Obviously, the Eucharistic Prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving. But what makes it so essential to our worship that the church teaches that it is the "center and summit of the entire celebration" of the Mass (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 78)?
Our first clue
We cannot say for sure. We don’t know the exact words of blessing that Jesus used. Nor do we know what blessing St. Paul or any of the original disciples used.
The first time we get a clue to what might have actually been said during the blessing of the bread and wine doesn’t appear until 100 years or so after the Last Supper.
From Rome, St. Justin wrote: “We praise him by word of prayer and thanksgiving, to the best of our ability, over all the things we offer.” He also wrote that the presider “gave thanks at length” over the bread and wine in memory of Jesus, to which the people “gave their assent by saying, ‘Amen.” (Richard McCarron, The Eucharistic Prayer at Sunday Mass, p. 21)
That’s it. That’s all we know about what was going on in the Eucharistic Prayer in the second century. And that’s just in Rome. There wasn’t a standard form that the Christians in Palestine, Syria, North Africa, and all the other Christian churches were praying.
Controversy leads to standardization
What finally led to definitive, approved texts for the Eucharistic Prayer was controversy. In the 300s, there were difficult and protracted debates about the nature of Jesus and Jesus’ divinity. Gradually, the church leaders of the major cities of Christendom began to develop and common vocabulary for talking about Jesus (like the Nicene Creed, for example). And they evolved into a common way of praying the Eucharistic Prayer. The free-flowing, extemporaneous prayer of Justin’s day eventually gave way to standard prayers that were memorized from a written text.
Currently, there are nine Eucharistic Prayers approved for use in Roman Catholic liturgy. And there are many other prayers in use in the Eastern Rite churches and a few surviving Western Rite churches other than Roman.
What all of these prayer do is give thanks for the death and resurrection of Jesus. What the controversies of the fourth century taught us, however, is that what we say about Jesus is what we believe about Jesus.
So what we say, especially in this prayer, is very important. And not just what we say, but also what we do. After, all Jesus didn’t say, “Say this in memory of me.” He said, “Do this.”
What we do is we take bread and bless it and break it. We take wine and bless it and pour it out. These simple actions remind us of the breaking and pouring out of Jesus’ body and blood on the Cross.
The blessing that we pray is a remembering of that great act. But more than that, it is remembering that we, too, were baptized into that death.
Finally, the actions and the blessing of the Eucharistic Prayer is also a remembering that it doesn’t end with death. The death is, in fact, victory. By doing what Jesus told us to do, we remember that through death we are born to new life. That’s why we sing “Amen!” just as the Roman church did in Justin’s day.
What is the Eucharistic Prayer? No matter in what century or in what church it is prayed, no matter in what diocese or parish, no matter in what language or in what culture, the Eucharistic Prayer is the thing that reminds who and whose we are—a people of God, dead to sin, and risen in Christ.
Check out this webinar recording: “How to Teach the Eucharistic Prayer.” Click here for more information.
Please share your thoughts
Do you have a favorite line from one of the Eucharistic Prayers? Tell us what it is and what it means to you.