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Ancient Christian Worship: The Eucharistic Prayer

“He Blessed”

… and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen. (Justin, First Apology 67)

The Eucharistic Prayer is called the “Anaphora” in Eastern Christianity. The corresponding term in the West is the “Canon.” It may also be called the “Great Thanksgiving.” In earliest times, this was the only prayer of the Eucharist proper. It carried the whole weight of interpreting the rite. The ritual gestures of the Eucharistic rite—setting the table, bringing forth the gifts, breaking the bread, etc.—were allowed to speak for themselves without being overburdened with words.

The bishop was to pray “at great length” and “according to his ability” (Justin, First Apology 65, 67). The Apostolic Tradition describes the entire presbytery “concelebrating” with the bishop by laying their hands on the Eucharistic elements while the bishop prayed.

The exact wording of the Eucharistic prayer was quite fluid. Senn in fact argues that, in earliest Christianity, “the Eucharistic prayer was as much the work of the bishop or presiding minister as the homily” (Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical [Fortress, 1997] 124). It was only in Emperor Justinian’s era (ca. 535) that fixity of wording was finally imposed. For the second and third centuries, the advice given in the Apostolic Tradition was more the order of the day:

It is not altogether necessary for [the bishop] to recite the very same words which we gave before as though studying to say them by heart in his thanksgiving to God; but let each one pray according to his own ability. If indeed he is able to pray suitably with a grand and elevated prayer, this is a good thing. But if on the other hand he should pray and recite a prayer according to a brief form, no one shall prevent him. Only let his prayer be correct and orthodox (ApTrad 10:4-5).

The development of the Eucharistic prayer is one of the great questions of liturgical research. Various Jewish precedents have been suggested as the original form from which the prayer was derived. Although earlier scholars sought to find a common origin for all Eucharistic Prayers, the trend today is to admit that different Christian communities probably used a diverse repertoire of anaphoras that eventually became conformed to each other in the fourth and fifth centuries.

As a general observation, up to around AD 300 Eucharistic prayers were relatively diverse, brief, and not oriented around a historical recitation of salvation history. By AD 400, however, Eucharistic prayers were more uniform, quite a bit longer, and almost universally historically oriented.

In its fully-developed form, the Eucharistic Prayer contained certain elements in a predictable order. Since the fourth or fifth centuries, the so-called “West Syrian” form has become more or less standard in both East and West. (The traditional Roman Canon is something of a hybrid of West Syrian and Egyptian patterns) Although rarely if ever encountered in pre-Constantinian texts, some knowledge of the fully developed form provides important background by which to discern earlier patterns of development. The order of the elements in this format is therefore described in the proceeding paragraphs. You can read two Eucharistic prayers of my composing, which draw on ancient sources, here and here. My preference, however, is to pray extemporaneously, following the traditional outline and wording, without attempting to memorize a set form and repeating it every time.

The Opening Dialogue

The opening dialogue calls the congregation to attention and signals that the Eucharistic prayer is about to begin. The dialogue is prefaced with a greeting, “The Lord be with you.” Syrian liturgies are unique in including a form of “the Grace” (2 Co 13:13) in the opening dialogue. The classic formula, “Lift up your hearts” is attested as early as the Apostolic Tradition (third century). Cyprian explained its significance: “He does this so he may be reminded that he himself should think of nothing but of the Lord” (On the Lord’s Prayer 31). Thus the worshipers, who have already heard the word of God and put before God their prayers and supplications, are invited to come even closer to the throne of grace (Heb 4:16) for this most central of all liturgical prayers.

The phrase, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and its response, is a borrowing from Jewish mealtime prayers. The Jewish grace after meals is introduced with a similar liturgical dialogue. It thus points to the original connection between the Eucharist and the agape.

The Preface

The “Preface” is an opening prayer of praise, generally addressing the themes of creation and redemption. In some instances, scholars have argued that the Preface of a later Eucharistic prayer once may have stood alone as an earlier form of consecration.

E. C. Ratcliff makes the intriguing suggestion that this introductory section may reflect a primitive stage when the presiding minister improvised the prayer in light of the occasion, with the Sanctus hymn following (“The Sanctus and the Pattern of the Early Anaphora,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History [1950] 29-36, 125-134). The section after the Sanctus may then have emerged as a form for non-prophetic ministers to recite. As earlier prophetic freedom gave way to institutionalization, both forms may have been repeated together, conserving tradition. The various prayer elements after the Sanctus then might reflect a later movement of standardization in the Eucharistic prayer; the elements do come in much the same order across a wide body of liturgical texts.

Whether Ratcliff is correct about the original prophetic nature of the Preface, it does seem in certain anaphoras to contain very ancient material. Cuming has suggested that the Preface to the Anaphora of Saint Mark originally stood alone as a complete prayer. The same has been argued for the Syrian Anaphora of the Twelve Apostles. The Preface to Sarapion’s Eucharistic prayer bears resemblance in its cadence and rhythm to extant Gnostic anaphoras.

The Sanctus

One feature that eventually became a part of all the early Eucharistic prayers was the Sanctus hymn, based on Isaiah 6:3 (“Holy, holy, holy,” etc.). This feature may have been imported from synagogue worship, or from Merkavah mysticism, from the Old Testament directly, or from different sources in different communities. Although Ratcliff has suggested that the Sanctus first entered the anaphora in Egypt, at the conclusion of the prayer, Spinks has argued quite convincingly that it was known in Syria from a very early period and only later came to Egypt (Bryan D. Spinks, The Sanctus in the Eucharistic Prayer [Cambridge, 1991]). At any rate, use of the Sanctus was all but universal in the East by about 400, and in the West by about 500.

The Post-Sanctus

West Syrian anaphoras traditionally include a lengthy section after the Sanctus in which the history of God’s saving deeds is rehearsed, from creation and the fall up to Jesus Christ. It is generally linked to the Sanctus by a repetition of the word “holy.” The Egyptian Post-Sanctus actually takes the form of an Epiclesis (see below) and uses “full” or “fill” as the link-word with the Sanctus.

The Institution Narrative

Most ancient Eucharistic prayers include a recitation of the Institution Narrative, Christ’s “words of institution” at the Last Supper. This practice eventually became universal, although there is no clear evidence for its inclusion before the third century (ApTrad). Even as late as Cyril, it is not at all clear that an Institution Narrative was part of the Jerusalem anaphora. The East Syrian tradition in particular was very slow in adopting an explicit institution narrative, although early on it made general reference to consuming the bread and wine as fulfilling the Lord’s command.

Cabié has conjectured that, before the Institution Narrative became incorporated into the prayer itself, it might been recited before the prayer (Robert Cabié, The Eucharist [Liturgical Press, 1986] 35). Conversely, Farris suggests that, at least in the first century, the institution narrative was associated not with the prayer but with the sharing of the elements themselves following the prayer (Stephen C. Farris, “Worship,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight [InterVarsity, 1992] 893). While either of these possibilities may be valid, one must also entertain the possibility that in many churches the Institution Narrative did not figure into the Eucharistic service at all (Andrew Brian McGowan, “‘Is There a Liturgical Text in This Gospel?’ The Institution Narratives and Their Early Interpretive Communities,” Journal of Biblical Literature 118 [1999] 73-87). The earliest sure reference to its liturgical use is in the Apostolic Tradition. Even here, of course, it must be conceded that there is no clear evidence that this anaphora was ever actually used!

The Anamnesis and Oblation

The Anamnesis is the “calling to mind” or “making remembrance” or “re-presentation” of the saving works of Jesus. It is generally followed by an Oblation or “offering,” and gives a theological interpretation of the presentation of the gifts with which the Eucharistic liturgy commenced.

The Epiclesis

The Epiclesis is an invocation. It is generally an invocation of the Holy Spirit, although there is a primitive Egyptian tradition of invoking the Logos, as seen in Athanasius, Sarapion, and several of the lesser Ethiopic anaphoras that are Egyptian in origin. In the earliest Eucharistic prayers to include this feature, the Holy Spirit was invoked to produce the “fruits” of Communion among those who were to receive the bread and the cup. These “fruits” would include healing, sanctification, unity, spiritual renewal, and other blessings. Later epicleses specifically asked for God to send the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. This specific petition exists in several forms beginning in the fourth century.

Dix discusses the content of the Eucharistic prayer by dividing it into a “first part” and a “second part.” Without necessarily endorsing Dix’s theory of the historical development of the Eucharistic Prayer, his general description of its contents is a helpful summary. Dix’s “first part” constitutes the earliest stratum of praise and thanksgiving. The “second part” essentially elaborates upon this stratum in order to make the meaning of the Eucharist more explicit. First, Christ’s command to remember him in the bread and the cup is recalled, either by recitation of the Institution Narrative or at least by making mention of Christ’s command in the anamnesis. Then, further interpretive components are added: a prayer of oblation to interpret the offering of the people’s gifts, a prayer for fruits of communion to interpret the communion rite proper, and finally a fully-developed epiclesis to interpret the significance of the prayer itself.

The Intercessions, Doxology and Amen

Intercessions were not originally a part of the Eucharistic prayer. Several fourth-century liturgies have intercessions led by a deacon following the anaphora. They eventually became common in all Eucharistic prayers. At about the same time, the corporate prayers following the sermon disappeared from most of the early liturgies.

The Eucharistic prayer concluded with a Trinitarian Doxology. Finally, the congregation would respond with “Amen.” Justin placed great emphasis on this act as the congregation’s ratification of what the presiding minister had prayed.

During the prayer, the congregation would stand: “After this let the sacrifice follow, the people standing, and praying silently” (ApConst 2:7). But silence was not necessarily practiced in all congregations. Most ancient Eucharistic prayers from the fourth century on contain acclamations of various sorts—”Amen,” “I believe,” etc.—especially connected with the Institution Narrative and the Epiclesis. It may be that these are stylized versions of what were originally spontaneous outbursts of praise.

A Few Comments

I strongly prefer this kind of prayer to the usual Baptist/free-church procedure of separate prayers over the bread and the cup, at least in a setting that is something other than an actual agape meal. By the end of the first century, the symbolic actions surrounding the bread and the cup had already been joined together in the church’s worship with little indication that a full meal originally separated the two on the night of the Last Supper. A unified prayer seems to be a more effective means of spiritually preparing for and experiencing Communion, especially if congregational responses of one kind or another are included.

In my previous church, I was able to get away with a rather “catholic” approach to Communion, and I actually received several appreciative comments about it. My sense is that even Baptists know that our usual Communion routine leaves much to be desired. Practically any attempt to give serious attention to the ritual is likely to be greeted with comments about how it seemed “more meaningful” because we did something different.

We began with the traditional opening dialogue (“Lift up your hearts,” etc.) and an extemporaneous prayer of praise, culminating in a praise hymn featuring the word “Holy.” Sometimes we sang the second verse of the traditional hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy”; sometimes we sang a more contemporary chorus. Once on Maundy Thursday we even sang the traditional Schubert Sanctus arrangement. Then there was more extemporaneous prayer: a thanksgiving for God’s work in salvation and especially for the saving work of Christ, and finally an invocation of the Holy Spirit to descend and bestow the “fruits” of Communion on all who partook. Finally, we recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

Sometimes I included the Institution Narrative within my prayer; sometimes I recited the words after the prayer as part of the invitation to receive the bread and the cup. Next, I gave way to Baptist sensibilities and gestured for the deacons to distribute the bread, then the cup, to worshipers who remained in their seats 🙂 We received the cup with a simple word of invitation and immediately began distributing the cup with no additional praying or commentary.

Oh, and one more thing. I banned the words “observance” and “ordinance” from the printed bulletin as a description of what we were doing. This portion of the service was consistently called “The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” I hope that for many, that is what it was: not the funeral dirge for an absent Lord but the joyful celebration of the risen Christ in our midst.

Next: The Breaking of Bread and Communion

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