All right, here she is – the Big Kahuna, Eucharistic Prayer I. <Editorial comment commencing> The other Eucharistic Prayers are beautiful and stuffed with important truths of our faith, but next to this one, they seem like child’s play. This prayer is the oldest, it’s the longest, and it’s jam-packed with stuff…which also means that generally, it’s the least used. But I think it’s important that we look at this treasure in our liturgy, so I might spend a few weeks with it!
Without doubt, this is the oldest Eucharistic Prayer that we still use. Sure, EPII and EPIII are composed from other old texts from as far back as the 2nd century, but EPI has mostly been a single unit, used almost in the same form it is today, since Latin took over for Greek as the language of worship in Rome in the mid 3rd century.
St. Ambrose (d. 397) quotes it extensively in his famous work, De Sacramentis (“On the Sacraments”), and Pope Innocent I (d. 417) quotes and references it several times. The fact that these guys are referring to it so much and so completely and regarding it with such esteem, even this early in the Church’s history, tells us that it had been around even before them!
This prayer is commonly called the “Roman Canon”, meaning that it was the standard for Eucharistic Prayers from before Ambrose and Innocent all the way until 1974, when additional prayers were introduced. That’s almost 1600 years! And we still have the option to do it today. The new translation changed this prayer significantly, with the goal to make it a more accurate and literal translation of the ancient Latin text.
Sure, this literal translation makes it sound obviously older and archaic, but there’s something special about it. It’s not supposed to be like reading a narrative out of a book, but it’s intended to be poetic and majestic. You’ll notice that this prayer loves to repeat phrases for emphasis and use descriptive, flowery language in speaking about the truths of our faith. The new translation of the Roman Missal wanted to restore some of the majestic tone of this ancient and venerable prayer.
One of the things I love most about this prayer is that it helps us to respect and love our tradition. I don’t mean this out of nostalgia, thinking of “the good old days” or anything like that. But I think it helps us to appreciate what we have received from generations upon generations of the faithful who have contributed so much to what we have. It’s neat to think that when I pray these words at Mass, they’re the same as what St. Augustine might have prayed, and what St. Jean Marie Vianney prayed, and what Blessed John XXIII prayed.
You’ll notice that sometimes I’ll announce the page number of the Eucharistic Prayer in the missalettes on Sundays (I’ve memorized them by now, which is better than I can say about the Nicene Creed…) to help people follow along, and I highly recommend doing so with the Big Kahu–er, I mean, Eucharistic Prayer I. As you’ll see over the next few weeks, it’s packed, so we want to pray along with it, reflecting on the beauty of the language, the careful presentation of the central truths of our faith, and our relationship with God as redeemed sinners standing with awe and love before the majesty of our Creator.