Ron Rienstra on the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
Christian traditions refer to the prayer before communion as the eucharistic prayer, the Great Thanksgiving, or the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. If your Lord’s Suppers don’t include this prayer, then you very well may be missing out on a rich opportunity for faith formation.
Ron Rienstra teaches preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and co-author of Worship Words: Disciplining Language for Faithful Ministry. In this edited conversation, Rienstra makes the case for recounting salvation history through the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in every communion service.
For people unfamiliar with the term, what is the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving?
I like to describe it as a prayer of thanksgiving before a family meal, that is, the Lord’s Supper. It’s a different kind of prayer than “eyes closed, head bowed, hands folded.” The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving is a “heads up, eyes open, hearts full” prayer where you bring your whole self to the communion table. Some parts are spoken, chanted, or sung by the presider and other parts by the congregation. The prayer, which is also known as the Great Thanksgiving or the eucharistic prayer, recapitulates salvation history. It praises and thanks God the Creator for the work of Jesus the Savior, and then asks the Holy Spirit to take us up into the life of God.
Where did this prayer come from?
Many scholars suggest it is rooted in the Jewish Passover celebration of God delivering the people of Israel from Egypt. The Passover prayers praise God, give thanks for what God has done, and then ask God to remain with the Israelites in covenant faithfulness, to fulfill God’s promises for mercy and fellowship and salvation. During the Passover celebration at the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples likely followed Jewish tradition by reciting and singing the Hallel Psalms (113–118). The disciples were accustomed to blessing God, asking God to bless the wine and food, raising “the cup of salvation” (Ps. 113:16), and eating the unleavened bread and the Passover meal.
Jesus followed the pattern but transformed the meal into the Lord’s Supper. He took, blessed, broke, and shared the bread and said, “‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:19–20).
The early church fathers offered phrases and models for eucharistic prayer. For example, the Didache, an early summary of apostolic teaching, has language still used today: “As this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf . . .”. It also advises allowing liturgists to “say the eucharistic prayer the way they like.” A century later, Hippolytus of Rome affirmed that liturgists weren’t required to “repeat the same words we provided.” It was enough for the eucharistic prayer to follow a basic structure that includes God’s saving action in the past, present, and future through the work of each person of the Trinity.
Can you say more about the basic structure or pattern of the Great Thanksgiving?
There is broad ecumenical consensus around the basic Trinitarian structure of the Great Prayer. Here is the particular variation used in my church, which celebrates weekly communion:
- The prayer begins with an introduction—the Sursum Corda, the “lift up your hearts” dialogue between presider and congregation.
- The presider then gives thanks for God’s mighty acts, especially in creation and throughout salvation history. The particulars may be shaped by the liturgical season or the central theme or text for the day. The people respond by joining angels and the whole church across space and time by singing or saying two short biblical songs, the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) and Benedictus (Blessed is he [Jesus] who comes in the name of the Lord). The Sanctus and Benedictus are often combined in the same song or spoken paragraph.
- In the second section of the prayer, the presider gives thanks for Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, and for inviting us to this holy meal. In some churches, this section rehearses the “words of institution”—that is, the words Jesus used at the Last Supper. The people respond by proclaiming the “memorial acclamation,” also known as “the mystery of faith,” e.g. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
- The presider then prays for the presence of the Holy Spirit and prays that the Holy Spirit will work through this celebration of communion to unify the whole church and to bring the reign of God in its fullness. This section often ends with everyone praying the Lord’s Prayer.
After the prayer come the words of institution (if they weren’t used earlier) and an invitation to the table.
What are your most memorable experiences of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in worship?
I’ll share two stories. The first is a general example. When I came to Western Theological Seminary, I wrote a sung version of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, “The Lord Be with You,” because I noticed that people often experience the prayer as a cluster of disconnected talky bits to get through so we can get on to remembering Jesus. I wanted to offer at the sub-thinking level that this is a single prayer from beginning to end [click on Background tab]. So a two-chord figure provides the song’s musical foundation, and musicians continue playing it while the presider speaks. The congregation’s responses are all sung, and set to the same tune. The spoken text is taken from the RCA eucharistic prayer, and we probably use this setting every third or fourth time we celebrate communion at Western. It has become quite beloved here.
My second example is a particular service where we set the congregation’s sung parts to James MacMillan’s Sanctus and Benedictus from his St. Anne’s Mass. Stacey Sterkenburg, a chapel steward and pianist, played variations on the theme to undergird the prayer’s spoken parts. Joanna Rodriguez did a liturgical dance throughout, from “Holy and right it is” through “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” She danced the prayer, not the music. Sometimes liturgical dance is a lot of little leaps, twirls, and hands flung in the air. Joanna’s dancing was more representational, such as splashing water from the font and gesturing to the cross for the words “word made flesh for us.”
Do you teach the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in class?
I teach it explicitly in Practice of Worship and Preaching, a class for seminary seniors. We spend a chunk of time exploring the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving’s shape, theological significance, and historical precedents. The class includes a liturgy lab where each student is required to speak a version of the prayer for the rest of us. I encourage students to memorize the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving version from Worship the Lord: The Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America (the Communion Prayer is on pp. 11– 13). About half do. Other students find and edit or write a version of the prayer.
Where else might Western Seminary students encounter this prayer?
We teach it implicitly during our Friday communion services, where faculty members take turns leading. Each leader uses a Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. Many, but not all, do it from memory. Most use the RCA version. But, for example, (Professor) David Stubbs is Presbyterian, so he more frequently uses something from the PCUSA’s Book of Common Worship (see pp. 69–73 and pp. 126–159).
What do churches lose by omitting this historic element of communion services?
I have my students read Worshiping the Triune God, a statement adopted by the World Communion of Reformed Churches. It recommends celebrating the Lord’s Supper “as a feast of thanksgiving, communion, and hope” [4.3 Lord’s Supper]. Often, especially in the Reformed tradition, we have made the Lord’s Supper primarily about remembrance. The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving helps us to sound all three notes. You may choose to drop the joyful and celebrative thanksgiving and the hope in the epiclesis—where we ask the Holy Spirit to make God known in the breaking of the bread and experience a “one bread, one body” unity. But then you may end up with a communion that is a somber wake for poor dead Jesus instead of a celebration of the risen Christ’s presence among us.
Why do you think churches skip the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving when they do the Lord’s Supper?
Time and inertia. The Great Thanksgiving can take up to five minutes, as you can see in this Calvin Symposium on Worship communion service. In churches that don’t celebrate communion frequently, perhaps worship leaders don’t want to put extra time and resources into writing or learning a Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, even though doing so might be exactly what helps people to really come fully into God’s presence.
Also, even though churches often experiment with music, they sometimes yield to inertia in their celebrations of Lord’s Supper. We don’t want to mess with the way we’ve always done it—which, in many churches, is very solemn and wordy and introspective, and not necessarily all bad. But when we change how we perform the Eucharist, then we change how much of ourselves we offer to God. Human beings generally are moved by big symbols and beautiful words, music, and gestures. It’s not that “God won’t show up” if we don’t do communion a certain way or don’t do a complete Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. God promises to show up. It’s a question of how we can show up more fully and more open to the God who is already present.
Watch a clip that uses Ron Rienstra’s musical version of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. In a classic Reformed Worship article, Daniel Meeter described the eucharistic prayer as “The Heart of Holy Communion.” See a musical score for the entire prayer [click on Score tab] set to a tune in the public domain.