Ordained Servant Online



Giving Thanks—The Neglected Prayer

Jeffrey B. Wilson

On the popular television show Antiques Roadshow collectors and the otherwise curious are able to present articles bearing some sign of age for appraisals. Inevitably, there are pieces found by someone in a retail shop, or at a garage sale, valued to be worth thousands of dollars. Equally fascinating is the item kept by a family for generations and brought to the show just because the owner thought it might be worth something. Often the story is told about how the piece came into the family and then was put on a shelf or set in a corner for many years without much thought. Carefully, the appraiser inspects the object and then announces its value at auction. Every now and then someone has something that has been sitting around the house worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Likewise, in the church there are also many beautiful gifts passed on to us by those who have carefully listened to God’s Word. One of these gifts is a prayer called the Prayer of Thanksgiving, or Eucharistic Prayer, often overlooked, yet of inestimable value.

I do not know when I first discovered the Eucharistic Prayer. It was not used in the Presbyterian churches I attended in my youth. There were other prayers, especially related to the sermon, and some prayers that generally gave thanks to God, but no specific Prayer of Thanksgiving. After college I attended seminary where it might be expected that various prayers of worship would be part of the required curriculum in preparation for the ministry. However, the one or two classes on worship were electives. I believe my discovery of the Eucharistic Prayer began in a theology class taught by Professor John H. Leith. He did not specifically mention this prayer, but what he did was require us to create a notebook with different kinds of prayers in it, including prayers of invocation, prayers of confession, prayers for illumination, and general prayers of thanksgiving. The result for me was a realization that there are different prayers used in worship. The ensuing years of being a pastor, continuing study, and leading congregations in worship have led to my growing appreciation of the Eucharistic Prayer and its indispensible place in worship.

In considering the Prayer of Thanksgiving, the place to begin is the Lord’s Supper, because in Scripture this prayer is attached to the meal instituted by Jesus for the church. Each of the synoptic Gospels includes Jesus’s words at the Supper, and they each mention Jesus’s prayer of thanksgiving when he gave the bread and the cup to his disciples. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark indicate two prayers, one before the bread and the other before the cup. Mark tells us:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them. (Mark 14:22–25)

In Matthew’s Gospel the parallelism between Jesus’s blessing and thanksgiving is stressed: Jesus took the bread, blessed, and gave. He took the cup, gave thanks, and gave (Matt. 26:26–27).

Some have argued the blessing is for the bread, but a stronger argument can be made that the blessing is to God.[1] What we find in Luke 22:17 is the word ευχαριστήσας (eucharistēsas, when he had given thanks) used when Jesus took the cup before he took the bread, so that it reads, “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said ...” Jesus also in the Gospel of Luke gave thanks when he took the bread (v. 22:19). Paul’s tradition of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, that he delivered to the church, has the words “and when he [Jesus] had given thanks” before the distribution of the bread and the cup (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Clearly, according to Scripture, our Lord himself offered a prayer of thanksgiving.

In time the church began to give specific form to the Prayer of Thanksgiving, filled in with the teaching and words of Scripture. All prayers have a form, even spontaneous, extemporaneous prayers, because it is impossible to have a prayer without structure and shape. Prayers have a certain form of address to God, a conclusion, order of the parts, style, and cadence, as we can see with the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught to his disciples. In the twentieth century, when there was a renaissance of interest in the rich history of Christian worship, the ancient prayer of Hippolytus was used by many as a model form of the Eucharistic Prayer.[2] In response to controversies in the church Hippolytus drafted a carefully ordered Eucharistic Prayer to serve as a model for churches. It is one of the earliest prayers extant. However, this does not mean it was the first Eucharistic Prayer.[3] Prayers of Thanksgiving were common in the Eastern and Western regions of the early church. Also, there are too many layers of revision over the centuries and uncertainty about dates to assert one Eucharistic Prayer as the model form. What this means is that we have a variety of examples of Eucharistic Prayers at our disposal. The following is the Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus:

We render thanks to you, O God, through your beloved child Jesus Christ, whom in the last times you sent to us as a savior and redeemer and angel of your will; who is your inseparable Word, through whom you made all things, and in whom you were well pleased. You sent him from heaven into a virgin’s womb; and conceived in the womb, he was made flesh and was manifested as your Son, being born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin. Fulfilling your will and gaining for you a holy people, he stretched out his hands when he should suffer, that he might release from suffering those who have believed in you.

And when he was betrayed to voluntary suffering that he might destroy death, and break the bonds of the devil, and tread down hell, and shine upon the righteous, and fix a term, and manifest the resurrection, he took bread and gave thanks to you, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body, which shall be broken for you.” Likewise also the cup, saying, “This is my blood, which is shed for you; when you do this, you make my remembrance.” Remembering therefore his death and resurrection, we offer to you the bread and the cup, giving you thanks because you have held us worthy to stand before you and minister to you.

And we ask that you would send your Holy Spirit upon the offering of your holy Church; that, gathering her into one, you would grant to all who receive the holy things (to receive) for the fullness of the Holy Spirit for the strengthening of faith in truth; that we may praise and glorify you through your child Jesus Christ; through whom be glory and honor to you, to the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit, in your holy Church, both now and to the ages of ages. Amen.[4]

A brief consideration of the main parts of the prayer will emphasize the distinctiveness of eucharistic prayer. At its center is thanksgiving to God for our redemption through Jesus Christ. Hippolytus’s prayer thanks God for sending to us “a savior and redeemer” as Scripture designates him. The Prayer of Thanksgiving specifically focuses on the gift of Jesus Christ as our redeemer. Two things may be observed here: creation and redemption are held together by Christ, and God’s redemption in Christ has a larger scope than just the saving of individuals. This is how Scripture teaches us to think about God’s redemption, such as in Colossians, “For by him all things were created in heaven and earth ... and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross” (Col. 1:16, 20).

Beginning with reference to God’s creation of us and his general goodness to us, the prayer quickly moves to remembering what Jesus Christ did; his life, death, and resurrection. This part of the prayer is called the Anamnesis (remembrance). Remembrance here means much more than mental recall. It is remembrance in the biblical sense, such as in the celebration of the Passover meal. Israel was instructed to remember the mighty acts of God’s deliverance from Egypt as participants in the same act of deliverance (see Exod. 12:21–27). Jesus’s institution of the Lord’s Supper requires this kind of remembering in the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper; he says, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). As Hughes Oliphant Old has noted, “That God acts in history is fundamental to our theology; that we rejoice in these mighty acts is fundamental to our worship.”[5] Actively remembering in the prayer of thanksgiving we take our place alongside the people God has blessed in Christ.

After the Anamnesis many of the classic eucharistic prayers include the Sanctus, which begins with the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty; heaven and earth are full of your glory,” although it is absent from Hippolytus’s prayer.[6] It is fitting to include it after remembering God’s mighty act of redemption in Jesus Christ because that event rightly evokes the biblical response of awe and praise to God. Also, with the Sanctus the church joins its thanksgiving with the heavenly worship of God for his redemption. Thanksgiving for Christ is given to God by the universal church in heaven and on earth. The Sanctus has been sung or spoken in the eucharistic prayers, but either way is a most appropriate biblical acclamation to God.

Hippolytus’s prayer moves from the Anamnesis to Jesus’s words of institution and then, towards the end of the prayer, is the Epiclesis (call upon). The prayer of Hippolytus says, “And we ask that you send the Holy Spirit upon ...” With the Epiclesis there is the understanding that the Holy Spirit is the one who makes the sacrament of communion effective. Without the Holy Spirit it becomes an empty sign, but with the Holy Spirit Christ is present with us, we are united together in Christ, and we are fed and nourished by him. This is in accordance with the Apostle Paul who teaches, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies though his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). Calvin makes just this point about the Holy Spirit and the Lord’s Supper, “The sacraments profit not a whit without the power of the Holy Spirit.”[7] The Epiclesis recognizes that God continues to bless us with the benefits of Christ’s salvation. So, the main elements of the Eucharistic Prayer, the Anamnesis, Sanctus, institution narrative, and the Epiclesis focus on the act of God’s redemption in Christ.

One final observation needs to be made concerning the language in Hippolytus’s prayer about the church’s offering of the bread and the cup to God. Reformed theology rightly teaches that the Lord’s Supper is not about our offering the gifts of bread and wine to God, but about what God has given to us. So, for Reformed churches the Epiclesis in Hippolytus’s prayer may be amended using the words from another Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of St. Basil, to say, “Send your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts that we have set forth before you, your own from your own gifts.”[8] This amendment clarifies the divine source of the gift.

The form of the Eucharistic Prayer contributes to the specific theme of the prayer, which is giving thanks to God for our redemption in Christ. God has certainly lavished his benevolence upon us. Calvin referred to God as the fountain of every good. He is the creator and sustainer of his creation, and “no drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or of righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine truth, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause.”[9] For Calvin, God is the source of all good.[10] All the good things we generally receive, like food, employment, music, and friendships, come from God. As Psalm 36:8–9 says:

How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.

The bounty of God’s goodness to us and to all people is beyond measure. However, there is one gift God has given to us that stands out from all the rest—the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. John’s Gospel (3:16) uses the language of gift when it says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” And the Apostle Paul, in Romans 5:15, calls Jesus Christ the “free gift.” God’s gift of Jesus Christ for our salvation outshines all the other gifts we receive from his hand, because Jesus joins us in our human condition and gives himself to rescue us and cleanse us from our sin in order to reconcile us to God. Nor does God’s gift of his Son stop there, but Christ continues to give himself to us by the Holy Spirit for the constant preservation and nourishment of our new life in him. Truly he is the greatest gift we could ever receive from our heavenly Father.

Given God’s benevolence to us and the extraordinary gift of his Son, it is right to thank him. Historically speaking, the church has considered giving thanks to God a fundamental part of worship. The church assembled together in worship was inconceivable without giving thanks for Christ. In point of fact, every other element of the church’s worship depends on Christ’s sacrificial offering of himself for us. Invoking God’s presence, confessing our sin, praying for the Spirit to illumine the reading and preaching of Scripture, petition to God for what we and others need—all of these depend on Christ’s gracious giving of himself (not to mention the other parts of worship such as singing praise to God). And so, thanksgiving is central to Christian worship. Among the reasons Calvin gives for the necessity of prayer is this, “that we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand.”[11] How much more ought we to receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, like the Lord’s Supper, with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving to God for the gift of Christ should not be assumed in worship but intentionally expressed. Yet, I have been in some worship services that never once said thank you to God. The question always is worth asking, what is Christian worship all about? When we begin to learn the answer, we discover the ineluctable place of the Eucharistic Prayer in worship. Used historically in the church, including Reformed worship, this prayer is full of gratitude. There is more to it than just expressing thanksgiving to God, but its hallmark is thanksgiving for the gift of Christ.

For all these reasons I have come to the conviction that some form of Eucharistic Prayer belongs in worship. Since thanksgiving for Jesus Christ is an essential part of worship, the Eucharistic Prayer should be prayed every time the church meets for worship. Of course, other expressions of thanksgiving exist in Christian worship, particularly psalms, hymns, and general prayers that give thanks to God. But these are used occasionally, without a fixed place in the worship service. Is it possible that our reliance on hymns and general prayers alone to give thanks to God gives the impression that thanksgiving is incidental to our worship? Historically, the church has made the Prayer of Thanksgiving a fundamental part of worship attached to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Churches that celebrate the Supper each week can easily give thanks to God with the Eucharistic Prayer and make this prayer a set part of their worship. However, this prayer can still have a place even in churches where the Lord’s Supper is not celebrated every week. A modified form of the Eucharistic Prayer could be a set feature of worship in churches without the Lord’s Supper in their service. Some parts of the prayer would have to be omitted, or radically reworded, like the Epiclesis, because they only make sense with the sacrament. Allowing for these modifications, a Prayer of Thanksgiving focused on the gift of Jesus Christ can be used. It may take some work to craft the prayer, but it would secure the church’s thanksgiving to God in worship rather than make it occasional.

Endnotes

[1] Davies and Allison make this comment on the text in the Gospel of Matthew, “It is natural to think of blessing, that is, thanking God, in part because of the use of ευχαριστήσας in the parallel v. 27 and I Cor. 11:24.” See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 3, The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield, and G. N. Stanton (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997), 470. The same point is made by France, “Blessed refers of course, to blessing God, not blessing the bread.” See R. T. France, Matthew, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 368.

[2] Hippolytus was a theologian in the church at Rome who lived in the 3rd century. See Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 13.

[3] For example, the Didache, a Christian manual of the 2nd century that includes instruction about eucharistic prayer, was written earlier than Hippolytus. For a translation of the Didache see Cyril C. Richardson trans. and ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970). Bradshaw cautions against the tendency to make one form of the Eucharistic Prayer a proto-type of all the others. See Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 131–60.

[4] R. C. D. Jasper and Geoffrey J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 35.

[5] Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 237.

[6] The Sanctus is based on Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.16.9.

[8] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers, 71. Another possible form is, “And we most humbly beseech Thee, O merciful Father, to bless and sanctify with Thy Holy Spirit both us and these Thy gifts of bread and wine.” Or this phrase could be used, “these elements of bread and wine, to be set apart from all common uses to this holy use.” See The Book of Common Worship (Philadelphia: United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1946), 160–62.

[9] Calvin, Institutes, 1.2.1.

[10] B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 26.

[11] Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.3.

Jeffrey B. Wilson is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Southfield, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2012.

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