The Priest’s Praying Body : Manual Acts 4 – when is Jesus present?

The previous post in this commentary on the priest’s actions during the Eucharistic Prayer ended with the words, ‘Finally, after the people have given their assent to the prayer by the final “Amen”, the priest genuflects before the presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar’. This raises the question posed in the second post of this series: what is really going on when we pray the Eucharistic Prayer and how do the gestures help us experience this. Are the external actions in accord with the inner reality of the rite?

There is also a problem – when does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? If you answer ‘they don’t’, you are taking part in a different conversation.

Tintoretto, Last Supper (1593), San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

What happens in this prayer is what Jesus wanted to happen when he said ‘do this in memory of me’. To help us understand this, he said the bread is his body and the wine his blood, and these clear statements are related to his death on the cross, not only by the location of these words at a meal just before the crucifixion but because the body is ‘broken’ (1 Corinthians 11:24) and the blood is ‘poured out’ (Matthew 26:28). Paul confirms this by his teaching that ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). One can debate the meaning of the different versions of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in the New Testament, but we cannot get behind the canonical text and it needs to be read in the context of the tradition that formed, received and transmitted it. We can only work with what we have received, and in this case we believe it has been inspired by the Holy Spirit.   

The Eucharistic Prayer is thus about Jesus’s presence and sacrifice and, as its words confirm, about their relationship to us. Whatever individual Episcopalians may believe, the Scottish Episcopal Church firmly believes, with the mainstream Christian witness throughout the ages, that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We pray to God the Father in the epiclesis that ‘they may BE the body and blood of your Son’ (emphasis added). Episcopalian writers have traditionally been sceptical of attempts to explain the change by theories such as transubstantiation, but they have resolutely affirmed this change. Bishop William Forbes of Edinburgh wrote of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, ‘the word we hear; the effect we feel; the manner we know not; the presence we believe… as to the manner of the presence, we define nothing rashly, we do not anxiously enquire’ (Considerationes Modestae et Pacifice [1658], p.379).

Bishop William Forbes, painting at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.

The tradition of the Western Latin Church is clear that what makes this change in the bread and wine are the Lord’s words, ‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’. This is expressed by the gestures of elevation and genuflection that follow these words. By calling the institution narrative ‘the consecration’, even when these gestures were removed, the Anglican tradition maintained this same emphasis on the spiritual power of the Lord’s words – one could almost say that classical Anglican liturgy, although much influenced by sixteenth-century Protestant theology, is a fossilisation of late medieval Latin piety.

The Scottish Episcopalian tradition, however, developed a different emphasis and this challenges the traditional gestures. It prays in the epiclesis that the bread and wine may ‘be’ (1982) or ‘become’ (1764, 1970) the body and blood of Christ AFTER the institution narrative. This seems to imply that the institution narrative is not consecratory. An epiclesis had been added to the Canon in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer but there, and in the 1637 Scottish Book of Common Prayer, it was placed BEFORE the institution narrative. It could thus be understood simply as a preparation for ‘the consecration’, as is the function of the epiclesis which has been inserted in the modern Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayers. In the 1764 Scottish Liturgy, however, and in subsequent Scottish Liturgies, the epiclesis was moved and placed after the institution narrative, in imitation of Eastern Anaphoras and following a tradition already found in the 1718 Communion Office of the Non Jurors (Anglican clergy who remained loyal to the House of Stuart). This prayer for the action of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist is also found, for very different reasons, after the institution narrative in the liturgical directions of the 1644 Westminster Directory adopted by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

To traditional Western theology, the place and wording of the Scottish epiclesis after 1764 is like praying that a lottery ticket might win after it has already won the prize. If we take the words of the epiclesis seriously, it seems premature to offer honour by our gestures to what is still just bread and wine. The 1982 use of ‘be’ rather than ‘become’ does however open the door to a reconciliation of the two traditions, as does the modern ecumenical theology in which the whole Eucharistic Prayer is consecratory. The problem is that for the last millennium Eastern Orthodox Christians have said that the action of the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis transforms the bread and wine whereas Western Latin Catholic Christians say that it is the Lord’s words in the institution narrative. This problem is compounded by the existence, noted in the previous post, of ancient Anaphoras that lack a real epiclesis (the Roman Canon) or an institution narrative (the East Syrian Anaphora of Addai and Mari), which suggests that the two alternatives for the localisation of presence are neither entirely sufficient. As a sign of this problem, the Roman Catholic Church in 2001 recognised the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari without the institution narrative – if the principal upholders of the Latin tradition can do this, we should be able to understand the Scottish Liturgy in a way that does justice to both its Eastern and Western heritage.

Syro-Malabar Priests celebrate the Anaphora of Addai and Mari

The Church of the first Christian centuries held firmly to the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but was not bothered about a ‘moment of consecration’, and I would suggest that this gives us a way of understanding the Scottish Liturgy. Looking to the first millennium, twentieth-century ecumenical liturgical theology came to see the whole Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory and, without subscribing to an artificial ‘second naiveté’ or moving the ‘moment of consecration’ to the final ‘Amen’, I would suggest that we see the whole Prayer as consecratory with significant moments revealing the work of the Word and Spirit in the transformation of the elements at the institution narrative and the epiclesis. When we pray in the 1982 epiclesis that the elements may ‘be’ the body and blood of Christ we are not denying the role of the Lord’s powerful words in this transformation. Perhaps we should also note that even worrying about when we should venerate the elements reveals a medieval scholastic mentality, in the Byzantine Liturgy the bread and wine set apart for the sacrament are given remarkable veneration even before the Eucharistic Prayer, for example at the Great Entrance. With all this in mind, beyond holding firmly the fact of the transformation we can maintain the reverential reserve advocated above by William Forbes. This would bring together the emphases of East and West and make sense of the various bodily gestures recommended above culminating in the elevation at the doxology and the genuflection or profound bow after the ‘Amen’, when a short time of silent adoration would be in order. 

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), Jan van Eyck

Having said all this, I still find it hard to imagine that the elements can be anything other than either just bread and wine or the Body and Blood of Christ. If this is so then there must be a moment of transformation. The most likely location of this moment is the Lord’s words. The learned liturgical experiments of eighteenth-century Greek-loving Divines, who were concerned to distance themselves from Popery, should not get in the way of the recognition that the Episcopalian and Anglican tradition primarily shares the liturgical inheritance of the Latin West. In the last analysis, however, the Eucharist does not exist for itself but for the transformation of ourselves and the whole creation according to God’s plan. Celebrating the Liturgy with this in mind is much more important than worrying about the exact occurrence in time of a change we know by faith but cannot see.     

As noted at the start of the previous post in this series, this commentary on the bodily actions of the priest in the Eucharistic Prayer is not meant to be prescriptive but rather to allow the priest to understand the tradition and deploy it, avoiding personal eccentricities and celebrating the Eucharist in a reverential way which helps the whole congregation to enter into the Mystery of Christ. This prayer of preparation for the Holy Liturgy by St John of Damascus, filled with the example of the holy women of the New Covenant, is a good conclusion to this series of posts as it well-expresses the importance of our bodies and of humility in celebrating the Holy Sacrament:   

‘I stand before the doors of your Temple, yet refrain not from evil thoughts. But, O Christ our God, who justified the tax-collector, showed mercy to the Canaanite woman, and opened the door of Paradise to the good thief, do unto me according to your loving-kindness and accept me, who have come to touch you, just as you accepted the women who was a sinner and the woman who had an issue of blood. The one touched the hem of your garment and was made completely whole; the other clasped your feet and received forgiveness from all her sins. Let me not be consumed, sinner though I be, through partaking of your body and blood; but receive me, as you received them, and enlighten my senses, consuming only my sins and offences. Through the prayers of her who bore you, and of the heavenly powers: for you are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.’

2 thoughts on “The Priest’s Praying Body : Manual Acts 4 – when is Jesus present?

  1. It is not only the nowadays ecumenical consensus, but the whole anaphora as consecratory seems to be the old idea, from before the Byzantine-Latin quarrels. Even Nicholas Cabasillas, if I recall well, is considering both the institution narrative and the epiclesis as consecratory. John Chrysostom sides with the West, by the way. Peter Moghila seems to be the first Byzantine who dismissed the institution narrative as more or less useless. However, himself in the rubrics of his missal says this: in case of emergency, before the great entrance, the priest should eat the bread and wine as mere bread and wine, an flee; but after the great entrance, he must continue. Also the Armenian hymn of the great entrance, “Marmin Derounagan”, says that the body and blood are already there on the altar. If I may be a little bit transsubstantiationist, I would say that from the offertory up to the end of the anaphora, the change of substance is gradual. Also the traditional Roman offertory prayers: “Receive, holy Father, this spotless Victim…” Of course, the victim is not just food stuff, lest we be Pelagians or pagans. The victim is Christ, whose presence begins at the offertory.

    1. Thank you, my impression was that the idea that the whole prayer is conservatory was implicit in the ancient texts but I am happy to be corrected. I dont have the commentary of Cabasilas to hand. The usages at the Great Entrance and the wording of some prayers in the Roman Rite (suscipe sancte Pater etc) warn us not to be too tidy and logical in interpreting the liturgy.

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