The Great Thanksgiving.
So far our catechesis on the Holy Eucharist has looked at the first half of our worship service called the Liturgy of the Word. The principle components so far have been an opening acclamation and collect, the reading of the sacred Scripture and the sermon, the Nicene Creed, prayers of the people, the confession and sacramental absolution and the exchange of the peace of Christ.
Today our catechesis turns to the second half of the service which is called the Great Thanksgiving. It’s focus is the Consecration of the bread and wine into the Body of and Blood of Jesus Christ and the people of God receiving Holy Communion.
In the upper room on Holy Thursday night, Jesus did something that still touches out lives today! He took bread, blessed it, broke it and spoke the words of consecration, and than gave His body and Blood to the apostles. Then He did the same with the chalice filled with wine. These “actions” of Jesus are the heart and the essence of the Consecration of the bread and wine. In the Acts of the Apostles 2:42 the reference to the “breaking of bread” is this action of Consecration.
For about the first four hundred years of Christian history there was no set form written down for celebrating the Holy Eucharist. The celebrant composed much of the liturgy from his faith and drew deeply from the story of salvation history. But gradually words and forms were accepted. The Prayer of Consecration actually are the “words of institution” spoken by Jesus when He consecrated the bread. They are, “Take, eat, this is My Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me” and over the chalice when He consecrated the wine, “Drink ye all of this; for this is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (BCP p 335).
The Prayer of Consecration is so important in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Something really changed in the world when Jesus consummated His sacrifice on Calvary and there on the Cross breathed His last.
- For one thing He closed the era in history that sin had opened and during which man had lived under the oppressive yoke of evil. The redemption broke sin’s power, and with sin and death conquered, men could again, by grace, be God’s adopted children.
- Also, Jesus’ priesthood was not, as under the old law, a matter of belonging to a priestly family. His priesthood is an eternal one, and eternally He makes intercession for us and the whole world to the Father, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us. Though He no longer sheds His blood, His sacrifice continues to be represented until the end of time, in the Mass.
From the New Testament era through the 7th century the Mass had a simple structure centered around the four “actions” of Jesus “taking, blessing, breaking and giving.” Beginning with the 8th century the Mass developed for various reasons.
The service in the Book of Common Prayer favors the structure of the early Church. The tremendous dignity of the sacrifice of the Mass, the real presence of Jesus Christ on the Altar as a result of the Consecration, the sanctity of the whole liturgical service, all reflect in the Prayer Book the beautiful simplicity of the early Church.