Friday, June 3, 2016

Considerations If You Write a Eucharistic Prayer

Gail Ramshaw, foremost scholar of liturgical language and author of beloved Prayers of Thanksgiving over the bread and wine of the holy communion meal, has given much thought to the principles that undergird a strong and faithful prayer. Her entire essay is in Liturgy 31, no. 3 published in 2016.

Here, adding to the blogpost from May 20, 2016, is a portion of her litany of questions that need to be attended when composing such a prayer. These questions might well begin a fruitful conversation at preachers’ text studies everywhere.

Some Eucharistic prayers that were composed in recent decades have innovative outlines. In my files there are, for example, prayers that are expansions of medieval or contemporary Jewish table prayer or texts informed by the Didache. Most, however, have adopted the three-part West Syrian model. The opening thanksgiving is praise addressed to the first person of the Trinity; salvation history is praised as having found its epitome in Christ, and his words at the Last Supper are included so as to articulate the meaning of the present meal; the third part of the prayer is given over to petitions for the outpouring of the Spirit on the meal, on the elements of bread and wine, the assembly, the church throughout the world, perhaps even on nature itself. Such a trinitarian outline has been judged a helpful creedal design for this lengthy prayer. Is this the outline to be used? If an alternate outline is selected, will its intention be clear to worshipers? . . .

Thinking through such a trinitarian outline, here are some specific questions. In the opening section of thanksgiving, will the prayer begin with praise for nature? Will the nature be only “nice nature,” that is, those aspects of God’s creation that are easy for humans to be grateful for, carefully omitting “nasty nature,” the whirlwinds and monsters that escape from the Book of Job? If the prayer thanks “the Creator” for “creation,” what do modern educated people hear by those terms? Can this section of thanksgiving for nature include an ellipsis, to be filled in by the presider, so that local rivers and forests find their place in the people’s praise?. . .

The Words of Institution raise a host of questions. Ought these words be spoken in strictly a denominationally approved form? I recall a children’s Bible in which Jesus “lifted up a cup of grape juice”: is such rewording of scripture acceptable? What is the function of this text? To whom are these words addressed? Is it proclamation to the assembly? Is it ecclesial warrant for the meal? Is speaking the canonically required text the action that actually brings the blessed meal to fruition? Is the theological intention of proclaiming the Words of Institution clear to the worshipers? Indeed, the text and its accompanying clerical gestures might be perceived as a kind of modern hocus-pocus, not much different from the medieval understanding of the priest’s power to confect Christ. Would this understanding be acceptable? Or to avoid this impression, can the prayer omit the institutional narrative from the prayer, or rephrase the biblical language so as to diminish its power? Would this result in a less holy experience, communion now seen as a friendly group of Christians sharing a morning snack? Might it be better for the canonical Words of Institution to be proclaimed outside the prayer itself, after the Amen?

These questions do not have easy answers, but they lead to careful distinctions and an awareness that what the prayer is saying – especially together with accompanying gestures – speaks of and grounds the assembly’s theological convictions.

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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