In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today in our series of sermons on the mass and its constituent parts, their history and their meaning, we come to the part called “the preface,” just after the Sursum Corda, which I discussed last week.
The Preface, as its name would imply, is the introduction to the great prayer of sacrifice called “the canon,” which we will come to in due course. The Preface introduces the Canon, and serves as a bridge between it and the dialogue of the Sursum Corda which, by way of reminder, goes like this:
The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
It is meet and right so to do.
There are actually several prefaces which vary according to the season or the feast. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) contains twenty-two of them. This collection of twenty-two prefaces actually represents a pretty radical pairing-down. The most ancient extant mass book, called the Leonine Sacramentary, dating form the 6th – 7th century, contains 267 prefaces (Jungmann, vol. 2, p. 118) – and parts of it are missing.
At any rate, despite the disparate themes of the various prefaces, according to the feast or the season, they all begin pretty invariably as follows:
“It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty everlasting God…”
The Preface thus takes up the theme that the Sursum Corda left off: that it is meet and right and, indeed, it is our “bounden duty,” to give God thanks. Thus we are coming to the central mystery of the Eucharist: the offering of thanks to God. And recall that the Greek word “Eucharistia” in fact means “thanksgiving.” It is “meet” or “appropriate” to give God thanks. It is “right” in the sense that justice demands that we give God thanks – because he deserves it. And it is our “bounden duty”; it is what constitutes us as Christians – and if we claim that name, then we had better be about this primary task: the rendering of thanks to God. We are “bound” by “duty” to give God thanks, and it is a much more serious duty than any other, much more serious than the duty we owe to the government or our spouses or anyone else.
Fr. Jungmann notes that, etymologically, the word “thank” and the word “think” come from the same root; and this fact illuminates our way a little deeper into the mystery of the Eucharist. In order to render to God the thanks that we owe to him, we must first “think” of what it is we are thankful for. And the primary object of our thought, as Christians, and thus the primary impetus of our thanks, is the death of Jesus on the cross.
“The Mass is not a sacrifice reposing on its own self; it is a sacrifice only insofar as it is at the same time a memorial [a recollection, a memory, a THOUGHT] of the sacrifice already consummated, which brought us redemption.” (Jungmann, p. 117)
As the Lord himself said, when he instituted the Eucharist: “Do this as a REMEMBERING of me.” And so St. Paul can say: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” (1 Cor. 11.26). The mass is a memorial of, and a thanksgiving for the gift of God in Christ, for his nativity, his incarnation, for his teaching and miracles, and most of all for his suffering and death, as well as for his resurrection and ascension. We are giving thanks to God for closing the infinite gap that separated us from him, by means of the cross of Jesus. And insofar as we are remembering the cross, and giving thanks for the passion and death of Jesus, we are giving God what we owe to him; we are doing what is meet, right, and our bounden duty. And Fr. Jungmann notes that the mass “is gratitude, but gratitude which embraces all the powers of our soul, gratitude measured by that love we owe to God – with our whole heart and our whole soul and all our strength – gratitude that must in essence be paid…” “at all times, and in all places,” as the preface says.
And this is why the right kind of thanks – the kind of thanks that we owe to God – we can only render to God by Jesus, and with Jesus, and in Jesus. Again, Fr. Jungmann: “Our thanks and worship we do not bring to God directly as just any group of human petitioners; we offer it rather as a congregation of the redeemed, through Him who is our Redeemer and our Head, through Christ, our Lord,” (p. 126). We can only do this thing that we owe to God, we can only remember the cross as is meet and right, within the context of the mass, within the context of the gathered community of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. We can only do it TOGETHER. Contrary to popular belief, we cannot discharge this duty at home by ourselves, or on the golf course, or sitting on the beach looking at a beautiful sunset, or anywhere else. What we do here in this place should permeate and empower what we do out there, but it is not the same thing. Because “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another,” (Romans 12.5).
We must do this TOGETHER, as one Body, under our head, Jesus Christ, “from whom,” as Paul said, “the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love,” (Ephesians 4.16). And that is why it is so important for us an individuals to come together Sunday by Sunday in this place, to form one Body with one another, with Christ as our head, and to invite others, too, to join our company, until the Church’s great song of thanksgiving encompasses all creation. Pope Benedict said that thus the liturgy of the Church means our:
“singing with the choir of creatures and entering into cosmic reality itself. And in this very way the liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastical, becomes expansive and great, it becomes our union with the language of all creatures…. singing for God with the great hymn of the creatures which is reflected and made concrete in liturgical praise [and thanksgiving]…” (The Angelus Audience, May 14, 2008)
In a very fundamental way, it is our communal participation in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross – through our collective MEMORY of it, and our collective rendering of thanks for it, in union with the Lord Jesus who commanded us to DO THIS – it is THIS that saves us, that closes the infinite gap that otherwise separates us from God and consigns us to hell.
But put positively, it is THIS that joins us with heaven. Which explains the invariable conclusion of the preface, which announces our union not just with one another, and not just with all earthly creatures, but with all the beings that dwell in heaven as well, whose song we are joining:
“Therefore, with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying… holy, holy, holy…”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.