Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why the long prayer?

Readings for Sunday, September 23/ 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Psalm 54:3-6, 8
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

On most Sundays the goal of the homily is to break open the scriptures and see the riches they hold and how they apply to our lives. But this Sunday I want to do something a little different, which I hope will enhance your experience of the Mass. Many of you have noticed that I tend to use some options in the liturgy that aren’t always done – such as the altar cross, the maniple and the chalice veil. They all have  a reason for being used and in time I hope to be able to explain more about them if the chance is available. But today I want to focus on something that your eyes can’t notice but your ears can and your knees probably as well, namely the fact that I tend to use a different Eucharistic Prayer than is commonly used. The Eucharistic Prayer being that beautiful prayer of consecration for which you are kneeling between the Holy, Holy, Holy and the Our Father.

You’ll may have noticed that I tend to use the one that is longer and there is a purpose, and it’s not just to make you kneel longer and offer up your sufferings to the Lord to pour grace upon needy souls – although that’s not a bad thing to do! The one that I use is Eucharistic Prayer I and it has a beautiful history in the Church. And this is a large part of the reason that I use is exclusively on Sundays and Solemnities – because it helps to reconnect us with our heritage as Latin Rite Catholics.

When the Apostles were given the great commission to preach the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, they went out and began to form communities throughout the nations. Over the years these communities grew in the faith, evolving in little ways here and there according to local custom. And because they didn’t have texting, phone, email or facebook, they didn’t always know exactly what the others were doing – nor did they really concern themselves with it because they were all doing essentially the same thing. Though here and there one might experience different prayers, liturgical celebrations, vestments, and the like, they were all Catholic. The Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, of which we and over 95% of Catholic are a part, was one of those particular churches and thus has a particular history.

In the early church the prayers would change a little bit here and there. In our Latin or Roman tradition, around the mid-fifth century the Roman Canon was a staple of the Latin liturgy. The Roman Canon is what we know today as Eucharistic Prayer I and it has been almost exactly the same, with a few minor tweaks along the way, since the 400’s. Also, this was the only Eucharistic Prayer used in celebrations of the Latin Rite until the Second Vatican Council, so for 1500 years this was the Eucharistic Prayer of the Latin Rite. Most of the saints that we honor today never knew another Eucharistic Prayer than that one. And for this reason I like to make use of it in communal celebrations because it really unites us with the centuries-old history of Roman Liturgical practice.

That’s a good history lesson and all, but the question is how can we use it to help us enter more deeply into the Sacred Mysteries that we gather to celebrate?

First, it is very humble. All throughout the prayer it continually speaks of beseeching, begging and asking the Lord to accept and receive our gifts. It’s a very humble wording and it rightly reminds us of our right relationship with God – that we are not on the same plane with God. That we rely on Him for everything and that we are blessed to be here and even stand in His presence, much less receive Him into our flesh.

Second, the prayer reminds us that the Mystery we celebrate is primarily a sacrifice. We come not simply to gather at a communal meal but to experience in our own time the Sacrifice of Calvary – all throughout the prayer we hear words like offer, victim, sacrifice and others, as well as the connections with the sacrifices of those who have gone before us in faith. We are here to enter into the Cross and receive Our Lord in the flesh and this prayer makes it abundantly clear.

Lastly, and I think most importantly, it reminds us that all of us are celebrants in the liturgy. We all have a gift or gifts to offer. From my own personal history there were times in my life when I thought the offertory was the time I could check out because the priest was doing his thing, the choir just sang to fill the time and I just had to pass the collection basket along to the next person in the intermission. But the reality is that the Offertory of the Mass is, behind the Consecration and Holy Communion, arguably the most important part of the Mass for us. Rather than check out, it is the time for us to offer ourselves to the Lord. To place on the altar alongside the bread and wine the people we know are in need of prayers, the graces we need from God, and all the events of our week.

In the Eucharistic Prayer you may have noticed a couple of pauses that aren’t usually there. Before the consecration the prayer says “Remember Lord your servants…” and then there is a brief pause. In the text there is a letter ‘N.’ where the priest is asked to called to mind a name or names. This arises from the ancient practice of offering Mass for people, living or dead. So when I pause for a that moment in the Mass I am calling to mind the person or people for whom the Mass is being offered and you are invited to join your petition in at that time. Actually, more than invited, you’re somewhat expected. If we listen to the continuation of the prayer, it says, “and all gathered here whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them we offer this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them….” The prayer is mindful that the priest could be offering Mass for someone not present, but also that the people present are to be offering their sacrifice as well in union with that of the priest. Following the consecration there is another place where a similar line is prayed for those who have died, and another pause is made for us to call to mind those who have gone before us that we want to pray for.

It’s a most beautiful gift that Christ gives to us not only in being able to celebrate these mysteries but to unite them to Himself. You see, what happens in the Eucharist is similar to what happens to us! Simple bread and wine are brought forward, changed by the power of the Holy Spirit and used to change us and those around us by His grace. In a similar way the Lord invites us to offer our intentions, our friends and family, and our entire lives on the altar alongside the bread and wine that we ourselves might be transformed and thus be the transforming power at work in the world by God’s grace. But if we fail to enter into the Offertory and Eucharistic Prayers, we can miss that tremendous source of grace right before us.

So as we prepare to pray that ancient prayer of the Church and offer to God the Body and Blood of His Beloved Son, let us also offer up some particular intention today. During the offertory, call to mind someone by name or some particular grace for someone and spiritually place it on the altar of the Lord, that receiving the gifts we offer, they might be accepted, blessed, transformed and bestowed on us in return. 

***If interested in learning more about the Roman Canon and the beauty of the prayers it contains, check out Fr. Milton Walsh's book In Memory of Me: A Meditation on the Roman Canon.