The View from the Pew Part IV: The Liturgy of the Eucharist (Part I)
As the Liturgy of the Eucharist contains so much, I’ll be dividing discussion of this part of the Mass into two columns.
One starting point though: throughout all of this, my hope is that all of us have a sense of the sacred. The Eucharist is not just some representation; it is the Body and Blood of our Lord, re-presented on the altar. Jesus says: “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world. Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink. The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the Father who has life sent me and I have life because of the Father, so the man who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6:51, 53-57). This can’t be overstated enough; we come together as a community to welcome Jesus on our altar, and welcome Jesus into our body and soul at Communion. This is the ultimate sign of Jesus’ love for us; it is food for the journey. So many Catholics aren’t aware of this due to lack of catechesis over the years, which is why we always need to invite people to come to Mass, and also educate others that Jesus created one Church. This is not meant to be anti-ecumenical; I’m so glad we do so much with those of other faiths. But the reality is many Catholics are in evangelical churches for the wrong reasons. Mass isn’t about entertainment. It’s meant to bring us closer to God, and nothing does that better than God Himself in Holy Communion. So let’s look at what happens at this part of the Mass.
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist our attention turns to the altar. At the Last Supper Christ instituted the Mass and gave us His life on Good Friday; the Eucharist is a re-presentation of that whenever the priest, who represents Jesus, stands in his place at the altar to carry out what the Lord said to do in His memory. Jesus says “do this in memory of me,” and as such the Church arranges the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist to correspond to the words and actions of Jesus. Namely, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):
a) At the Preparation of the Gifts, bread and wine with water are brought to the altar, the same elements, that is to say, which Christ took into his hands. (Remember we are told blood and water flowed from Jesus’ side when the soldier pierces him with a lance.)
b) In the Eucharistic Prayer, thanks is given to God for the whole work of salvation, and the offerings become the Body and Blood of Christ.
c) Through the fraction and through Communion, the faithful, though many, receive from the one bread the Lord’s Body and from the one chalice the Lord’s Blood in the same way that the Apostles received them from the hands of Christ himself.
Just as before dinner one sets a table, we do the same thing at the Liturgy of the Eucharist. You’ll notice the servers and other ministers help arrange things. Set out on the table are the chalices holding the wine, along with the celebrant’s chalice and a purificator. That is used to wipe out the chalices after Communion, and is also used the purify the chalices as people drink from them. Also on the altar is a corporal, a technical term for the cloth that is on the altar to catch any fragments of the Eucharist than can fall as the Eucharist is broken and plates are cleaned.
Each week you’ll notice people bring up the gifts. The Church tells us that “it is a praiseworthy practice for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful.” Many years ago, people would bring other gifts as a way of offering them to God at this time; and the General Instruction notes that even though this isn’t the case, “the rite of carrying up the offerings still keeps it spiritual efficacy and significance.” Today, the collection is taken up right before this time as the altar is prepared and takes the place of bringing up gifts along with the bread and wine, but it’s why the children are invited to bring up gifts at this time too.
Once the offerings are received by the deacon (or the priest if there is no deacon) they are placed on the altar, and the priest says a prayer of them, silently if there is a song, or out loud if there is no song. You’ll notice a few things happen. Sometimes the bread and wine are incensed; this is a completely optional part, and something we often do at Saint Joseph’s during the Easter Triduum and at Christmas. The priest is incensed as well by the deacon, as are the people, because each of us is sacred to God as we partake in this celebration of the Eucharist. On most days though when we aren’t using incense, what follows is the washing of the hands, where the priest prays “Lord wash away my iniquity, cleanse me from my sins” as a reminder that what is about to happen is sacred, and I as a the priest am asking to be drawn closer to Jesus and for His help during this sacred time.
Right after this part, there is a prayer said again over the offerings that varies based on the feast of the day, and we move to what is called a preface, a prayer preceding the Eucharistic Prayer that has different words based on the occasion (e.g., Ordinary Time, Saint’s Feast Day, Funeral, Easter Season, etc.). The preface often includes a thanksgiving.
The Eucharistic Prayers then follow. There are four main prayers the priest can choose from. According to the GIRM:
a) Eucharistic Prayer I, or the Roman Canon, which may always be used, is especially suited for use on days to which a proper text for the Communicants (In communion with those whose memory we venerate) is assigned or in Masses endowed with a proper form of the Hanc igitur (Therefore, Lord, we pray) and also in the celebrations of the Apostles and of the Saints mentioned in the Prayer itself; likewise it is especially suited for use on Sundays, unless for pastoral reasons Eucharistic Prayer III is preferred.
b) Eucharistic Prayer II, on account of its particular features, is more appropriately used on weekdays or in special circumstances. Although it is provided with its own Preface, it may also be used with other Prefaces, especially those that sum up the mystery of salvation, for example, the Common Prefaces. When Mass is celebrated for a particular deceased person, the special formula given may be used at the proper point, namely, before the part Remember also our brothers and sisters. (This is also the most ancient prayer of the four).
c) Eucharistic Prayer III may be said with any Preface. Its use should be preferred on Sundays and festive days. If, however, this Eucharistic Prayer is used in Masses for the Dead, the special formula for a deceased person may be used, to be included at the proper place, namely after the words: in your compassion, O merciful Father, gather to yourself all your children scattered throughout the world.
d) Eucharistic Prayer IV has an invariable Preface and gives a fuller summary of salvation history. It may be used when a Mass has no Preface of its own and on Sundays in Ordinary Time. On account of its structure, no special formula for a deceased person may be inserted into this prayer.
I go back and forth depending upon the week, though my favorite is the fourth Eucharistic Prayer because it has a long and beautiful explanation of how God acts out of love time and time again.
However, there are more than this. There are two Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation, which are used when we are trying to convey the mystery of reconciliation in a special way. The Lenten Season is particularly appropriate for these. Then there are four Eucharistic Prayers for various needs. These included The Church on the Path of Unity; God Guides His Church along the Way of Salvation; Jesus, the Way to the Father and Jesus, Who Went About Doing Good. They could be used for a particular tie-in to a reading or season or message. There also used to be several Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children, but these were eliminated in 2011.
Next week, we’ll look a little more at Holy Communion and the later parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Have a very blessed week! ~Fr. Paul
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