The Epiclesis in the Reformed Eucharistic Prayer, 2

In the first part of this series we examined the meaning of “blessing” in Scripture and its parallels in Jewish liturgical tradition, but did not find anything that we could properly call an epiclesis (an invocation of the Holy Spirit). We did find examples of invocation of Jesus to “come” with the Holy Spirit giving voice to the Church in that call.

The first possible mention we have available to us of epiclesis as a part of the liturgy is found in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies.  Citing two closely related discussions of the Eucharist in Irenaeus, O’Connor presents what I believe to be a fairly convincing argument that Irenaeus used the epiclesis and “word of God” interchangeably:1

. . . just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist” (Against Heresies V.II.II).2

“For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation (epiklesin) of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist” (IV.XVIII.V).3

Therefore, “word of God” and “epiclesis” are synonymous to Irenaeus in the context of the Eucharistic praying.  O’Connor perhaps oversells the significance of this though, since it is not explicitly the Holy Spirit who is invoked, and his use could quite easily belong to the category of earlier Christ invocations.  But at least Irenaeus appears to represent an early movement toward explicit invocation in association with the anaphora.

In the record of transitional texts, which is rather scant, we go from accounts of berakah-like blessings to something very close to a fully formed epiclesis sometime in the 3rd to 4th century.4 There are some pre-Nicaean liturgical uses of the Greek ἐπίκλησις, as in Irenaeus, but the word also often refers to the naming or applying of the divine name (e.g. calling God “Father”), and Zheltov notes that the liturgy of St. Basil features both this use as well as the invocation of the Holy Spirit. 5We have also the probably gnostic, early 3rd century Acts of Thomas, which includes an epiclesis that may be in transition:

“Come, holy name of Christ which is above every name. Come, power of the Most High and compassion that is perfect. Come, gift of the Most High. Come, compassionate mother. Come, companion of the male child. Come, revealer of the sacred mysteries. Come, mother of the seven houses so that you may be able to rest in the eighth house. Come, elder of the five members—mind, thought, reflection, consideration, reason—communicate with these young men. Come, Holy Spirit and cleanse their reins and hearts, and grant them added zeal in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 6

This passage opens with the Christ invocation, then adds what appears to be a reference to the Madonna and various gnostic esotericism, but, most notably, ends specifically with an invocation of the Holy Spirit. Johnson also notes that cleaned up non-gnostic versions of Acts of Thomas are also extant, so the text possibly had a much broader reading than other gnostic texts did. In the full-form epiclesis, this type of invocation seems to be combined with the much earlier general gathering prayers, such as that found in Didache:

For as the broken loaf was once scattered over the mountains and then was gathered in and became one, so may your church be gathered together into your kingdom from the very ends of the earth.7

We may suppose that developments in Trinitarian theology leading up to the Council of Nicaea, and, thereafter, to the Council of Constantinople, where the Church produced a creed with a more mature pneumatology, would have been given more and more expression in the prayers of the Church. Indeed, between Nicaea and Constantinople, a great deal of study and writing was produced regarding the Holy Spirit, most notably from the three great Cappadocian fathers, of which Basil is one. It would therefore be natural to suppose that crystallization of pneumatology would result in the expression of this greater understanding of the Holy Spirit into the liturgy of the Church. Regard for the Holy Spirit in Eucharistic praying may parallel regard for the Spirit in the creed, which moves from a mere mention of his existence in the creed of Nicaea to a fully formed theology of pneumatological life-givingness, revelation, procession, and ecclesiastical catholicity in the Nicene Creed of Constantinople. Conversely, it is also possible that the liturgical words of epiclesis were themselves an impetus for further exposition on the Holy Spirit, which would then be a case of secondary theology following in the footsteps of the primary (liturgical) theology.

The first example we have of an epiclesis proper is found either in the Eucharist prayer of the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus or the anaphora of Addai and Mari, depending on which came first. Both texts are the topic of much debate regarding their original form, their age, and especially to what extent they were modified in later centuries.  The epiclesis of both have been of particular academic interest. Even the authorship of the Apostolic Tradition is far from settled.  While it was once thought to have been written by an anti-pope figure in Rome, some recent studies suggest that the manual is the work of a house church that bore the name Hippolytus, rather than the writing of the actual person who bore that name. 8

The Hippolytus epiclesis in question reads thus from the Latin text: “And we ask that you would send your Holy Spirit in the oblation of [your] holy church . . .”9 Here the invocation is upon the oblation or offering. But there is some question about whether this is original or a later addition, or even a corruption. Stewart-Sykes proposes the alternative “send your Holy Spirit on the presbytery,” rather than on the offering, in keeping with the context of the Apostolic Tradition, which is the ordination of a bishop.10 The invocation itself is followed by the gathering petition: “[that] gathering [them] into one you will give to all who partake of the holy things [to partake] in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, for the strengthening of faith in truth. . . .” This appears to fit an invocation upon the presbytery, and would also parallel earlier known gathering petitions, such as the Didache, making the gathering specific to drawing the presbyters and the newly ordained bishop into unity. But however plausible Stewart-Sykes’ reading may be in context, it is still based solely upon the hypothesis that an inattentive scribe mistook presbyterion for prosphoran when translating the Greek text into Latin,11 a speculation that is impossible to confirm.  Because of how similar the epiclesis in Apostolic Tradition is to the one found Addai and Mari, which does not have the context of a bishop’s ordination, I tend to believe that the epiclesis of Apostolic Tradition is likewise intended for the offering, not the presbytery.  Dix believes the entire epiclesis of Apostolic Tradition to be a late interpolation of a Syrian form onto the Roman liturgy, a position to which an examination of Addai and Mari may give some credence.12 There is no current consensus as to whether this or any other form of epiclesis was originally present in Hippolytus.

This brings us to the anaphora of Addai and Mari, a Syrian form from the 3rd century, which does not receive as much direct attention as the Apostolic Tradition has since the addition of Eucharistic Prayer II, largely based on the anaphora of the Apostolic Tradition, to the Roman Rite. The epiclesis of Addai and Mari, as I noted, follows a form noticeably similar to the one found in versions of the Apostolic Tradition, and appears to be of the same Syrian type:

May your Holy Spirit, Lord, come and rest on this offering of your servants, and bless and sanctify it, that it may be to us, Lord, for remission of debts, forgiveness of sins, and the great hope of resurrection of the dead, and new life in the kingdom of heaven, with all who have been pleasing in your sight.13

This epiclesis bears both similarity and some differences to the Apostolic Tradition. The similarity is that the invocation is for the Holy Spirit to come upon the offering or oblation, and the following petition is for the Eucharist to give benefit to those who partake.  The gathering aspect is absent.

While Addai and Mari has had its own series of debates, most of them center around the words of institution rather than the epiclesis, which is present in both the Latin and Syriac manuscripts.14 Dix notes that the invocation is framed in terms “so obviously primitive, resting as they do upon that jewish eschatological doctrine which tended to be lost to sight in gentile christianity after the second century, that one must hesitate a good deal to regard [the invocation] as any sort of late invention.”15 In fact, the epiclesis forms the high point of the Addai and Mari anaphora, especially if, as many suggest, the anaphora never included the words of institution.16 The absence of an epiclesis would be to lose the heart of the prayer, and it is, therefore, most probably original.  An almost identical epiclesis also appears in Sharar, a related Syrian anaphora, which had a common ancestry with Addai and Mari, but developed differently.17 In any case, the epiclesis of Addai and Mari is probably the most ancient that has come down to us.18

The most important thing to note about Apostolic Tradition and Addai and Mari (as well as Sharar) is the nature of invocation in both. That is, both are an invocation of the Holy Spirit specifically, both invoke upon the offering,19 neither petition for a transformation of the elements, and both petition for a direct benefit to those who partake.

As the Nicene period progresses, so does the development of epiclesis.  The Egyptian Anaphora of St. Basil, which underlies the Byzantine St. Basil as well as the Liturgy of St. James, dates from late 3rd to 4th century, and presents this epiclesis:

And we . . . pray you, our God, in adoration that in the good pleasure of your goodness your Holy Spirit may descend upon us and upon these gifts that have been set before you, and may sanctify them and make them holy of holies.  Make us all worthy to partake of your holy things for sanctification of soul and body, that we may become one body and one spirit, and may have a portion with all the saints who have been pleasing to you from eternity.20

Here, for the first time, we see the petition for the Holy Spirit to descend on the gifts [of bread and wine] to sanctify them and to “make them holy of holies.” That is, there is a sanctification or consecration, and also an apparent petition to affect some sort of change upon the gifts. Compare to the expanded Byzantine St. Basil:

. . . bless them and sanctify and make this bread the precious body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. And this cup the precious blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

This Byzantine form expands on what is said about making the gifts holy of holies, to specify a making of the bread to be body and of cup to be blood.  Finally, in the full and final form is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which, among other elements, adds to this, “changing it by your Holy Spirit.”

Retained in all of these is a kind of gathering petition for the Eucharist to be effectual for those who partake, for life and for unity. In this part we’ve explored the historical foundations of epiclesis and its development in the historical liturgy of the Church, to the extent that we have it. In the third and final part of this series we’ll examine the theological implications of this and consider what that could mean for a Reformed liturgy

Christopher Kou has been a student in the Theopolis Institute intensive course program.  He is currently pursuing an MA at Reformed Theological Seminary.  He lives in the greater Chicago area, Illinois.

Share Button

References   [ + ]

1. James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist (Second Edition.; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 25.
2. Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus Against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe; vol. 1; The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 1528.
3. Ibid., 1486.
4. And here, by “epiclesis” I continue to mean any invocation of the Holy Spirit in connection to the Eucharist. cf. Dix, Shape of the Liturgy, 182. He appears to hold a very narrow definition for epiclesis, as an invocation of the Spirit specifically for the purpose of converting the elements of bread and wine.
5. Michael Zheltov. “The Moment of Eucharistic Consecration in Byzantine Thought,” in Issues in Eucharistic Praying in East and West, (ed. Maxwell E. Johnson; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010): 264-265
6. Johnson, Worship in the Early Church. vol. 1, 241.
7. Thomas O’Loughlin, The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians (London; Grand Rapids, MI: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; Baker Academic, 2010), 167.
8. John F. Baldovin. “Hippolytus and the Apostolic Tradition: Recent Research and Commentary.” Theological Studies 64 (2004): 525
9. Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson and L. Edward Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 40.
10. Alistair Stewart-Sykes, On the Apostolic Tradition (New York: St Vladimir’s, 2001): 65, 190.
11. Stewart-Sykes, 73
12. Gregory Dix, ed. and Henry Chadwick, ed, The Treatise on The Apostolic Tradition of St Hippolytus of Rome (Elmore Abbey, 1991): 79
13. R.C.D. Jasper and G.J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed (Third edition; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1990), 43.
14. Emmanuel J. Cutrone, “The Anaphora of the Apostles: Implications of the Mar Esa’Ya Text.” Theological Studies 34 (1973): 634
15. Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (Second Edition.; Westminster: Dacre Press, 1945), 183.
16. Jasper and Cuming, Prayers, 40.
17. Ibid., 45, 50.
18. Cutrone, “The Anaphora of the Apostles,” 641.
19. Except in Stewart-Sykes’ hypothesis.
20. Jasper and Cuming, Prayers, 71.
  • In Medias Res Newsletter Signup

  • Categories