With my nieces and nephews in mind, I plan to turn my Thursday homilies into explanations of some surprising turns in Church History. The surprising turn I’ll treat with today demonstrates the way our Eucharistic Prayers were derived from the solemn Grace at Meals Jesus offered at the Last Supper.
At the Last Supper Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me.” That was such a brief directive that we wonder how the parts of our Sunday Mass derived from it. The answer is that the Mass is a development of the full Grace at Meals that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper. That formal Jewish Grace at Meals was called the Brakha.
The Brakha was a succession of three prayers. The first part, in Greek was called the Anamnesis, or “calling to mind.” It had the host asking the diners to recall God’s favors. The second part, the epiclesis, had the host calling down God’s spirit to unite the diners, and to empower them to speak to God. In the Eucharistesas, the third part of the Brakha, the diners responded to God’s favors by making themselves into pleasing gifts to God. (The words eu charis mean “pleasing gift.”)
Our English translations of Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels say that Jesus took up the bread “after the blessing,” but St. Paul’s account and the Consecration at our Masses say that Jesus took up the bread “after giving thanks.” But both versions translate the same Greek word. It was Eucharistesas or the third part of the Brakha. So, Jesus took up the bread after finishing the Brakha.
Now, there was one rule the host had to follow in leading the diners in the Brakha.
That rule stated that to insure his sincerity the host always had to use his own words in blending the three parts of this grace at meals.
In our present day Masses the priest uses Eucharistic Prayer One, Two, Three, or Four. They seem to be quite different, but if you examine them one by one, you will see that each of them blends the three parts of the grace that Jesus used at the Last Supper. The priest calls to mind God’s favors. He calls down his Spirit, and he asks people to make themselves into pleasing gifts to God.
The Acts of the Apostles, in speaking of Christians at their Lord’s Day ceremony, referred to the rite as “The breaking of the Bread.” But by the end of the first century, that third part of the Brakha, the Eucharistesas, had taken over as the Christians’ name for the entire rite. In a little handbook called “The teaching of the Apostles,” or in Greek, the Didache, we read,
“On the Lord’s Day, after you have come together, break the bread and offer the Eucharist, having first confessed your offences, so that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who has a quarrel with his neighbor join you until he is reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled. For it was said by the Lord, ‘In every place and time let there be offered to me a clean sacrifice.’”
Note, that three times the rite is referred to as their sacrifice. St. Augustine wrote that the sacrificial aspect of the Mass consisted in each diner making him or her self into a Pleasing Gift to God.
Next Thursday we will take up surprising things that happened with the Mass between the years 150 and 600.