So, having relished the poetry -- and I invite you to keep doing that, the words have a real potency to them (and as I didn't get to post other bits over the weekend, I'll use them in my examples in the days to come) -- let's talk a little bit about how the eucharistic prayer is set up.
There are 10 eucharistic prayers in the sacramentary. And it's a little like having 4 gospels, in that they don't all do things the same way, or in exactly the same order, and it's all good. The diversity is a value, not a problem to be fixed. So, while I'm going to talk about the major dynamics of the eucharistic prayer, how each prayer concretely works them out can be different.
The eucharistic prayer has three main parts: thanksgiving, the institution narrative and petition. You could even say that it has two main parts, thanksgiving and petition, and in the institution narrative a bridge that serves as both thanksgiving and petition.
Today, the first part: Thanksgiving. In a number of the eucharistic prayers, especially the ones we tend to hear (prayers II & III) the first section of the prayer recalls how God has been good to us.
From Mass of Reconciliation I:
Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,God has called us to a better life, he has forgiven us, he has not abandoned us, he has bound himself closely to us. These are the deeds we recall. For them we are thankful.
we do always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise.
You never cease to call us to a new and more abundant life.
God of love and mercy,
you are always ready to forgive;
we are sinners,
and you invite us to trust in your mercy.
Time and again
we broke your covenant,
but you did not abandon us.
Instead, through your Son, Jesus our Lord,
you bound yourself even more closely to the human family
by a bond that can never be broken.
Eucharistic Prayer III has no first part of its own; instead it allows us to choose from a variety of prefaces, each which has its own particular thrust. Some prefaces recall Jesus' birth, others his resurrection, others such things as Pentecost, Jesus overcoming temptation, the Annunciation, the Sacred Heart, marriage, death, the example of the saints and apostles, creation. Every major feast of the church or sacramental event in our lives has a special preface written for it, as do major figures of the church like Mary, Joseph, Peter and Paul, John the Baptist. Countries will have special prefaces for national holidays as well; so in the U.S. we have a preface for Thanksgiving and Independence Day. I'm sure someone somewhere has a preface for St. Patrick's Day (although one of the prefaces for holy men and women would probably suffice).
Why have all of these additional texts? Well, because thanksgiving is specific. Our sense of who God is and what we can expect from him emerges from very specific experiences, both in scripture and in our lives. If you want an analogy, think of your relationship with someone else that's important to you, perhaps your parents or a partner. Your gratitude for them is grounded in seriously concrete moments, isn't it? My dad worked three jobs at one point to help put me and my siblings through school, and my mom took on another one in addition to driving us around and providing for us at home. When I turned 40, my sister made a book filled with photographs and letters from friends from all parts of my life. In October I spent a day with my aunt Kathleen and Uncle Stan wandering around where our ancestors are buried.
And when I was home at Christmas, I got to see where my brother works and hang out with him, and I got to go back and sit quietly in the theater where he and I used to be in plays. I also got to go to a movie and lunch with my nephew Jimmy, I got to paint ornaments with two of my nieces, I got to spend time playing with my other nephew and nieces and hold my littlest nephew, I got to have lunch with one of my aunts and see my cousin get married... When I think of how I love all of them, it's concrete moments like these, like literally sitting and watching each of my nieces paint an ornament, or the smell of the theater, that come to mind.
So, that's the first major beat you'll find in the eucharistic prayers (although sometimes not in the first section) -- remembrance and thanksgiving. God has been good to us, and so we offer our thanks. It's a little like what we do at the dinner table -- before we eat, we give thanks. Sometimes I even encourage people, if you get distracted during the early part of the prayer, offer up some concrete event or person that you're grateful for right now.
Tomorrow: Petition, and then we'll go back and talk about the institution.