The Great Thanksgiving is a modern (or arguably a renewed ancient) label for the opening section of the Eucharistic Canon. Although the specific “prayers of consecration” that follow have varied over the centuries, and even seen some shuffling within the Anglican Prayer Book tradition, the first section has remained remarkably stable for well over a thousand years. Its pieces are the Sursum Corda, the Preface, the Sanctus, and the Benedictus. Let’s take a look at these prayers, primarily as presented in the 2019 Prayer Book.
Classically, the Sursum Corda followed the Words of Comfort, the assurance of pardon leading directly to the lifting up of our hearts to give thanks. The Liturgical Renewal Movement of the 20th century, however, led to a re-ordering of the liturgy (sometimes termed novus ordo – new order) and the addition of the dialogue “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” which was used only sparingly in the classical Prayer Books. This dialogue is also present in the Roman Rite; contemporary Anglican liturgies like this signal a move toward general Western liturgical practice.
The Sursum Corda has also been entitled the Great Thanksgiving. The worshipers lift their hearts to God, pursuing a sort of ascent from earthly to heavenly matters, and do this with an explicit call to “give thanks to the Lord our God.” The final response, classically, was “it is meet and right so to do,” and the initial drafts for this Prayer Book drew a closer rendition in the phrase “it is just and right so to do,” but it did not survive the final revision. The celebrant’s next phrase, “It is right, our duty, and our joy…” is, by contrast, a return to classical phraseology, where the 1979 Prayer Book had set aside the language of duty by phrasing this “It is right, and a good and joyful thing…”
The ordering of the modern liturgy has a lot of starting and stopping, and a new “start” is needed at this point. The Confession and Absolution ended with the Peace, which is often a huge interruption to the liturgy. Announcements often take place there, which is an interruption to the liturgy. The Offertory is often drawn out with music and the presentation of the elements – in short, the interaction between the celebrant and the people in a worship-minded context can easily be all but lost. “The Lord be with you…” is a practical addition in order to restart the worship service at this point. Classically, the offering would be taken, then the Prayers of the People, Confession, and Absolution followed. Then the Comfortable Words were read, after which the Priest shall proceed saying, Lift up your hearts. There was a direct link from the comfort of divine forgiveness to the Communion: “You are fully pardoned and forgiven and Christ, so lift up your hearts and let us give thanks…!” That context is easily obscured in the modern arrangement of the liturgy.
After being bidden to give thanks, the people respond “it is right to give him thanks and praise”, rather than the classical “it is meet and right so to do.” The message is the same but the emphasis is reversed. The classical phrase emphasizes the properness, fittingness, rightness, that we ought to give thanks to God. The modern phrase emphasizes the thanks and praise which we are to offer.
That loss is balanced with the restoration of the celebrant’s next phrase, “It is right, our duty, and our joy…” There we see the rightness of giving thanks to God spelled out clearly. So, between the priest’s two lines the whole message is present. What falls to the people is to repeat and reinforce one or other part of that whole; the classical phrase emphasized what the priest was about to say next; the modern phrase emphasizes what the priest previously said.
All this is just the beginning; what follows is the Proper Preface, which provides a sentence of purpose – a reason why we should give thanks to God.
THE PROPER PREFACE
Then may follow a Preface. The 1979 Prayer Book uniquely required one on every Sunday, when classically only five to seven Prefaces were appointed, for a few specific days or weeks in the year. This edition has embraced both classical practice (by making the Preface optional) and contemporary liturgical development (by adding to the number of prefaces for special occasions). This variation mirrors early liturgical history: the Leonine Sacramentary appointed a specific Preface for each Sunday and Holy Day, the Galasian Sacramentary contained about fifty Prefaces, the Gregorian Sacramentary reduced the list near to twelve, and the Sarum Missal contained ten. The early Prayer Books reduced this to five (Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Whitsunday, and Trinity), and by 1928 the Epiphany and the Purification/Annunciation/Transfiguration were added to make seven. The 1979 Prayer Book brought the total to 22, and the present edition has 34, although most of these are for special occasions not typically observed on Sundays.
The Preface is essentially a single-sentence addition to the Great Thanksgiving. It specifies a particular reason why it is “right, our duty and our joy always and everywhere to give thanks” to God. It is called a “Proper” Preface because it is proper to a particular occasion or season. Many of these Prefaces are similar to collects in that they both identify something about God and a benefit that we enjoy as a result; our particular thanksgiving is typically for the benefit in light of God’s character, word, or acts.
Therefore we praise you…
After a specific reason for thanksgiving has been elucidated in the Preface, the celebrant continues by aligning the Church’s praise with the worship taking place in the heavenly places. This is one of the clearest expressions of the Communion of Saints in all of Christian liturgy: we explicitly call upon the angels, archangels, and saints in heaven as fellow-worshipers of God. With one heart and voice we sing…
Holy, Holy, Holy
As far as we know, this hymn was composed by angels. Both the Prophet Isaiah and the Apostle St. John witnessed the angelic hosts singing this in their respective visions of heaven, and duly recorded it for the faithful on Earth to join in (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8). The liturgical form of the Sanctus has gently grown over time. The Gregorian Sacramentary provides the biblical text “Sanctus sanctus sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.” By the 16th century this had been expanded, as the classical Prayer Book rendition attests: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord, most high. Amen.” Before the Reformation, the Sanctus was often sung by a choir, but the English Prayer Books reserved the reading or singing of this hymn to the priest. The first American Prayer Book contained a rubric that implied that the priest and people were to sing or say the Sanctus and its lead-in text together, but subsequent revisions have clarified that the Sanctus only is said by the congregation with the celebrant. The present text of the Sanctus (most noteably changing “God of hosts” to “God of power and might”) was first adopted in the 1979 Prayer Book, matching the translation of the Roman Rite into English.
Certain musical settings in recent times have obscured the proper phraseology of this hymn. It should be read and understood:
Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
The thrice-repeated “holy” proclaims the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By “power and might” we proclaim not just the idea of divine strength but the “powers” of the universe, namely the mighty ones, the spiritual beings, with whom we sing this hymn. And, as heaven and earth are united in the singular worship of their common Creator, so too are heaven and earth filled with his glory.
Blessed is he…
The variable text of the Preface here concludes with a fixed text, which, together with the Sursum Corda and the Sanctus has been standard in Western liturgy since at least the 9th century, developing from Early Church liturgies. The English translation of the Latin text was changed in modern Prayer Books. The 1662 Prayer Book here reads “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying:”
The anthems “Benedictus qui venit in Nomine Domini” and “osanna in excelsis” were suffixed to the Sanctus over the course of the time in the medieval era. The 1549 Prayer Book initially retained this – “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Glory to thee, O Lord in the highest.” – but it was soon dropped from the Prayer Book tradition, not to return until its retrieval in the modern Prayer Books (1979 on).
The addition of this “Benedictus”, taken from the praises of the people of Jerusalem when Christ the Lord entered the city to its initial celebration and joy, evokes the sense of Christ’s entrance into the worship gathering in a new way. (This phrase is occasionally misunderstood: Jesus is the one “who comes in the name of the Lord.”) He has been present in the reading and preaching of his Word, he has been the object and mediator of our prayers, he has been our comfort in the absolution of our sins, and now he enters into the midst of a people prepared for himself. The worshiper is reminded of the sacramental presence of Christ that will soon be received in the forms of bread and wine.