Theology of Latin- and Eastern-Rite Liturgies

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Theology of Latin- and Eastern-Rite Liturgies

ROME, 13 NOV. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum University.

Q: Is there any difference between the holy Mass of the Latin rite and the Mass of the Eastern rites such as the Ukrainian or Syro-Malabar? Is there any difference in the theology behind them? — M.M., Ottawa

A: The answer to the first question as to whether there is a difference in the Mass between the Roman rite and Eastern liturgies is fairly easy: No. It is the same Mass in every corner of the world.

The response to the second question with respect to the theology of Mass is somewhat more complex and could be characterized as no and yes at once.

The answer is no if by difference in theology we mean a difference regarding something essential. All liturgical families hold that the Eucharistic celebration is Christ's sacrifice made present through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. All believe that communion is receiving Christ's sacred body and blood. In other words, the essential aspects of Eucharistic theology are common to all.

The answer would be yes, however, if by difference we mean that the several rites, through their celebrations, tend to emphasize some facets of the one mystery more than others.

In this sense the theology of the Roman rite, and especially the first Eucharistic Prayer, continually underlines the theme of the acceptance of the sacrifice by the Father. Thus it begins:

"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."

The prayers of intercession that follow expresses for whom this sacrifice is offered: the Church, pope, bishops, and those people present, who also offer the sacrifice for themselves and those dear to them. The reason they offer the sacrifice is:

"For the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true."

The theme of the acceptance of the sacrifice is again brought to the fore in other parts of the prayer: For example:

"Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

"Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect. …

"Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

"In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high …."

We have used the Roman Canon as this best illustrates the theological tradition of this rite. The other Eucharistic Prayers either follow this same tradition or, as is the case of the fourth Eucharistic Prayer, are inspired by Eastern models.

Each one of the Eastern Churches will have a different emphasis of the mystery. For example, most Churches following the Byzantine tradition lay great emphasis on the action of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist. This theme is barely touched upon in the Roman liturgy although it has been made more explicit in the new Eucharistic Prayers.

One example is the epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit, that is prayed after the consecration in the Ukrainian Catholic Church:

"Priest (silently): Again we offer to You this spiritual and un-bloody sacrifice, and we implore and pray, and entreat You, send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here present.

(Blessing the bread) And make this bread the precious body of Your Christ. (Blessing the chalice) And that which is in this chalice, the precious blood of your Christ. (Blessing both) Having changed them by Your Holy Spirit:

"Priest (silently): So that to those who partake of them, they may be for the purification of the soul, for the remission of sins, for the communion in Your Holy Spirit, for the fullness of the heavenly kingdom, for confidence in You, not for judgment or condemnation.

"Priest (silently): Moreover, we offer to You this spiritual sacrifice for those who departed in the faith; the forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and for every righteous spirit who has died in the faith."

The examples of differences in theological emphasis could be multiplied many times.

What is important to remember is that, far from being a source of division, these differences serve to show the unfathomable depth of the Eucharistic mystery. It is such an ineffable gift that no individual or community has been able to express it in its entirety.

This is one reason why the Church seeks to conserve and promote all of her various liturgical traditions. The whole Church would be the poorer if one of them were to be lost.

* * *

Follow-up: Theology of Latin- and Eastern-Rite Liturgies [11-27-2012]

In the wake of our comments on the different theological stresses in the liturgies of East and West (see Nov. 13), a reader commented: "I appreciated your response regarding the different emphases in theology in Latin- and Eastern-rite liturgies. As a (Latin-rite) teen I also found a Byzantine-rite church a few blocks from home, and loved how I could go to either rite, and became familiar with both. Your quote of an Eastern epiclesis included 'and upon us,' and perhaps that was the basis of the new Eucharistic Prayers having a 'dual epiclesis' before and after the institution. But I think, in a subtle way, that is also in the Roman Canon, expressed in gesture: Before the consecration the priest makes the sign of the cross over the bread and wine, and after, at the words 'ut quotquot ex hac altaris participatione … omni benedictione et gratia repleantur,' he (and everyone if they wish) make the sign of the cross on themselves. The invocation of the Spirit is implied, though not expressed in the words. It would again show a difference in emphasis and expression, not in substance. Do you think my theory has any validity?"

It was commonly alleged among Latin-rite theologians that although the Roman Canon had no explicit invocation of the Holy Spirit, it had in fact not one but two epicleses, before and after the consecration.

This was among the reasons why the Holy See stipulated to the commissions composing the new Eucharistic Prayers that they should all have two epicleses, or invocations of the Holy Spirit. One asks for the consecration and the second for communion and unity among the faithful as a fruit of the celebration.

In the Roman Canon the epiclesis was adduced more from the text than from the gestures made by the priest, since these gestures had suffered several modifications over the centuries.

Thus the first epiclesis would be the "Quam oblationem": "Be pleased, O God we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ." These words are now accompanied by the gesture of invoking the Holy Spirit by the priest's extending both hands over the gifts. In the extraordinary form, however, the gestures at this moment are five signs of the cross.

The second epiclesis in the Roman Canon would be, as our reader posits, the prayer "Supplices te rogamus": "In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing."

Once more it is the petition that of blessing from on high, rather than the priest's gesture, that would constitute the epiclesis.

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