December 28, 1997
Brother John Raymond
A few years ago I had the great grace of visiting the Holy Land. While there I saw the spot believed to be the birthplace of Our Lord. A star marked it. In the little Benedictine monastery chapel that I used to attend for Mass here in Petersham they had a rug underneath the altar that, appropriately enough, had a star right in the middle of it. I couldn't help but reflect on the similarity between the birth of Our Lord in the cave at Bethlehem and His continued rebirth on the altars of our churches.
Now we know that the words of Our Lord in the Eucharistic Prayer go right back to the Last Supper. But historically speaking the entire Eucharistic Prayer does not seem to have been fixed for a few centuries. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Justin Martyr gives us the earliest witness for the basic order of the Eucharistic celebration. Around the year 155 AD he wrote to the pagan emperor Antoninus Pius, explaining what Christians do. Regarding what we today call the Eucharistic Prayer he says that after the bread and wine mixed with water is brought to the presider over the assembly, "He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgiving, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying, 'Amen'...deacons give to those present the 'eucharisted' bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent." (#1345) St. Justin does not tell us what the Eucharistic Prayer actually was in his time.
In the collection of disparate texts known as the Didache (ca. 140 AD), chapters 9 and 10 could be the text of a sacramental rite. It begins, "With regard to the Eucharist, give thanks in this manner..." (Deiss, "Springtime of the Liturgy, 74-76). Some scholars take this, however, to be simply a religious meal, perhaps one that preceded a sacramental celebration.
The earliest dated Eucharistic Prayer that resembles ours goes back to about the year 225. It is contained in the Apostolic Constitutions of Hippolytus. The prayer contained therein may be regarded as originating in Rome but it cannot be determined the extent to which it represents the practice of the Roman Church. The author says it is a composition based on tradition. The author proposes it for the bishop's use but adds, "It is by no means necessary that he [the bishop] use the very words I have put down." (The Eucharist, Robert Cabie, pg. 26)
We do know with certainty that a number of the component parts of the Roman Eucharistic Prayer at least go back to the fourth century. No text has survived from the Church of Africa, which was the first to use Latin in its liturgy. The earliest witness to the practice of the Roman Church comes to us from St. Ambrose in Milan. He cites a lengthy passage that is very close to the central part of the Roman Canon.
By the time of Pope Vigilius the Roman Eucharistic Prayer has certainly taken on a more fixed character. In this pope's letter to Profuturus of Braga in 538 he says, "We do not have a different set of Mass prayers for particular seasons or feasts, but always use the same text in consecrating the gifts offered to God. When we celebrate the feasts of Easter, the Lord's Ascension, Epiphany, or the saints of God, we add special paragraphs proper to the day." (Vigilius, Ep. 2,5) The Roman Eucharistic Prayer cannot be said to have reached its definitive state until after St. Gregory the Great (590-604).
During the Octave of Christmas we have this addition to our present Eucharistic Prayer: "In union with the whole Church we celebrate that day when Mary without loss of her virginity gave the world its Savior. We honor Mary, the ever-virgin mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God." (Sacramentary)
I would imagine that some of us might have some of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass memorized from hearing them so often. Now it might be true that you are not a priest by ordination, but "the common priesthood of the faithful...in its own way shares in the one priesthood of Christ. (Lumen Gentium, #10) I would like to suggest that if one takes the time to meditate on and pray these Eucharistic Prayers outside of Mass one can discover the depth and richness of them. Give it a try.