Friday, May 20, 2016

Praying over the Food of Eucharist

In Liturgy vol. 31, no. 3, published in May 2016, a number of liturgical scholars write about holy communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist – known by many names. Gail Ramshaw is foremost among those who have thought and written about Eucharistic prayers. Here is the beginning of her essay. More will follow in two weeks.
 In the church of my childhood, the communion service normally proceeded directly from the “Holy Holy Holy” to the Words of Institution, thereby omitting the use of any full Eucharistic prayer. But when I was a student at an enlightened church-related university, I came to appreciate such prayers, to inquire into their use throughout Christian history, and, in a senior honors project, to craft one myself. I recall having distributed copies of my composition, reproduced via some primitive photocopying technology, to all the campus clergy, in order to receive their comments. . . . Since then, my church body and various individuals have asked me to craft Eucharistic prayers for regular or occasional use, and I have undertaken to compose several for my own purposes. Some of my compositions have received considerable welcome, and perhaps it is for this reason that I have been asked to write here some commentary about the composing of Eucharistic prayers.
To craft a helpful commentary for an ecumenical readership makes my assignment particularly challenging, since even those churches that now encourage use of such a prayer tend to have a denominational understanding of what should characterize this singular portion of the Eucharistic liturgy. Thus, the specific wording of the petition that asks for the action of the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine may please a Lutheran, but give a Presbyterian pause.
In this article, I will discuss the issues that I believe must be faced by anyone who crafts Eucharistic prayers, offering whatever wisdom I have gained in nearly fifty years of reading, evaluating, editing, and composing such texts. . . . 
Historically the Eucharistic prayer developed from first-century Jewish table prayer. All the permutations of its growth are argued out by liturgical historians and need not occupy us here. But the ecumenical consensus is that this prayer originated as––and ought to continue to be––thanksgiving at the table. It is addressed in gratitude to God. As Justin Martyr wrote in about 150 CE describing Christian worship, “Over all that we take to eat, we bless the creator of all things.” In Christian prayer, learning from the pattern in the Psalms, as well as mimicking the format of address to the Roman emperor, praise leads to petition: liturgical prayer praises God for mercies in the past and then pleads for such mercies in the future. This prayer is not the place to repeat a confession of sins, the sermon, or details about the dead who are being commemorated, nor indeed to present idiosyncratic beliefs to which the assembly will not be able to say its Amen. Together we give thanks, together we plead.
 Over the centuries of Christian worship, the prayer has become the locus of the theology of the community, and thus all responsible compositions need to attend to the theology and practice of the assembly that is being served. We write for the church. Yet liturgical prayer need not rest in comfort in denominational precedent: the presider’s prayer moves the assembly from within its familiar place toward the future in Christ. 
 Some of the many questions Ramshaw poses to those who compose Eucharistic prayers and those who lead the assembly in prayer over the bread and wine will be included in the blog selection for June 3. Stay tuned!

Gail Ramshaw studies and crafts liturgical language from her home outside of Washington, DC. Her prayers have been published in liturgical journals and in the worship resources of several denominations.

Gail Ramshaw, “The Joyful Effort to Offer Thanksgiving,” Liturgy 31, no. 3 (2016): 11-18.

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