The Roman Canon has for centuries been a great prayer of thanksgiving and consecration
Father Randy Stice
In my July column, I began a series on the Eucharistic Prayer (EP) and gave examples from Eucharistic Prayer II, and in August I discussed Eucharistic Prayer III. This month I want to introduce Eucharistic Prayer I, also known as the Roman Canon (the term “canon” refers to its fixed nature). For many centuries it was the only Eucharistic Prayer used by the Latin Church. The earliest version we have is from St. Ambrose (died 397), and it has not changed significantly since the time of St. Gregory the Great (died 604). Today it is the first Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman Missal and may always be used.
It has several distinctive features. The other EPs have a series of intercessions following the consecration, but the Roman Canon follows a tradition originating in Alexandria, Egypt, which includes intercessions before the consecration as well as after. Before the consecration there is an intercession for the living, “for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true.” Following the consecration is an intercession for the dead, asking for them “a place of refreshment, light, and peace.”
While all of the EPs invoke the Blessed Virgin Mary, and EPs I-IV add St. Joseph, plus various saints—the Apostles, martyrs, all the saints—the Roman Canon also includes two lists of saints. The first, before the consecration, begins with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, and then names the Twelve Apostles, followed by six bishops, two clerics, and four laymen. This list has special insertions for important feasts: Christmas and its octave, Epiphany, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Easter and its octave, Ascension, and Pentecost. The Roman Canon is especially suited for use on these days. A second list of saints after the consecration includes John the Baptist, three saints from Acts (Stephen, Matthias, and Barnabas) plus four more men and seven women. The saints in both lists were all honored in Rome before the end of the fourth century.
Following the consecration, there is a petition for the acceptance of “these offerings” that mentions three Old Testament figures, all from Genesis. The first reference is to “the gifts of your servant Abel the just” (Genesis 4:4). Abel and his brother Cain each brought an offering to the Lord, who looked with favor on Abel’s offering but not on Cain’s. Angry and dejected, Cain killed his brother. The second reference is to “the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith” (Genesis 15:7-21; 22:1-14). Abraham was willing to obey God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, through whom all of God’s promises to Abraham were to be fulfilled. Seeing Abraham’s obedience, God stayed his hand and provided a ram. The third reference is to “the offering of your high priest Melchizedek” (Genesis 14:18-20). Melchizedek was a priest who met Abraham as he was returning from battle. He brings bread and wine and blesses Abraham, who in turn gives him a tenth of the spoils. Each Old Testament figure prefigured Christ and the Eucharist in a specific way: Abel who was killed for presenting a pleasing offering to the Lord, Abraham who was willing to offer up his beloved son, and Melchizedek the priest who brought bread and wine and blessed Abraham, our father in faith.
Immediately following this prayer, there is a petition that the Body and Blood of Christ would “be borne by the hands of your holy angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty.” Different interpretations have been offered for the identity of the angel, including Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but the likeliest meaning is an angel. It may be the angel mentioned in the description of the worship of heaven in Revelation: “another angel came and stood at the altar with golden censer…and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Revelation 8:3-4). This petition is a reference to the eternal liturgy celebrated in heaven to which every celebration of Mass is joined.
The Roman Canon also emphasizes the sacrificial aspect of the Mass. At the beginning of the Canon the priest makes the sign of the cross over the bread and wine, “these holy and unblemished sacrifices.” In the oblation (offering) that follows the consecration, Christ present on the altar is described as “this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim.” Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary and the eucharistic sacrifice “are one single sacrifice. ‘The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1367). On the cross, Christ offered himself in a bloody manner, but now in the Mass in an unbloody manner. Finally, the intercession for the living speaks of “a sacrifice of praise,” which, says the Catechism, is only possible “through Christ: He unites the faithful to His person, to His praise, and to His intercession, so that the sacrifice of praise to the Father is offered through Christ and with Him, to be accepted in Him” (CCC, 1361).
For centuries, the Roman Canon has been the great prayer of thanksgiving and consecration that effects Christ’s sacrifice, which fulfills the Old Testament figures and sacrifices, gathers the communion of saints, and unites the earthly liturgy to the heavenly liturgy. It rightly continues to hold a privileged place in the Church’s liturgy.
Father Randy Stice is director of the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at email@example.com.