The Epiclesis in the Reformed Eucharistic Prayer, 3
October 25, 2016

In Part 2 of this series we traced what we have of the development of the epiclesis in the liturgy of the Church.  In this third and final part we’ll look at the theological implications of this and how we may apply what we’ve learned.

As we saw in Part 1, biblical benedictions are pronounced over people and over periods of time (e.g. holy days).  They are never pronounced over objects or things, like a sort of charm.  We also noted, however, that blessing God in close association with the cup can be understood as “blessing the cup.”  In all biblical examples, a thing is set apart for a use not because we pronounce a special blessing for it, but rather in the very act of using it for holy purpose, and specifically in giving thanks for it.  It is therefore appropriate to speak of “holy food.”  Indeed, 1 Timothy 4:3–5 shows us that all foods are made holy and are set apart, when they are received with thanksgiving:

". . . foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer."

So then, if common food is made holy by prayer and thanksgiving when set apart for the physical sustenance of the one who believes, how much more the food that is received with prayer and thanksgiving for the spiritual sustenance of God’s gathered people!((My purpose here is simply to show that the general concept of food being consecrated by thanksgiving is a Biblical one. More study could be given to the question of whether there is a qualitative difference in the nature of consecration between Eucharist and daily bread.))

Taking all this into account, I believe we should not adopt a “late form” epiclesis in our Eucharistic anaphora.  We have seen that there are two basic elements to the late form: the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts in order to change them, and the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the people in order to make them worthy and to apply the gifts to them.  At least the first part either needs to be omitted, or modified significantly.

This, of course, touches on the various forms of the doctrine of Real Presence.  The Roman dogma is transubstantiation, and the Orthodox also believe in a kind of change, though they do not define it to the extent that the Roman doctors did; the Lutherans also believe a kind of metaphysical change takes place.  So a late form epiclesis would in keeping with their understanding of the Presence.  For a Reformed understanding a late form would be inappropriate.

Nevertheless, some form of epiclesis is essential for a fully Trinitarian anaphora.  The Eucharistic prayer is addressed to the Father and gives thanks for creation and for the work of the Son; the epiclesis petitions for the work of the Holy Spirit.  So what form should the epiclesis properly take?  In order to answer what we ought to ask when we petition for the coming of the Holy Spirit, we need to examine what the Spirit’s work is, in general, and also specifically in the Eucharist.

I suggest that the Holy Spirit’s primary work as relates to the people of God is the work of gathering and binding.  That is, the Spirit gathers God’s people and binds them to one another, and also gathers and binds them to Jesus Christ.  We find this first in baptism, in which the Holy Spirit comes upon the baptized, just as he came upon Jesus at his baptism, and unites them to that prototype, in such a way that we are said to be united not only to the person of Jesus Christ, but also all that he has done and all that he does (Romans 6:3-11).

The work of the Holy Spirit in inspiration (2 Peter 1:21) of the prophetic word, in giving the Word of God to men and empowering their voice, gathers the hearers of that Word to the God who speaks, and indeed binds them to the one through whom God speaks.  When the Holy Spirit brings all things to remembrance for the apostles who are recording New Testament Scripture, he is uniting and binding them to all that Jesus has taught them (John 14:26).  So not only does the Spirit inspire, but he illuminates.  Christ speaks in the Spirit, and the Spirit brings Christ’s words and their meaning to remembrance.  We find this Spirit-inspired / Spirit-illumined dynamic in 1 Corinthians 2:12-13.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

It is the Spirit that gives understanding, just as it is the Spirit that gives the words not taught by human wisdom.  So we see, we, too, are united in faith to all those who believe in Jesus Christ throughout all ages, precisely because of the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiration and illumination.  We are bound together by the words of Scripture, and through Scripture also to Christ, who is the Word.  Closely related to this is the gift of tongues that was one of the hallmarks of the Spirit in the apostolic age.  At Pentecost, the apostles spoke in the diverse languages of all who were present, and so peoples separated by tongue were, through the direct working of the Holy Spirit, united and bound together—first in understanding, and then in belief, and then in baptism.

Finally, the Holy Spirit unites and binds the people of God together in worship.  Jesus spoke
of the day when true worshipers would worship God in Spirit and in truth, because “God is Spirit” (John 4:23-24).  That day Christ speaks of finds full expression and fulfillment in Revelation 1:10, in which John says he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.”  He then ascends “in the Spirit” to the throne of God (Revelation 4:2), where he sees the same vision as Isaiah—the seraphim singing Sanctus.  And at the end of the liturgy of Revelation, the Spirit speaks in, through, and with Christ’s Bride, the Church, when she says “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:17, 20).

In short, in all this gathering and binding, the Holy Spirit moves us.  He moves us toward greater unity, he moves us as he gathers us together as one into Christ, just as he “carried away” the prophets who wrote Scripture.  When John is in the Spirit, he is transported to the throne room of God.  And like John, we are raised to “heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:5-6); we have come to Mount Zion (Hebrews 12:22-24). “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” —a Spiritual flame of Pentecost.

If the Holy Spirit is so at work in the worship of the Church, we should not be surprised to
find him directly at work in the Eucharist.  For even as the Church with the Spirit says “Come, Lord Jesus,” she also declares the death of Jesus Christ in Eucharist “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26), looking in anticipation to that coming.  In 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, we find strong indication of the Spirit’s direct work in applying the sacramental gifts of Christ to the people:

"For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ."

The Israelites not only underwent baptism in the Red Sea, but this baptism led them into communion with Christ himself.  They ate of the spiritual food, and they drank of the spiritual drink.  And by “spiritual,” Paul means not some sort of disembodied ghostly sustenance that they ingested, but rather food and drink that were given by the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit binds Israel to Jesus Christ in the manna and in the water from the Rock.  But for the Church that conquers, the Holy Spirit offers a better manna (Revelation 2:17).  And so, in the incarnation, the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, mother of Jesus, and brought into the world the bread of life in the house of bread . . . whom she immediately wrapped in cloth and placed in a grain-feeding trough as “a sign” (Luke 2:7, 12, 16).  Since, therefore, the Spirit is so intimately involved in our fellowship with Christ, Paul can rightly call our fellowship the “communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

John Calvin takes up the idea of ascension—of the Holy Spirit’s moving God’s people into heavenly places—and helpfully ties that theme in with the Eucharistic Real Presence:

If we refuse not to raise our hearts upwards, we shall feed on Christ entire, as well as expressly on his flesh and blood. And indeed when Christ invites us to eat his body, and to drink his blood, there is no necessity to bring him down from heaven, or require his actual presence in several places, in order to put his body and his blood within our lips. Amply sufficient for this purpose is the sacred bond of union with him, when we are united into one body by the secret agency of the Spirit.

((John Calvin, “Clear Explanation of Sound Doctrine Concerning the True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper” T&T II.516 (Julie Canlis. Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. Kindle edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), [Kindle Locations 1790-1793].))

It seems incredible, that we should be nourished by Christ’s flesh, which is at so great a distance from us. Let us bear in mind, that it is a secret and wonderful work of the Holy Spirit, which it were criminal to measure by the standard of our understanding. “In the meantime, however, drive away gross imaginations, which would keep thee from looking beyond the bread. Leave to Christ the true nature of flesh, and do not, by a mistaken apprehension, extend his body over heaven and earth: do not divide him into different parts by thy fancies, and do not adore him in this place and that, according to thy carnal apprehension. Allow him to remain in his heavenly glory, and aspire thou thither, that he may thence communicate himself to thee.((Calvin and Pringle, Commentaries on Corinthians, 380–381.))

In agreement with Calvin, then, I believe the Scripture teaches us that Jesus Christ is not brought down to earth to be moved into the elements.  The Holy Spirit does not go about turning things into other things, but rather, as the one who moves men, he transports us, the people of God, into the heavenly presence of Jesus—as it is likewise the Spirit’s work to move God’s people into closer fellowship with Christ and with one another.  In other words, it is not so much that the Spirit makes Jesus to be present upon an earthly Eucharistic table, as that he causes us to be really present with Christ at a heavenly Eucharistic table.

With the theology of spiritual ascent, together with the Biblical understanding that blessing God for food blesses our food, we have no need to look for a point of consecration in the service, or to suggest one in the anaphora.  The Holy Spirit does not come down from the Father at a point in the service when we ask it of him.  Rather, the Father has already sent the Spirit upon the Church on the day of Pentecost, and by baptism we partake in that Spirit. Thereafter, we find that the Holy Spirit continues to fill and move God’s people (Acts 4:8, 31; 13:52), even as the Spirit moved Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted after descending upon him at baptism (Matthew 3:16-4:1).

The leading of the Holy Spirit for God’s people happens especially in the worship of God.  Ascent begins at entrance.  The Sursum Corda ushers us into the special divine presence where we sing Sanctus with the seraphim.  Christ teaches us from his Word, which is inspired by the Spirit and illuminated to us by the Spirit.  We are seated at the heavenly table before the anaphora begins, through which we give thanks to the Father for the gift of the Son and the work of the Spirit.  In other words, the whole service is consecration, for we are gathered around the table, blessing God from the moment of entrance.  The food is consecrated (set apart for a purpose) when it is brought into the assembly for use as Eucharist and the people begin praising God.  As there is a progressive sanctification of persons through all of life, we see a kind of progressive sanctification of the assembly in the liturgy.  As Schmemann observes, the liturgy “is entirely, from beginning to end, an epiklesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit, who transfigures everything done in it . . .”

((Schmemann, Eucharist, 222.))

For even while Christ is bodily absent, yet is he present, especially in the gathering of believers, through the operation of the Holy Spirit.  “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:19–20).


What form, then, should our expression take in the Eucharistic prayer?  To summarize those things that we seek to express, and ought consciously to include in our petitions to God:

1. Blessing God for the bread and cup is the blessing and consecration of the food, because God blesses the food of his people when they worship him, and makes it holy.

2. The Holy Spirit has come upon the Church at Pentecost, yet progressively fills and moves the people into the heavenly presence of Christ through worship.

3. The Holy Spirit applies the body and blood of Jesus to us in our partaking of the Eucharist.

4. The Holy Spirit unites the people of God into one body through the Eucharist, binding them to Christ and to one another.

While hard and fast formulas standardized for all churches everywhere are not necessarily what we are after, since from the earliest time the anaphora was extempore, model prayers may be helpful.

First, the blessing of God especially for the bread and cup may take the form of the ancient berakoth: “Blessed are you, Lord God of the universe, for you made bread/wine. . . .”  This is not specifically an element of epiclesis, and I think the epiclesis should precede it if understood as a petition for the Holy Spirit to work in and through our blessing.

God has sent his Holy Spirit upon the Church, so prior to the epiclesis, when recounting the acts of God’s redemption, we might add thanksgiving or remembrance for: “. . . the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower your Church . . .”

The “late form” petition for the Holy Spirit to come upon the gifts of bread and wine has no basis in Scripture, for the Spirit comes upon and fills people, not things.  And yet, in our blessing of God for the bread and cup in worship, God does come and bless the food we eat, so that it might benefit those who eat and drink.  An appropriate petition for the epiclesis proper, therefore, might be: “Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, and bless these [your] gifts of bread and wine . . .”

“Gifts” might remain ambiguous, or the gift giver and receiver might be made explicit. 
The Eucharist is an offering of the Church, and yet also the gift of God to the Church.  In either
case, we should be careful not to suggest a Spirit-affected “change” of the gifts, as the change occurs not with the bread and cup, but in the standing of the people partaking of them.  Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit applies the reality of Christ’s body and blood to those who partake.  So we might, therefore, rightly petition for that which Paul has declared takes place: “. . . that the bread we break and the cup of blessing that we bless may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.”

Finally, as the Spirit, having filled the Church, works especially in the Eucharist to move and to bind us to Christ and to one another, the gathering petition should conclude the epiclesis—a common theme in most of the ancient anaphoras from Didache to Byzantine Basil: “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, that we may be bound in fellowship to all who share this feast, united in service throughout the world. . . .”

The final form of the epiclesis proper for a Reformed anaphora might then look something
like this:

"Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, and bless these [your] gifts of bread and wine, that
the bread we break and the cup of blessing that we bless may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.  By your Spirit make us one with Christ, that we may be bound in fellowship to all who share this feast, united in service throughout the world.  Keep us faithful in your service until Christ comes in final victory, that we may feast with all your saints in the joy of your eternal Kingdom."

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.

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