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The Liturgy of the Eucharist: The Eucharistic Prayer (2)
Every Eucharist Prayer in the Roman liturgy begins with a Preface; throughout Roman litiurgical tradition these prefaces varied, while the Eucharistic Prayers remained more fixed. They went to as few as around ten to now over eighty in the current the Roman Missal. In some past liturgies celebrated in Northern Europe, centuries ago, the Preface seemed a little isolated from the prayer that followed, maybe even something distinct from it, but the Roman Missals always considered it an integral part of the Eucharistic Prayer.
The preface found in a book wouldn’t be considered anything less than the rest of it, just a distinct part of it that helps lead you into its treasures. The Preface, as part of the Eucharistic Prayer, not only leads you in, but also begins the prayer. It only seems set apart because it can be chosen to suit the occasion, and there are many different occasions for celebrating the Eucharist.
An uplifting dialogue
Each Preface begins with a dialogue between the bishop or priest celebrating the Mass and the people celebrating it with him. He greets them and prays/invites that they be in communion with the Lord (“The Lord be with you”), and they respond by wishing that the Lord be reflected in his spirit as well (“and with your spirit”). Unlike other ritual exchanges during Mass, the bishop or priest doesn’t just put his hands back together and continue at this point; he raises them up, encouraging everyone to lift up their hearts. He is preparing everyone for liturgical liftoff: “Lift up your hearts…we lift them up to the Lord.”
They lift their hearts to the Lord and they get drawn into the prayer that the bishop or priest is about to address to God. Suddenly the dialogue turns from “you” to “us”: “Let us give thanks to the Lord, Our God…It is right and just.” We are now liturgically primed to be swept up into the liturgy of Heaven and earth. We declare what is about to happen as “right and just”: it is a noble thing to do (“right” in the prayer translates the Latin dignum, which means something is fitting or proper to do) and it is the right thing to do (“just” in the prayer translates the Latin iustum, something fair, lawful, or right). Now is the time to renew and stoke up our dispositions for what is about to take place on the altar, not just as a dry assent, but something into which we put our hearts.
An expression of thanksgiving
The bishop or priest segues into the next part of the prayer using the same sentiment with which those participating with him were drawn into it: “It is truly right and just…” Now he addresses God not only on our behalf, but with us, hands upraised.
It is here we see why are there so many prefaces. There are many ways to and reasons for expressing thanks, and the Preface is about expressing thanksgiving. Each Preface articulates a different reason for giving thanks to God. It can focus on all of salvation history or just a part of it. It can focus on the reasons in keeping with the liturgical season being celebrated, or for a special occasion or need. Just as there are many ways to thank someone—a gift, flowers, a note, a meal—there are many reasons for thanksgiving expressed by the Prefaces.
The Preface is one of the principal places in the Eucharistic Prayer where thanksgiving is expressed, even though the entire Eucharist is an act and prayer of thanksgiving. Meditating on the prefaces can give you a wealth of reasons to be grateful to God always, not just during Mass.
Through Christ we enter into God’s presence
If the initial part of the prayer after the dialogue does not explicitly mention “Through Christ our Lord” (although it usually does) there is usually at least a mention of the mystery of Christ in the body of the Preface, because through Christ we enter into God’s presence. It is his mediation that makes us pleasing to the Father, and it is offering him that will enable us to keep pleasing the Father. Through Christ we are entering into the deepest part of the sacramental mystery, and we can only be led in through him and with him.
Even if in this moment he may not be sacramentally present yet on the altar, he is present through the bishop or priest acting in his person and in his name, as well as the Mystical Body (us) now gathered in worship around the altar preparing to welcome his sacramental arrival in the Eucharistic species. The Eucharistic Prayer has only just begun.