The Preface and the Holy, Holy, Holy
Our study of the Mass in preparation for the introduction of the newly translated Roman Missal in late November brings us now to the Eucharistic Prayer. This part of the Mass begins with the Preface and ends with the Great Amen. It is the high point of the entire Mass, in which heaven and earth are united in glorifying the Triune God and through which we are sanctified.
In the next few columns we will examine each of the parts of this great prayer. They include:
- The Preface and Sanctus (which we will study in this column)
- The Epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit over the gifts of bread and wine
- The Institution Narrative and the Consecration in which bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ
- The Anamnesis, the memorial acclamation of Christ's saving Death, Resurrection, and Ascension
- The Oblation or Offering wherein the priest and people, in communion with the whole Church, offer anew the One Sacrifice of Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father
- The Intercessions by which we pray with and for the whole Church, including the living and the dead
- The Concluding Doxology by which we give praise and glory to God affirmed by the people's acclamation, Amen
Knowing the component parts of the Eucharistic Prayer helps us to share in it more fully as it unfolds in the celebration of Mass. Indeed, the aim of this study is not merely to convey information about the Mass but indeed to help us join in the Mass, heart and soul, and thus to experience together what Blessed John Paul II called "Eucharistic amazement" (see Mane nobiscum, no. 29).
We turn now to the Preface and its opening dialogue:
Priest: The Lord be with you.
People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.
This dialogue can be traced back as far as Hippolytus, a third century martyr, who left us a description of the Sacred Liturgy in his time. In a previous column we looked at the priest's greeting and the people's response, "And with your spirit." Recall that by saying, "...with your spirit," the people acknowledge the priest's identity and role through the Sacrament of Holy Orders by which he acts in the very Person of Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church, and by which he also prays to the Father on behalf of the whole Church.
Next the priest exhorts the people, "Lift up your hearts!" – a brief phrase that is Scripturally rich. We may think of the Book of Lamentations which says, "Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven," (Lam. 3:41) or we may think of St. Paul's exhortation, "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." He adds, "Set your minds on things that are above, not the things that are on earth" (Col. 3:1-2). At a minimum the exhortation, "Lift up your hearts" means that we should leave behind our daily preoccupations and lift our heart, our inmost being, to the Lord. Thus, in a spirit of wonderment, freedom and joy, we are to give our utmost attention to the great Mystery of Faith about to unfold before us. In spite of our unworthiness and weakness, we acknowledge our readiness to do so in the words, "We lift them up to the Lord."
And finally, the priest invites the entire congregation to be one in offering God thanks and praise and we respond, "It is right and just." This is a more literal translation of the Latin, "Dignum et justum est" and expresses both our obligation to give God thanks and praise and indeed, the privilege and joy of worshipping Him. In so doing, we are acting in the spirit of the Psalms which are inspired expressions of thanksgiving to God. In the same way, St. Paul tells us that we should always give God thanks (see, for example, Col. 2:7; 3:16-17; 1 Thess. 5:18; 1 Cor. 14:16-19; Eph. 5:19-20). In thanking God we add nothing to His greatness and glory but rather we grow in grace (see Preface for Weekdays IV). For as we thank the Father for sending His Son to assume our human nature so as to suffer, to die, and to rise, all for the sake of our salvation, we come to share more deeply in the new life He won for us. It is indeed, "right and just" to give God thanks and praise.
This brings us to Preface Prayer itself. It is called the Preface because it is the entryway to the entire Eucharistic Prayer and to the great Liturgy of Heaven. In the Eucharistic Prayer, the Lord Jesus becomes truly present in our midst and we are enabled to enter anew into His sacrificial offering of Himself, as if we were present at the Last Supper, indeed, as if we were standing at the foot of the Cross or peering into the empty tomb, or gazing up to heaven as the Lord ascended beyond human sight. In the Eucharist, these saving events are not merely recalled; rather, they are "re-presented" – made present again – so that we, in our time, can "re-live" them thus to be transformed according to the pattern of Christ's death and resurrection. This is how we are made fit "to share the lot of the saints in light" (Col. 1:12). In view of what is about to happen, then, the priest addresses words of praise and thanks to God the Father, through Jesus Christ. Typically, the Preface beings in this way: "It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord."
The next part of the Preface will vary according to the liturgical season, the feast day, or the occasion. All Prefaces make reference to the coming of God's Son as man into human history and to His saving death and resurrection. The Advent Prefaces speak about the two comings of Christ in history and at the end of time whereas the Christmas Prefaces focus on the Incarnation of Christ. The Lenten Prefaces give thanks for a season of spiritual renewal even as they look ahead to solemn celebration of Christ's Pasch in Holy Week and Easter. There are Prefaces for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles, Martyrs, Pastors, Virgins and Religious, Holy Men and Women. What ties together these varying Prefaces is their spirit of praise and thanksgiving anchored in Christ and His saving deeds in salvation history which we encounter anew in and through the Eucharist.
The Preface ends with reference to the heavenly liturgy. For example, Preface II for Sundays in Ordinary Time ends with these words: "And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominations, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim… " Our praise and thanks intensifies since we are share by way of foretaste in the heavenly liturgy. And so, it spills over into the "Holy, Holy, Holy" or "Sanctus" – an ancient hymn of praise drawn from Scripture, first the vision of Isaiah (6:2-3) and then the Book of Revelation (4:8): "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest." The three-fold repetition of the word "Holy" is an allusion to the Trinity, to God "thrice-holy;" in worshipping the Triune God we are made holy. The Sanctus is brought to conclusion with the words, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest." We recall these as words of acclamation that greeted Christ upon his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (see Matthew 21:9). Now we proclaim those same words as we accompany Christ, through His passion, death, and resurrection, to the new and eternal Jerusalem, that is, to the liturgy of heaven. Truly, the Preface brings us to the mystical heights of heaven where angels and saints, "a cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1) stand before God's throne in exultant joy. Truly heaven unites with earth in this great hymn of praise.
How beautiful so to be drawn into the mystery of God's love. No wonder the ancient Christian martyrs were convinced that they could not live without the Eucharist. Truly it is "right and just" to give our loving God thanks and praise!