Wednesday 9 August 2023

The law of praying (2): Addressing the Father

Over the summer, we are looking at a section from the Canon of the Mass each week, to learn what the ‘law of praying’ has to teach us about what we believe. You can find the previous posts in this series in our reflections archive.

To you, therefore, most merciful Father,
we make humble prayer and petition
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord:
that you accept
and bless these gifts, these offerings,
these holy and unblemished sacrifices,
which we offer you firstly
for your holy catholic Church…

We don’t waste any time here: we start our prayer by addressing God the Father immediately. But we approach him through his Son. This is the the fundamental Good News of the Gospel, that God the Son become one of us so that we might be adopted as God’s children. We are able to approach God — and even dare to call him Father — because his own Son became one of us, bridged the gap between humanity and God, and lives forever to intercede for us.

Almost all of our liturgical prayer is addressed to the Father. We speak directly to the Son much less frequently (we tend to wait until he is present on the altar in the Blessed Sacrament). There is no competition or jealousy between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so it’s not a problem that we address the Father most. It’s not even a problem that we never address the Spirit directly in the course of the Mass. This is, it seems, how things are meant to be. The Holy Spirit works quietly in the background, not drawing attention to himself, but making us like the Son, and directing us, through him, to the Father.

There is, perhaps, a practical reason that the Spirit is barely mentioned in this prayer — and it is most likely because of its age. In the very early Church, there was very little need to remind people that the Holy Spirit was God, because they could see that for themselves. He often showed himself descending as fire on the newly confirmed. He imbued certain members of the Church with the charismatic gifts they needed for that particular time. It was surely hard not to have faith in the Holy Spirit when he would cause one member of the congregation to stand up and speak in tongues, another to prophecy, and grant to another the gift of healing the sick miraculously! (St Augustine says the reason we don’t see these charismatic gifts so much anymore — and he was writing around 400AD — is that they are not needed in the same way. The twelve apostles between them certainly could not speak every language needed to preach the Gospel; now the Church does speak every language through her different members.)

There was then little need to remind people through the law of prayer that the Spirit is God. At least not until centuries later. The Church was over 300 years old when St Basil the Great wrote his great defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. And it is about this time that many of the liturgical prayers now used in the Christian East were composed or edited by St Basil and St John Chrysostom. These prayers emphasise throughout the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and call on him to come down upon the gifts of bread and wine to consecrate them. Well aware of the power of the lex orandi, the Fathers of the East wanted to make sure no one left Church on a Sunday in any doubt that the Holy Spirit is God.

It is perfectly possible, then, that the Roman Canon has no mention of the Holy Spirit because it comes from an even earlier Christian tradition. The consecration comes about simply through the Father’s gracious acceptance of our prayer.

That consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is such an extraordinary thing that the priest finds himself speaking sometimes as if it has already happened before any change has actually occurred, and sometimes as if it still to happen after it already has. So here, what we offer to God is not really bread and wine — what would he want with those? But we offer him ‘these holy and unblemished sacrifices’. Here we clearly refer not to the whiteness of our altar bread, but the purity of the Spotless Lamb whose sacrifice this is, Jesus Christ himself. In a similar way, it is in the paragraph immediately following the consecration that we refer to what is on the altar as ‘bread’ for the first time in this prayer (‘the holy Bread of eternal life’). This is not meant to deny the change that has taken place, but is simply a sign of the great mystery we celebrate, that our words can’t quite capture. A mystery, as we are reminded here, that is celebrated always for the benefit of the whole Church.