A few days ago, I read a blog post on prayer book revision that referred to Eucharistic Prayer C as the “Star Wars canon,” and implied that it is one of the most infamously dated parts of our current Prayer Book, a product of the 1970s. It reminded me of many similar cracks I’ve heard over the years. A lot of Episcopal clergy don’t care for Prayer C, finding it dated and cheesy. Or so I am given to understand.
Today, we started using Prayer C at my parish, as we do in Advent every year. And as I spoke (and received) its words, I thought, Maybe I should write about why I like Prayer C.
(A quick aside for those wondering what I’m talking about: The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book of The Episcopal Church, has four different Eucharistic prayers in the Rite II Eucharist section – alternate forms for the prayers in which the priest and people ask God to consecrate the bread and wine of our holy meal, and make them in some real and mysterious sense the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The four different form are identified by letters: A, B, C, and D. You can read Prayer C here – scroll down past Prayer B.)
Yes, Prayer C feels a little dated – though to my ears it’s only a few words. “The vast expanse of interstellar space” has a ring of nostalgia – from back when science was cool and Cosmos was brewing in Carl Sagan’s mind. And likewise, “this fragile earth, our island home” resonates in my GenX mind with the theme song of “Big Blue Marble.” So, I’m not going to argue that Prayer C doesn’t feel like a product of its time. But it’s far from the only part of the Book of Common Prayer that feels dated to me. And, well, isn’t retro part of our shtick, as Anglicans? From where I’m standing, the science-philia and ecological sentiments of the 1970s are among the more agreeable threads from the past that we might weave back into the present. (There’s the list of patriarchs at the end too – but that’s an easy fix if you’re comfortable broadening the text. If the feminist movement had crept even a few inches further into the Episcopal Church by 1976, surely some matriarchs would have made the cut too?)
So what do I like about C? First, I love its dialogic character. Unlike the other three Rite II Eucharistic prayers, unlike the three supplemental prayers in Enriching Our Worship, definitely unlike the two Rite I Eucharistic prayers, in Prayer C the text of the prayer spoken by the priest is punctuated by responses from the congregation. I loved Prayer C as a layperson because it kept me engaged for the whole prayer. In the other prayers, the Eucharistic prayer includes a long chunk of text spoken by the celebrant alone. And while I find that text pretty interesting when I get to say it, as a layperson I often found that my mind would wander. Listening to the same person say the same several paragraphs, week after week, is conducive to wool-gathering, however deep your faith and however profound your sacramental theology. In church this morning, I really noticed people’s hearty and ready responses. They were right there with me, listening for their cues, speaking their part of our shared prayer boldly and clearly – our kids and youth right along with the adults. So I suppose I could say that as a priest, I like Prayer C for the same reason I liked it as a layperson. I can hear the people’s attention and participation.
Second, I think Prayer C makes a terrific Eucharistic prayer for Advent, because it is both penitential – in its emphasis on our turning from God, in the humble prayer for God’s mercy on us as sinners – and cosmic, in the way it sweeps across [interstellar] space and time before zooming in to the particulars of Jewish and Christian salvation history. The resident rocket scientist in my parish (don’t we all have one?) and I have been discussing with shared interest the fact that the Greek word generally translated as “world” in the New Testament is actually kosmos – meaning, the Internet tells me, world, universe, cosmos, system, the whole enchilada. Emphasizing the cosmic character of God’s saving grace seems especially fitting in Advent, when we’re not only anticipating the baby in the manger but also God’s transformation and restoration of the whole created order, when we’re putting on the armor of light and standing tall as the waves roar and the heavens shake.
Finally, I love Prayer C for these words: “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.” That prayer is, in many respects, THE prayer, for me – my most heartfelt and fundamental prayer for the Church. May we see and know God at work in the world. May we not come to church simply seeking a break, an escape from the clamor of the world. May we instead seek and find strength and renewal, in our worship and our fellowship, to empower and equip us to serve the world in the name of God.
As much as we’d like it all to be about nice clean tidy matters like doctrine and history (hah), liturgy is also about aesthetics – about taste. As the surprisingly wise Internet judge and comedian John Hodgman says, You like what you like. I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind on Prayer C if it just doesn’t hit you right. But I have often found that hearing why someone else appreciates something helps me see some good in it, even if it doesn’t win me over. In the ongoing and energetic conversations about liturgy in our church, as we begin to talk about prayer book revision, I hope we can do more talking up what we like (what we find meaningful, powerful, beautiful, true, holy) than tearing down what we don’t.