Grateful Words: The eucharistic prayer is the table grace of the people of God

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
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 God thanks and praise.

If these words have become a familiar part of your Lord's Supper celebration, your congregation has joined many others who have recovered the use of a eucharistic prayer in their celebration of the sacrament. This prayer, also known as the Great Thanksgiving, is at heart the table grace of the people of God. Christians pray together when gathered at the table. We return thanks to God for the meal we share and all it means. We "say grace" for the food we have received.

This essentially simple act of prayer also cradles the church's central, basic affirmations concerning the knowledge of God, the person and work of Christ, and the life and ministry of the church in the power of the Spirit. The word Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) refers equally to the liturgy of the Lord's Supper itself and to the words of the prayer that accompanies the meal.

The First Movement

Although denominations use a great variety of texts for the eucharistic prayer, most of them follow a common pattern. The favored pattern in this time of worship renewal is actually an ancient pattern associated with the region of Antioch.

The first section of the prayer develops the theme of thanksgiving out of the ancient dialogue between the presider and the congregation. This dialogue contains the sursum corda (hearts on high), an exhortation that also appeared in Calvin's invitation to the Lord's Supper ("let us raise our hearts and minds on high, where Jesus Christ is, in the glory of his Father, and from whence we look for him at our redemption," as in the 1542 order). The dialogue itself (see beginning of article) was used at least as early as A.D. 215.

In a section called the Preface, the prayer praises God and recounts God's goodness in creation and redemption. This initial praise with thanksgiving often takes into account the liturgical season or the occasion in the life of the church. It evokes God's steadfast love and providential goodness, sometimes pointing to the ultimate gift of Christ.

The Preface, which may be quite brief, draws to its close acknowledging that in the Eucharist, the church praises God "with choirs of angels, with prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and with all the faithful of every time and place, who forever sing to the glory of your name." The canticles known as the Sanctus and the Benedictus are sung (if at all possible) by the congregation:

Holy holy holy Lord, God of power and might! (Isa. 6:3)
Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! (Ps. 118:26)
Hosanna in the highest!

GREAT THANKSGIVING

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give thanks and praise.
Eternal God, holy and mighty,
it is truly right and our greatest joy
to give you thanks and praise,
and to worship you in every place where your glory
abides.

[A preface appropriate to the day or season may replace the bracketed portion that follows.]

[You laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They shall perish, but you shall endure.
You are always the same
and your years will never end.
You made us in your image
and called us to be your people,
but we turned from you,
leaving sin and death to reign.
Still you loved us and sought us.
In Christ your grace defeated death
and opened the way to eternal life.]

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with the heavenly choirs
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

[The people may sing or say:]

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The Second Movement

Beginning with the Post-Sanctus, the second section of the prayer picks up the praise of God in a more explicit recounting of the story of redemption. This is a succinct rehearsal of the biblical witness to God's constant work, brought to focus in the incarnation, appearance, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and looked-for coming in glory of Jesus Christ, his intercession for us, and the gift of this sacramental meal.

If the Words of Institution are used in the prayer, they become the culminating narrative and fit seamlessly into the flow of the prayer at this point. (They may, of course, instead be used as the biblical warrant in the invitation to the table, creating the narrative framework for our action or, if not there, as words for the distribution of the bread and cup.) These words serve to locate the church again in specific faithfulness to Jesus' command, with all this entails for faith and life.

There may follow a brief affirmation by the congregation, a hearty concise exclamation of the faith, such as "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again." Four such affirmations, borrowed from the Roman Catholic reforms, are in common use.

The second movement or section of the prayer resolves in the hinge remembrance-and-offering (anamnesis-oblation): "Remembering, therefore, we offer . . ." What? We take from God's gifts this loaf and cup, and recognize God the true Giver; we render grateful praise; and we present ourselves seeking the grace that corrects and conforms us in obedience and fruitful living. It is, in fact, a summary petition for all that God is doing in the liturgy and the life of faith.

[The minister continues:]

You are holy, O God of majesty,
and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.
You sent your only-begotten,
in whom your fullness dwells,
to be for us the way, the truth, and the life.
Revealing your love,
Jesus taught those who would hear him,
healed those who believed in him,
received all who sought him
and lifted the burden of their sin.
We glorify you for your great power and love at work in Christ.
By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection,
you gave birth to your church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death,
and made us a new people by water and the Spirit.

[If they have not already been said, the words of institution (bracketed below) may be said here, or in relation to the breaking of the bread.]

[We give you thanks that the Lord Jesus,
on the night before he died,
took bread,
and after giving thanks to you,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take, eat.
This my body, given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.

In the same way he took the cup, saying:
This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it,
do this in remembrance of me.]

Remembering all your mighty and merciful acts,
we take this bread and this wine
from the gifts you have given us,
and celebrate with joy
the redemption won for us in Jesus Christ.
Accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving
as a living and holy offering of ourselves,
that our lives may proclaim the one crucified and risen.

[The people may sing or say one of the following:]

Great is the mystery of faith:

Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.

or

Praise to you, Lord Jesus:

Dying you destroyed our death,
rising you restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory.

or

According to his commandment:

We remember his death,
we proclaim his resurrection,
we await his coming in glory.

or

Christ is the bread of life:

When we eat this bread and drink this cup,
we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus,
until you come in glory.

The Third Movement

The third and final movement of the prayer is invocation (epiclesis), the request that God, who alone makes the feast holy, will be known in the breaking of the bread. "Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these your gifts of bread and wine, that the bread we break and the cup we bless may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ" (Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, p. 155). We ask God to grace our common life (bread, wine, every ordinary creature on whom we rely) with the true sign of Christ's presence and all his benefits, to empower our witness and redeem the future in unity with all the baptized in every time and place. This is communion. "As this bread is Christ's body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world" (Book of Common Worship, p. 277, the Great Thanksgiving for Maundy Thursday).

Intercessions and petitions (as we also remember and name the world and its need before God) may be spoken here. The connection between liturgy and the church's life is located in our communion in Christ. And a great doxology draws the whole prayer towards the final resounding Amen, which should be sung or spoken by the entire congregation.

[The minister continues:]

Gracious God,
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine,
that the bread we break
and the cup we bless
may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.
By your Spirit unite us with the living Christ
and with all who are baptized in his name,
that we may be one in ministry in every place.
As this bread is Christ's body for us,
send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.

[Intercessions for the church and the world may be included here.]

Help us, O God, to love as Christ loved.
Knowing our own weakness,
may we stand with all who stumble.
Sharing in his suffering,
may we remember all who suffer.
Held in his love,
may we embrace all whom the world denies.
Rejoicing in his forgiveness,
may we forgive all who sin against us.
Give us strength to serve you faithfully
until the promised day of resurrection,
when with the redeemed of all the ages
we will feast with you at your table in glory.

Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor are yours, eternal God, now and for-
ever. Amen.

The Great Thanksgiving (B; one often eucharistic prayers listed as A-J) is reprinted from the Book of Common Worship. © 1993, Westminster/john Knox Press. Used by permission of Westminster/ John Knox Press.

Drawn to the Summit

At the table our prayer proclaims the truth of God we know in Jesus Christ, telling the scriptural story from creation to redemption, and leaning out into the future to which God is calling us. We name the triune God, praising and recognizing who God is; we rehearse with thankful remembrance all the mighty deeds of God, who creates and in Christ redeems the world; and we ask that God pour out the Holy Spirit on us and the meal we share for the sake of our common life, witness, and service in the world.

Around a core of faithful speech (praise of God; remembrance with thanksgiving; invocation and supplication), our prayer is articulated with transitional elements and framed by a variety of ancient corporate texts spoken or sung by the entire assembly, and concluding with the Amen of the people of God.

It is a long prayer, and not to be rushed. It needs to be genuinely corporate. A presider leads in order that all may take part with responses, brief songs, and exclamations drawn from Scrip- ture and proclamation, as well as by means of thoughtful reflection. It s calls for poetry and music, a sense of the rhythms of 2 praise and petition. It is the church drawn to the source and summit of our life, stammering forth God known in bread and wine.

EXCERPT

ORIGINS OF THE PRAYER

The eucharistic prayer derives from the word of Jesus, who "blessed" the bread and cup. Early Christian praying is clearly related to the table grace or blessing of food found in rabbinic Judaism and implied in terms that we read in the New Testament for Jesus' action at the Last Supper in the context of the Passover. In particular, the Jewish prayers for the grace at the conclusion of the meal (birkat ha-mazon) share certain formal similarities with early eucharistic prayers: the movement from blessing (praise) of God, thanksgiving for what God has done, and petition for God's future action in covenant faithfulness.

Clear parallels to this movement are found in early Christian prayers, such as the first-century text known as the Didache ("The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles"). The distinction between "blessing" versus "giving thanks" collapsed in the Christian setting, and indeed the term "thanksgiving" (eucharistia in Greek) prevailed over the other biblical term, "blessing" (berakah in Hebrew, eulogeia in Greek).

 

Stanley R. Hall is associate professor of liturgies, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Texas.