The Priest’s Praying Body, continued.

Manual Acts 2: Benedictus to Institution Narrative

This post picks up from that published here on 12 December. Responses to the previous post confirmed that a simple guide to what the priest might do with their body during the Eucharistic Prayer is needed and that it is helpful to know the reasons for the different actions. They also show that this is not just a thing for Anglo-Catholics, new priests from all backgrounds want to celebrate the sacrament with reverence in a way that supports the devotion of their congregations. One student at the Scottish Episcopal Institute compared this art of celebration to Balinese dancing.

It is worth noting that in the Scottish Episcopal Church, as in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion, there are no legally required things for the priest to do during the Eucharistic Prayer, with the single exception of the manual acts required in the two eucharistic liturgies of the Scottish Book of Common Prayer. Apart from decisions to the contrary by the liturgical authority of the College of Bishops and General Synod in the Province, the Bishop in their diocese and the incumbent in their charge, a priest might say the prayer while standing on their head or while pirouetting around in a circle. This freedom puts the responsibility on each priest to act as a faithful and creative liturgical practitioner. To do this one needs to know the tradition, in order to understand why one chooses an option from it, departs from it or adapts it to different circumstances. By ‘the tradition’ I mean the great stream of Christian practice at the Eucharist which starts at the Last Supper and is handed on to us in a particular place – for example at my Church in Edinburgh we live in the Scottish Episcopalian tradition, which shares much with the English Anglican tradition, has significant influences from the Christian East, has been influenced by the twentieth-century liturgical movement and is rooted in the medieval Latin tradition which has its own roots in the early liturgy of Rome and Gaul. At my Church, as with others, there are also significant local traditions which influence the way we celebrate the Eucharist. This commentary aims to be an introduction to this broad tradition.       

The ‘orans posture’ during the Eucharistic Prayer

To continue the commentary: after the Benedictus comes a prayer to the Father in thanksgiving for the work of the Son which the 1982 Liturgy calls the ‘Christological Prayer’. Here the priest resumes praying on behalf of the community and so resumes the raised hands of the ‘orans posture’ described in the previous post.

The posture changes at the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ (1982 Liturgy) or ‘the Consecration’ (Book of Common Prayer) which is a liturgical presentation of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-25; Matthew 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:17–20). This is where the ‘manual acts’ are found in the Book of Common Prayer. Here attention shifts to the elements, bread and wine mixed with water, and to what Jesus did with them.

Marcos Zapata, The Last Supper (1750), Cuzco Cathedral, Peru

Like Jesus at the Last Supper, the priest takes the bread and takes the cup at the moment each is mentioned, holding them slightly above the altar. This is the most ancient action at this point in the prayer. The actions and words at this time emphasise that it is Christ who is active here in the person of the priest. The priest is not acting here by their own power and this is the meaning of the doctrine that the priest acts ‘in persona Christi’ (‘in the person of Christ’). This is not an argument for the maleness of the priesthood, nor does it suggest that priests should have beards or be circumcised. It is the human priest who is being drawn in to share the priestly action of Christ by virtue of his words to the Apostles, ‘do this’. It is an invitation to great humility on the part of the priest.

In the Churches of the West this is the most sacred part of the Canon and for the last thousand years attention has been focussed on this action of the Word as the moment that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Eastern Churches generally place the focus on the action of the Spirit in the Epiclesis, and this Eastern emphasis has also influenced the Scottish Episcopal Church. Today, however, many hold that it is the action of the Word and Spirit in the whole Anaphora, rather than at a particular moment, which is consecratory. As evidence for this we find within the tradition that there are Eucharistic Prayers that lack one or other of these sections – the Roman Canon has no real Epiclesis and the East Syrian Anaphora of Addai and Mari has no Institution Narrative. In our western tradition the basic action and words of taking and blessing, handed on from Jesus and the Apostles, have been enriched by a number of actions to express what is being done: breaking, blessing, touching, showing and kneeling.

Taking the Bread

The Book of Common Prayer says that the bread should be broken when the priest says that Jesus broke the bread, but in modern liturgies this is generally not done because the ‘breaking of the bread’ or ‘fraction’ (from the Latin word for breaking, fractio) is done after the Canon. It is for this reason that the bread should not be broken at this point unless one is celebrating Holy Communion using a rite in the Book of Common Prayer where it is demanded.  

Another custom related to Jesus’ actions, this time taken from the Roman Missal, is that some priests make the sign of the cross over the bread and the cup with the right hand when they pick them up with the left. We see this in the Peruvian painting of the Last Supper above. This gives expression to Jesus ‘giving thanks’ over the bread and cup, which in the Roman Rite is expressed by the word benedixit, ‘he blessed’. In the middle ages this word suggested the contemporary idea of blessing with the sign of the cross – though Jesus himself would have used a Jewish prayer of blessing which is the origin of the Eucharistic Prayer. There is no requirement to use this gesture here but it may help to focus the mind, although for some it would be a distraction.

Archbishop Justin Welby consecrating a lot of bread and wine

Another gesture is ordered by the ‘manual acts’ in the Prayer Book which require that all vessels containing the elements should be touched at this time. This indicates that they are to be consecrated during the ‘Prayer of Consecration’, but it is not necessary to do this in other rites where a simple intention to consecrate all that needs to be consecrated will suffice. It is good to make this intention, preferably before ordination, as it saves potential confusion later. Some intend to consecrate all that is on the corporal – the square white cloth placed on the altar for the Eucharist – but that may be too restrictive as sometimes there is too much bread and wine to fit on the corporal.

Archbishop Rowan Williams elevating the host

A common custom is to elevate each element to show it to the congregation after reciting Jesus’ words, followed by an act of reverence: a profound bow or a genuflection. A profound bow is a bending at the waist, as opposed to a nodding of the head alone, and a genuflection is going down on the right knee and rising again. The traditional custom was to genuflect before and after each elevation but the Roman Church in the 1960s simplified this to one genuflection after each elevation and this is followed by many Anglican priests. This gesture has its origin not in the example of Christ but in the passionate desire of his disciples. The elevation was demanded by the devotional sense of the medieval laity who wished to see the Sacrament which they so rarely received. It came in for the host (the consecrated bread) alone during the late twelfth century and spread rapidly, with a second elevation of the chalice slowly joining it but not becoming universal until the sixteenth century. The prime purpose of these second-millennium elevations is to show the Sacrament but they also took on the symbolic meaning of Jesus being lifted up onto the cross. It has also taken on some of the meaning of a much older elevation of the bread which has already been mentioned, that done by the priest when he lifted it before the Lord’s words were said. This was understood as a gesture of offering the bread to God to be transformed into the Body of Christ but it also picked up the idea of offering Christ’s sacrifice. Images of the priest elevating the host before a theophany, a manifestation of God and the heavenly court, fit with the idea that the priest is pleading the one sacrifice of Christ before the Father at this point but strictly this offering is done in the following prayer. 

Juan Carreño de Miranda (1666), Elevation at Mass before a Theophany

In the Scottish Liturgy the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ or ‘Prayer of Consecration’ is followed by the ‘Anamnesis and Oblation’, as in all Anaphoras. After this, in a position where the Scottish Liturgy follows Eastern and not Western custom, comes the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the elements and the congregation: the Epiclesis. To learn more about the gestures used in these prayers, look out for the final post where we will continue to explore the theological implications of the various actions – what is really going on when we do the Eucharistic Prayer.

It would be possible in a short study like this just to give simple directions on what to do during the Eucharistic Prayer but, as noted in the first post, such directions are not usually given in Anglican Liturgies today so priests need to make a choice. Simple directions would be what social scientists call a ‘thin description’ but I hope this gives more of a ‘thick description’ by including the context, history, meaning and intention of the various actions so we can make an informed choice. A full ‘thick description’ would also include the context of the denomination and congregation where the liturgy is celebrated but I hope this series of posts gives the raw materials for good practice here to be discerned.

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