The Mass: Holy Eucharist, Holy Thanksgiving
The word eucharist is a Greek word that means thanksgiving. Its root, from which our word charity is derived, literally means a gift of love, in particular a gift of divine love. The earliest Fathers of the Church used the word Eucharist to describe the Sacrifice of the Mass. Holy Eucharist means Holy Thanksgiving.
We call the first part of the Mass the Liturgy of the Word. After a brief introductory rite this part of the Mass centers around readings from Scripture. The early Christians believed that not only was it important to hear the Word of God, but also that it was a sacred duty to remember the words and deeds of the Lord as they had been passed down to them from generation to generation from the time of the Apostles. In turn, it was their duty to preserve this precious inheritance and pass it on intact to their descendants.
We have four major readings every Sunday. The first reading is usually from the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. This reading is followed by a recitation from one of the Psalms, those famous hymns which celebrate the constant activity of the Word of God in our world. Next we have a reading usually taken from the pastoral epistles or letters of St. Paul. We call them pastoral because St. Paul tries to deal with actual problems faced by the first Christians—problems and concerns that we still face today in our own lives.
Finally, we come to the gospel. As we go through the cycle of the liturgical year we revisit the life of Christ from His Birth to His Passion, Death and Resurrection. We have His words, His parables, His actions, and His miracles continually before us. Not only do we celebrate great feasts like Christmas and Easter every year, but even on ordinary weekdays in Ordinary time we can encounter parables like that of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, arguably the two most well known stories in all of world literature.
The readings are followed by a homily delivered by the celebrant or deacon. The theme of the homily should derive from the theme expressed in the day’s readings and be a reflection upon that theme. Next, the priest and congregation bring the Liturgy of the Word to a conclusion by joining together to proclaim the Creed. We remember, we believe.
The second part of the Mass is called the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It begins with the Offertory. Members of the congregation, representing the entire congregation, bring up the gifts of bread and wine that will be offered to the Father. What is the purpose of the procession? What is the nature of these gifts?
It is a natural thing for people who have been blessed or gifted to want to give back. As the Psalmist says, “What return shall I make to the Lord for all that He has given me?” Here we have the basic reason for our attendance at Mass. We come not to get something out of it but to try to give thanks to the Lord for all that we have been given.
What can we give back for all we have been given? A few dollars? A tenth of all we earn? What do a few coins or pieces of paper matter to the Creator who has given us every good thing? The only thing we have of any real value is our immortal soul. Again the Psalmist says, “a soul contrite and humble You will not spurn.” Ultimately, the gift that we bring to the altar at the Offertory is the gift of our very selves, the promise that we will give our whole life in service to God and our neighbor.
After the Offertory procession the priest goes up to the altar for the preparation of the gifts. He prays that the bread might become “the bread of life,” and that the wine might become “our spiritual drink.” The he says the ancient prayer, called in Latin the Orate Fratres, which introduces all that is to follow.
“Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be
acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”
Please note that it is “our” sacrifice. The priest acts as our agent, our representative, our ambassador in presenting our offering to the Father. But it is still our offering. Will the offering of ourselves be acceptable? We answer the priest,
“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands
for the praise and glory of His name,
for our good, and the good of all His Church.”
After the completion of the Offertory, the priest begins the Eucharistic or Thanksgiving prayer. Using a prayer that is one of the oldest in the Liturgy he asks, “lift up your hearts.” We reply, “We lift them up to the Lord.” He says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and we reply, “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.”
Thanksgiving is the theme of the Preface. “Father, it is our duty and our salvation…to give you thanks through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.” Although there are different versions, each Preface ends by taking us into the company of the angels and saints at the heavenly altar where they surround the Lamb of God and sing His praise: “Holy, holy, holy…”
Here we are now at the Holy of Holies but what right have we to be there in such company? Will our gift be acceptable? The priest understands his own unworthiness and introduces a new ambassador. “We come to you Father, with praise and thanksgiving, through Jesus Christ your Son. Through him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.” In other words, our gift, our sacrifice, the gift of our very selves must be merged with the gift of our Lord, His own Sacrifice and Death on the Cross in order to become acceptable.
We then proceed to the Consecration of the Mass. The words of Consecration in our missals were being used by the earliest Christians even before they were written down by the Evangelists and St. Paul. Our Lord had said to “do this in remembrance of Me.” When we hear these words we are taken back to that first Eucharist which our Lord celebrated on Holy Thursday. When the priest pronounces the words of Consecration not only does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, the celebrant becomes Christ. We believe that at every Mass it is our Lord himself who is the celebrant, our agent, our ambassador.
If we believe this, we have been given a great gift, the gift of faith. Indeed, at this point we proclaim the “mystery of faith.” Now the heavenly and the earthly altars are one and we join with Mary, the apostles, and all the saints to give praise and glory to the Lamb of God. At the end of the Eucharistic prayer we join in the acclamation or “Great Amen.”
“Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.”
The prayers before Communion are a form of penitential rite with the dual objective of creating peace both within ourselves and with our neighbors. We have brought our gifts to the altar. The sacrifice has been offered and accepted and now we publicly prepare to receive back more than we could ever give—the Body and Blood of the Lord. Holy Communion is a sign of God’s love for us. God’s love is unconditional and unbounded but we realize that we must prepare ourselves for the reception of the Sacrament.
When we recite the Lord’s Prayer we recognize that since we all have the same Father we are all brothers and sisters. Moreover, we ask not only that we be forgiven and healed but also that we might forgive those who have offended us.
The Lord’s Prayer is followed by the Rite of Peace. We ask our Lord to grant us “peace and unity” and the priest prays that the “peace of the Lord be with you always.” He offers us Christ’s Kiss of Peace and asks us to pass it on to our neighbor as a sign of reconciliation. The Church has restored this ancient practice in its fullness. Some may remember that in the past the priest would frequently kiss the altar—itself a symbol of Christ—and turn to the congregation to say “Pax Vobiscum”—“Peace be with you.”
Just before the reception of Communion we say two more prayers asking for peace and forgiveness. First, we say the ancient Agnus Dei or Lamb of God, where we ask for Christ’s mercy and peace. Second, we paraphrase the words of the Roman centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Now we are ready to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.
After Communion there is very little left to be done in church. Our Eucharist or Thanksgiving has been accepted. Our gifts have been returned to us a hundredfold. The priest dismisses us telling us to “Go in the peace of Christ to love and serve the Lord.” We have been transformed and now we are dismissed to go and transform the little corner of the world in which we live. ###
Dr. Francis P. DeStefano