Beautiful But Rarely Used: The Canon of the Mass, Part 2

J.M.J.

Greetings, one and all!

In the last post on this topic, I told you that this post (admittedly a rather long one, but hopefully interesting all the same!) would be dealing with the Roman Canon, the first Eucharistic Prayer, from the Consecration onward. Well, as it turns out, that was just slightly misleading, because I want to take take a minute briefly to address a chief difference between the Canon and its newer rivals.

The Holy Spirit: Strangely Absent?

The difference is this: for better or worse, the Roman Canon has no direct prayer asking the Holy Spirit to sanctify the offerings (also known as an Epiclesis).

It might seem insignificant, but this was something which made liturgists both before and after Vatican II (like the author of Eucharistic Prayer III, for example) dissatisfied with the Canon, many thinking the Canon surely used to have an Epiclesis and it somehow got pushed out or reworded as time went on (The Mass: A Study of the Roman Rite by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century liturgist Adrian Fortescue gives many and various ideas from liturgists of that time about how this might’ve occurred, but gives no solid evidence of whether or not it’s true). At any rate, the new Eucharistic Prayers have an Epiclesis (would the plural be Epicleses?) in some form or another, and this was lauded among liturgists at the time they were written as being a happy return to a more ancient practice now restored. It was also seen as a pleasant way to connect the West with the East, since the Churches of the East are known for utilizing the Epiclesis in their Eucharistic Prayers (more correctly, their “anaphoras”).

This Eucharistic Prayer is notable for its lack of an invocation to the Holy Spirit upon the offerings.
This Eucharistic Prayer is notable for its lack of an invocation of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power upon the offerings.

If someone were to ask me, I would say the Roman Canon doesn’t particularly need an Epiclesis, as it has multiple prayers preceding the Consecration which ask God to bless and accept the offerings, and it also has its own prayer that, while not expressing the same idea as an invocation of the Holy Spirit, expresses an idea of comparable weight and gives the Canon its own particular character. This is the Supplices te rogamus. More on that below, though.

Now, onwards to the Consecration!

The Prayers of the Consecration Itself

Yet another difference between the Roman Canon and the newer prayers is the introduction to the Consecration. I said that the inclusion of an invocation to the Holy Spirit within the new prayers was seen by many as a happy way to unite the liturgies of East and West. Well, what I’m about to mention is rather less significant, but still interesting. In the new prayers, one might notice that the priest uses words along the lines of, “On the night He was betrayed,” “At the time He was betrayed,” or “The night before He died.” Well, as it turns out, this, too, was seen as a way to assimilate a little bit of the East’s practices into the West. The Roman Canon has always used a different formula, one which is particular to it, if I’m not mistaken, and thus particular to the Roman Rite. It has it this way: “The day before He was to suffer” (“qui pridie quam pateretur”). I remember reading somewhere—perhaps it was the book mentioned above—that it was worded like this to focus the minds of those present on the Passion of Christ, but I can’t recall for certain. Anyway, it’s an interesting little difference.

A more obvious thing one might note when comparing the Roman Canon to the newer prayers is the heightened reverence for Our Lord present here. It does not just say that Our Lord “took bread,” but that He took it, as the Latin says, “in sanctas ac venerabiles manus suas,” that is, “in His holy and venerable hands.” This might sound like the product of excessive piety, but it’s actually quite interesting. The Lord Jesus Christ is a Divine Person Who has assumed a human nature. He is God, in a human nature, and so, as the prayer bears out, His Person sanctifies everything about the nature He has taken, including something so seemingly insignificant as His hands. This is a fact which should bring wonder to every priest called upon to repeat His action in the Holy Mass. The very hands of Christ are sacred, yet in the Mass, the entirety of Christ is made present.

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Any chalice used to hold the Blood of Christ, from the one He used at the Last Supper to any chalice used at a Mass since that night, is going to be “precious” from then on.

Again, in the Consecration of the Chalice, it does not just say He took “the chalice,” but rather, “this precious chalice,” — “hunc praeclarum calicem.” Why? Because any chalice which has been called upon to hold the Blood of the Lord, from a golden one embedded with jewels to a wooden and uninspired one, is, from then on and ever afterward, perpetually sanctified, perpetually made holy. It becomes no longer just an object, but indeed, one might argue that every chalice which has held the Eucharistic Presence is a genuine Tabernacle for as long as it serves that purpose, and also for as long as it will continue to serve that purpose in the future. It’s no longer just a chalice. It’s the holiest of man-made vessels, for it contains the Holy of Holies within itself.

After the Consecration

Following the Consecration, there is heard what is, in my opinion, the most striking text of the entire Mass: “Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into Heaven of Christ, your Son, Our Lord, we . . . offer . . . from the gifts you have given us, this pure Victim (hostiam puram), this holy Victim (hostiam sanctam), this spotless Victim (hostiam immaculatam), the holy Bread of eternal life and the chalice of everlasting salvation.” Right there, on the altar, offering Himself for our sake now, without death, just as He offered Himself in death on the Cross, is the One Whom Peter called “the Lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).

The Lamb has things said of Him which can only be said of God without the one saying them being guilty of sin.
As the priest mentions “this pure Victim, this holy Victim, this spotless Victim,” it’s difficult not to think of the sacrificed Christ, the Lamb of God, as depicted in the Book of Revelation.

 

Going back to what I mentioned earlier about the propitiatory character of the Mass as affirmed at Trent, this next segment is very interesting. The current translation has it this way: “Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance.” That sounds nice, surely, but if one looks at the Latin original, he’ll find something more striking: “Supra quae propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris,” literally, “deign to look upon them with a propitious and serene gaze.” Such a translation clearly brings to mind the Mass’ propitiatory, or sin-forgiving, character. The Canon goes on to mention the Old Testament forerunners of our sacrifice, Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek, whose offerings foreshadowed, and are perfected in, the Holy Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist is, as the prayer says, the “holy sacrifice” and “spotless Victim” of the New Covenant.

As the Canon draws to a close, it reaches that peculiar moment that has no parallel in the new prayers, known as the Supplices te rogamus. This prayer, I think, could be rightly called the “Epiclesis of the Canon,” for although there isn’t a direct prayer asking for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there is nonetheless a definitive request that the Sacrifice be “ratified” by God. This prayer is, interestingly, one of the places where the profoundly reverential rubrics of the older form of Mass have been retained to this day, and, if other people are at all like me, this is likely a place where they will take notice. Bowing low over the altar, the priest asks God’s angel (considered by some to be a reference to Christ Himself, the “Angel of the Lord” in many an Old Testament text) to carry the Sacrifice to the altar in Heaven, “in the sight of [God’s] Divine Majesty,” such that all who receive the Holy Eucharist from the altar here below may be filled (literally translated) “with every heavenly blessing and grace” (“omni benedictione caelesti et gratia”). Those last words also mark the only point remaining inside the Mass (i.e., the “current” Mass) where the priest is to make the sign of the Cross over himself, and that moment, coupled with the profound bow for the duration of this prayer, make the Canon definitively more striking and beautiful to me than any of the other Eucharistic Prayers. But beyond the mere gestures of the prayer, the reference to God’s “altar on high” helps the faithful to realize that the same Sacrifice of Christ they take part in during Mass is going on perpetually in Heaven, and that the Mass, for as long as it lasts, is a union of the Church in Heaven and the Church still on Earth.

The second-to-last prayer, the Memento defunctorum or Remembrance of the Dead, once again points in a clear way to the fact that the Sacrifice of the Mass is to be offered for the souls of the faithful departed, or, as the Canon calls them, “those who have preceded us with the sign of faith and sleep in the slumber of peace” (“qui nos praecesserunt cum signo fidei et dormiunt in somno pacis”). Here there is yet another string of that “rhythmic,” repetitious wording as the priest asks that the faithful departed be admitted into a “place of refreshment, light, and peace.”

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Archbishop Fulton Sheen praying briefly for particular deceased persons at the “Memento” for the dead (note the joined thumbs and forefingers, which is a mandatory rubric of the older missal to safeguard any particles of the Host on the fingers of the priest).

At this point, there is a last prayer for those present, who, sinners though they are, can trust that God, in His kindness, will welcome them into Heaven along with “His holy apostles and martyrs,” with many of those martyrs being mentioned by name. This section begins with the words “Nobis quoque peccatoribus, famulis tuis,” literally, “to us sinners also, your servants.” This section also has retained a rubric from the older form, namely, that the priest strikes the breast upon saying, “peccatoribus” (sinners). Like the gestures of the Supplices te rogamus, this rubric makes the Roman Canon all the more beautiful to me. Certainly, a recognition of sin, if too self-effacing and pervasive, is the problem of scrupulosity, but in my opinion, the newer prayers would have done well to emulate the humility of the Roman Canon, which is indeed humility in the true sense: not saying that man is unworthy and leaving it at that, but rather, that man is unworthy, yet able, in the words of this prayer, to have confidence in the “multitude of God’s mercies.” The newer Eucharistic Prayers, while they mention the sinfulness of man, do not convey it in as moving or profound a fashion, nor do they give those present at Mass continual reminders of their place before the Divine.

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And so, my dear readers, these have been my various thoughts about this beautiful, but rarely used, prayer. I do hope more priests begin to see the beauty of it and will use it more. In my opinion, one of the simplest ways to recover a healthy theology of the Mass at the parish level would be to use the Roman Canon as the Sunday Eucharistic Prayer. At this point, one can only pray, though.

Before I go, I would highly recommend, for those interested in further reading, that you check out this article by Fr. Cassian Folsom, OSB, and published in 1996: “From One Eucharistic Prayer to Many: How it Happened and Why.” It gives a very interesting look at the surrounding situation—largely disobedience in the beginning, as history frequently has it—that brought about the new prayers, and the characteristics of the Roman Canon (some mentioned here) which the authors of the new prayers sought to alter.

I do hope you’ve found all this enjoyable.

Have a holy Lent!