Depending on your experience [and the particular congregation where you grew up] you may or may not be familiar with the extended Eucharistic Prayer and the broad sweep that it can include. What you will recognize are the words that are at the very center of the prayer – the words of institution. These are the words that remember the very words of Jesus at the Last Supper; “This is my body, this is my blood.” [Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26]
As far as we are able to discern, these are the oldest continuously used words in Christian worship. In that sense, these words and this action binds us together with Christians of every time and every place. These are also, in many ways, the central words of the Christian story. Here, we are reminded both of Jesus’s salvific work and his continued presence among his people – in all times and in all places. Contained in this moment is the very center of Christian faith and life.
What happened in the opening parts of the Eucharistic [communion] portion of our worship was to invite us into prayer and giving thanks to God, “The Great Thanksgiving,” if you may. After the exchange of the dialogue between the pastor and the people, the pastor says the Preface for the day. The reason for giving thanks on this day is rounded up in the words of the Preface. But the preface concludes with some generally fixed, standard words:
“And so, with all the choirs of angels,
with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven,
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:”
The Preface is to tie us together with all that in creation, in heaven and on earth, saints and angels [and sinners], that is giving praise to God. These words intentionally remind us that what we are doing in this moment is not something we do alone but is being done [in communion] with all of God’s creation.
What follows is then one of the great transitions in our worshipping experience. We are then invited to join the singing of all of the heavenly host. It is in this moment when, with words that were heard by the prophet Isaiah when he glimpsed into heaven [Isaiah 6:3, as well as Daniel 7:10 and Revelation 4:8 where we see/hear similar things].
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest
It is at this moment, in this place, that the separation between heaven and earth dissolves and we are placed fully in the presence of God. Note the word ‘Hosanna.’ It means, “save me/us, we pray.” You may also note that the concluding words echo the words of the crowd as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. [Matthew 21:9-11; Mark 11:9-10: Luke 19:37-40]
One final thing to note about the Sanctus. Many people find it appropriate to bow at this moment in worship. This is the moment when we fully enter into the presence of God which, when you think about it, is a holy and awe-inspiring thing!
The portion of the Communion [Eucharistic] liturgy that includes the portions immediately after the offering through the Congregational Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer is known as the Great Thanksgiving. This Great Thanksgiving has echoes to ancient Jewish prayers, as well as what we see/hear happening between Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Parts of what is said here are the oldest known portions of Christian worship, echoing things we read in various portions of the New Testament [Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26].
Somewhere in the third/fourth centuries, three particular things were added to this very ancient Christian/Jewish table prayer. These three include the Dialogue, the Preface and the Sanctus. Let’s look at the Dialogue first.
In the Dialogue, the pastor is asking the congregation for the authority to proclaim the Great Thanksgiving in the name of all those present. It is in these opening words that we gather ourselves together to speak to God, because the Eucharist is a holy conversation, between humans [the presiding minister and the congregation] and between humanity and God. It is the Dialogue that opens up that conversation.
The Dialogue begins with the first two verses of a very old Christian greeting. “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” We are opening ourselves to one another for what is to come.
The second verses, “Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them to the Lord.” While there are a number of ways of understanding these words, at their root is a very practical action: they were a command to stand up and join the pastor in the prayers.
The third verses, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” Here are the words that open up the dialogue between the pastor, the congregation, and God. The pastor asks, the congregation gives permission and acknowledges that they, too, want to join in these prayers to God.