The Liturgy of the Eucharist 1

Every Sunday, every Lord's Day, the church assembles here in its house and processes into its liturgy. That procession we talked about a few weeks ago. There is our gathering together, song, the sign of the cross, greeting, prayer. It takes a while to give us a sense of being here not as so many individuals, but as the baptized people who are the church.

When this church has so prepared itself, we open our book and read the scriptures, sing psalms and alleluias, listen to the homily and join in the prayers of intercession. Those prayers conclude what is really a whole liturgy in itself, the Liturgy of the Word. But from their earliest times, Christians have had another liturgy that has been bound to their keeping of the Lord's day. That is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. "Eucharist" is a word that comes from Greek and has to do with "giving thanks," with "praise" and with "blessing."

But eucharist begins quietly. We need that. We have just finished what ought to be hard work; concentrating on the scripture and on making prayers of intercession takes energy and leaves us both lifted up and a little worn out. So we take quiet moments to get the room and ourselves ready for eucharist. This is the time called the preparation of the table or preparation of the gifts.

Bread and wine are brought forward, such simple things, food and drink associated with the tables of ordinary people. Here they are called "fruit of the earth" and "work of human hands" as they are placed on the table in our midst. At the same time, the "work of human hands" is seen in the money that is collected, money or other gifts that are explicitly "for the church and the poor." Money could be collected in other ways and at other times; this is, after all, the age of credit cards. Why here and now? Because the money and the bread and wine are bound together. We are about to surround a single table and make a single prayer and eat of one bread and drink of one cup. Part of our preparation for this seems to be this gesture of pooling our resources, putting into one basket some of the money we have earned or received.

We get ready for eucharist by setting a table with bread and wine, but even more by showing some important things in this collection of money. One is that we are bound to one another-thus some of our contribution is for the work of the church. A second thing we show is that this bond is not selfish but is for the life of the world-thus some of our money is for the poor. And third, we show that what we do here together is bound to all the business and commerce and give-and-take of everyday life. Bread and wine show that, but perhaps money shows it even more clearly.

When all is ready, we stand up. In fact, we stand and gather around the table; only our numbers in this room keep us from coming into a circle. The one presiding stands at the table also and says four words to us that are not so much an invitation as an order: "Lift up your hearts." Some remember the Latin when it was only two words: Sursum corda! "Hearts on high!" we might say. And we answer that we are ready for this: "We lift them up to the Lord." Then the presider gives the invitation to do that deed that is the very heart not of the liturgy only but of Christian life: "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God." And we say: "It is right to give God thanks and praise." All right. It is. Giving thanks. Giving praise. That's the heart of things for us. Are we any good at it? Probably we are better at asking God, better at saying we're sorry, better at almost anything than this.

How do we think about those next few minutes? What do we think happens between this invitation and the Lord's Prayer just moments later? Some would say, "A lot of words by the priest while we all kneel down and pray." Others would say, "The priest consecrates the bread and wine." But there is a problem with answers like these. It still seems like we become a very passive audience right at the moment when we are supposed to be most active. The prayer that the presider speaks is the prayer of the church, our prayer. We show this when we sing those acclamations: "Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might," and "Christ has died, Christ is risen," and the Great Amen that we sing at the end of this prayer. All of those are shouts of approval, commands to go ahead with this prayer. They are like bursts of single-hearted song.

Or are they? Sometimes they are not. Part of that may be our fault, part the presider's fault, part the fault of words that are not strong enough to bear the burden here, and part the fault of music that just doesn't get the job done for us. All of those can be improved. Our failure to make these moments the high point of the liturgy shows that the liturgy is very human. It isn't magic. From the presider's side, it takes great strength to lead the eucharistic prayer well, speaking a long prayer to God in the name of this assembly. A person can't do that without sensing that the assembly is attentive, wanting to give thanks and praise.

That back-and-forth between the leader of the prayer and the ones praying is crucial. Posture, eyes, readiness to sing those acclamations-all these count. Despite an unfortunate distance between the leader and the assembly, we can get rid of all papers and books and have eyes and all senses toward the table. We can sing out, by heart, the "Holy, holy" and the other acclamations. Though the spoken words of the prayer are familiar, we can try to hear them and make them our own prayer so that our "Amen" is real at the end.

Though there are in English ten different forms that this prayer can take, each weaves together some common strands. Most obvious: This is a meal prayer. God is given all thanks and praise, not in the abstract but at a table on which are the bread and wine intended for the food and drink of this assembly. So this prayer echoes with all the meal blessings we say in our lives. We grow hungry and by God's grace are fed. All that we know about giving thanks we bring to this table. Over the bread and wine the presider puts words to our thanks, and they become words about Christ. All our thanks gravitate toward the body given up for the life of the world, toward the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, blood that was shed for all that sins might be forgiven. We call on the Holy Spirit to come upon these gifts and make them holy, make them for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. If we Catholics want to learn how to pray, then let us learn how to pray the eucharistic prayer. Learn how to lift up our hearts and give God thanks and praise. Learn it here, at this table, gathered close to one another, gazing at simple bread and good wine.

Copyright © 1992, Gabe Huck. Used by permission.