer of Thanksgiving that takes the roof off the church and even lets the angels in.

Excerpt

GREAT PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING

The Thanksgiving (all standing)

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give him thanks and praise.

With joy we give you thanks and praise,
Almighty God, Source of all life and love,
that we live in your world,
that you are always
creating and sustaining it by your
power,
and that you have so made us
that we can know and love you,
trust and serve you.
We give you thanks
that you loved the world so much
that you gave your only Son,
so that everyone who has faith in him
may not die but have eternal life.

[Here may follow a seasonal or other special thanksgiving*, or else the prayer continues]

We thank you that Jesus was born among
us;
that he lived our common life on earth;
that he suffered and died for us;
that he rose again;
and that he is always present through the
Holy Spirit.
We thank you that we can live in the
faith
that your kingdom will come,
and that in life, in death,
and beyond death you are with us.

[Then, or after the special thanksgiving, the prayer continues:]

Therefore with all the company of heaven,
and with all your people,
of all places and times,
we proclaim your greatness and sing
your praise.
Holy, holy, holy Lord
God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of
the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

Holy Lord God,
by what we do here
in remembrance of Christ
we celebrate
his perfect sacrifice on the cross
and his glorious resurrection and
ascension;
we declare
that he is Lord of all;
and we prepare for
his coming in his kingdom.
We pray that
through your Holy Spirit
this bread may be for us
the body of Christ
and this wine
the blood of Christ.
Accept our sacrifice of praise;
and as we eat and drink at his command unite us to Christ
as one body in him,
and give us strength to serve you in the
world.
And to you,
one holy and eternal God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we give praise and glory,
now and for ever. Amen.

The Lord's Prayer

And now, as our Savior Christ

has taught us, we say,

Our Father... The Breaking of Bread

The Lord Jesus
on the night when he was betrayed took
bread

[here the minister takes the bread in his hands],

and when he had given thanks, he broke it

[here the minister breaks the bread]

and said, "This is my body which is for
you.

Do this in remembrance of me."

In the same way also the cup

[here the minister raises the cup],

saying, "This cup is the new covenant in
my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me."

*Seasonal Thanksgiving for Lent and Easter

During Lent:
And now we give you thanks because through him you have given us the spirit of discipline, that we may triumph over evil and grow in grace.

During the Easter Season:

And now we give you thanks because you raised him gloriously from the dead. For he is the true Paschal Lamb who was offered for us and has taken away the sin of the world. By his death he has destroyed death, and by his rising again he has restored us to eternal life.

From New Church Praise, © The United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom. Used by permission.