In a recent Insight Into Liturgy concerning the Liturgical Movement various components of the
Liturgy of the Eucharist were identified, and reference was made that some would be revisited in subsequent Insights. This one, then, is part of that effort and it pertains to the Epiclesis.
At their essence the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are a love story. It is a dramatic rendering in two acts of God’s love for his people, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. Like any drama there are roles. There is the role of God: The Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There is the role of the priest, the celebrant, who is the instrumentality of God. We have a role as the congregation, a speaking part with movement and gestures. The drama as we have come to know it opened in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago and has been “on the road” ever since, enacted in settings both grand and humble, among a handful as well as thousands.
In this Insight we touch upon the role of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly the Eastern Orthodox Church sometimes criticizes the Roman Catholic Church (and by extension, perhaps, the Anglican/Episcopal Church) for neglecting the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The central role of the Holy Spirit is reflected throughout the Eastern Orthodox Church’s liturgical celebration; every act of worship begins with a prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Churches also stress the role of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the worshipping congregation and upon the bread and wine in the part of the eucharist prayer known as the Epiclesis; however, their liturgy does so after the Words of Institution. Through the influence of the Scottish Episcopal Church we, the Episcopal Church, do likewise (except for Eucharistic Prayer C). Conversely, in the Roman Catholic eucharistic liturgy the Epiclesis comes before the Words of Institution. But regardless of the denomination or rite, the Holy Spirit is called down from above to sanctify both us and the sacraments.
Of course the Holy Spirit is present throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but in keeping with the metaphor of the drama of the eucharist the Epiclesis is when the Holy Spirit is center stage; specifically when the celebrant “invokes” and “calls down from on high” the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine. Fittingly the celebrant’s hands are placed over the bread and wine. The celebrant also calls down the Holy Spirit on us “that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament” at which point the celebrant and many people make the sign of the Cross on themselves.
Over the history of the Church, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican/Episcopal liturgists have appropriated the thespian dexterity of the Holy Spirit, placing the Epiclesis either before or after the Words of Institution. While the reasons for these shifts are no doubt worthy of in-depth scholarship, and have been, it is important for us not only to appreciate and understand the drama unfolding before us, and our role in it, but also to feel part of the cast, as empowered by the Holy Spirit. Ponder the implications of that for a moment. Will your role be a walk-on, a cameo, a leading one? All are important in terms of God’s economy for building up the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, so be assured and take confidence that there is a role for all of us.