John Gayford explains a central tenet of our faith


When the priest in the Western Church says the words of Eucharistic invocation to the Holy Spirit, he holds his hands outstretched with palms downwards over the offering of bread and wine is one of the most sacred part of the liturgy. This action has been a complicated and controversial subject which came to divide west from east, and other churches from each other, in word and in action. The origin is usually attributed to Jewish table prayers where blessings were given, such as Birak hamazon which came at the end of a meal, praising and thanking God. It has been pointed out that these Jewish prayers were not fixed until the middle of the second century when Christian Eucharistic prayers were still in the cradle. Irenaeus of Lyons has been credited with the introduction of the Greek term epiklesis which he did in his writings on heresies (Adversus Haereses) in about 180 AD. In this he made an analogy between the sanctification of the Eucharist and the resurrection:-


For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation (epiklesis) of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so also our bodies, receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope for the resurrection to eternity.


The epiclesis is then a request to God the Father to send the Holy Spirit or the Logos (the creative force) not only to change bread and wine (the offerings or oblation) into the body and blood of Christ, but also to bring about unity of his faithful with God, to give them strength, to worship him and to give them eternal life. We note that the Epiclesis is a subdivision of the whole Eucharistic Prayer.

St John Damascene (c. 675-749) in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith says:- 


“You ask how the bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the wine the Blood of Christ. I shall tell you: the Holy Spirit comes upon them and accomplishes what surpasses every word and thought. Let it be enough for you to understand that it is by the Holy Spirit, just as it was of the Holy Virgin and by the Holy Spirit that the Lord, through and in himself, took flesh.”


 We note that the Epiclesis is a subdivision, one moment in the consecration. There is resistance to splitting up the whole of the liturgical action of the Eucharistic Prayer (as it is called in the Western Church) or of the Anaphora (as the Orthodox call it). This is emphasised when we consider the little known about the complex origin of its structure. There are claims that there is no precise epiclesis in words in the old Roman Rite. Claims can be made that the origin of the Roman Rite disappears in the ancient mists of Christian history even before the doctrine of the Holy Spirit had been defined by the first Council of Nicaea in 325. This would account for there being no definite Epiclesis. Nevertheless the liturgical action of multiple crossings make it a liturgy of epiclesis. The offertory prayers of the Roman Rite developed over many years and were said in a low voice by the celebrant. We even have hints of epiclesis in the old offertory prayers. The first of these prayers Veni, sanctificator (Come O sanctifier) is asking for God’s blessing. As the priest says this he makes the sign of the cross over the oblation.  The gesture of the priest makes it clear that this is an offering being made to God and calling on the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The rubric says he stands erect, extends his hands, raises them and joins them, and lifts up his eyes to heaven and lowers them before he says this prayer. The goal of these petitions is for preparatory steps in consecration so that the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ. This is something only God can bring about. God acts by means of visible sacramental signs. Mankind can do nothing but beg. God’s name is invoked and God’s power is elicited. Jungmann claims that this happens at the words Quam oblationum (bless and approve our offering…..) and Supplicis (we pray you that your angel……) 

So the Catholic Church developed the belief that the words of institution (the Dominical Words as said by our Lord at the Last Supper) form the precise moment when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. This become a “genuflection moment”, when the priest holds up the Host and then the Chalice, genuflects, bells are rung and incense can be used at the elevations.  In the Orthodox liturgy the Epiclesis is not a sacred moment: rather the whole anaphora is sacred, during all of which the faithful bow low and there is the descent of the Holy Spirit, as a diffusion throughout the prayer.

This difference of belief was not discussed in the 9th -11th centuries but was debated at the Council of Florence in 1439.  The Council asked the Byzantines only for an official verbal declaration on the point without discussion. The projected decree said that the consecration was effected solely by the words of Christ. Pope Eugene IV eliminated this statement from the text. He wished to recognize the liturgical usages of the two Churches while affirming Catholic doctrine. Later it was stated the intent of liturgies and, in general, of consecratory prayers, is not to focus our attention on precise moments, but to have us attend to the action in its entirety and to its complete effect. Despite this the development of many churches, each with variations of rite over centuries, has given rise not only to differing words, actions and interpretations, but also to concepts of ‘double epiclesis’ with invocations to the Holy Spirit both before and after words of institution within the Eucharistic Prayer, as in the Roman rite passed on to Gallican and Sarum rites. 

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) introduced the Epiclesis into the Book of Common Prayer before the words of institution in the Eucharistic Prayer in 1549, derived from the Sarum Missal:-


With Thy Holy Spirit and Word vouchsafe to bless and sanctify these Thy gifts and creatures of Bread and Wine that they may be unto us the body and blood of thy dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ


Cranmer did not mean that there was a transformation but only that the bread and wine would represent the body and blood which then could be received spiritually. Even so what was said was too much for a Reformed Church. So it was removed from the 1552 version and was not reintroduced into the 1662 version. In spite of its strong Calvinistic leanings the words used in the 1549 were retained in the Scottish Prayer book of 1637. With the coming of Catholic revival in the Oxford Movement changes were afoot to alter the wording of the Book of Common Prayer. Anglo-Catholics of the late 19th century and early 20th century using the English Missal were faced either with using the Book of Common Prayer words of the Eucharist Prayer or the English or Latin Roman Missal. Neither really has an obvious epiclesis but this did not prevent the priest preforming rituals of the epiclesis with extension of hands over the oblations and signs of the cross even while using Book of Common Prayer words.

To the Orthodox Church the Epiclesis is an essential part of the Eucharistic Prayer and is solemnly recited by the presiding bishop or priest after the words of institution. It can all be seen as the defining moment when the gifts of bread and wine are sanctified and become the body and blood of the Lord.

The early Roman Canon does not contain a satisfactory Epiclesis but Modern Canons were introduced after the Second Vatican Council in Roman Canons II, III and IV and also in the Eucharistic Prayers for various needs and for special use with children.  Anglo-Catholics have been more excited about the Epiclesis than the majority of Anglicans. Attempts to make changes to the Book of Common Prayer were resisted in the 1920’s. The 1928 changes, printed and used, did not receive the consent of Parliament. In 1971 there was an agreed statement made on Eucharistic doctrine made by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission asking that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. This was seen as too extreme so the terms “be to us” or “be for us” were used. 

With the Alternative Services Books introduced in the 1980’s there was an Epiclesis but the way it was interpreted varied and in some churches was even resisted completely. 

In Common Worship (2000) there are eight Eucharistic Prayers in an attempt to cater for the wide divergence of opinions within the Anglican Church. In A, B and C there is an invocation of the Holy Spirit before the institutional narrative; and D, E, G and H follow the Orthodox Church pattern with an epiclesis after the institutional narrative. In F there is no epiclesis either before or after the institutional narrative.

In Orthodox liturgy The Chalice with its contents is carried ceremonially though the great doors into the sanctuary in the Great Entrance while the Hymn of the Cherubim is sung. It can be believed that angels enter in this procession. In the liturgical prayers of consecration the Epiclesis follows and is a climax of several great moments but is not the final act of transformation. This is only complete when the Zeon of the liturgy takes place. The Deacon pours hot water (the living water) into the chalice symbolic of the fervour of the Holy Spirit who descends to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

In modern Catholic liturgy a bell should sound at the point in the Eucharistic Prayer when the priest spreads his hands over the offering of bread and wine. This bell is not just to wake us from earthly slumbers and distractions but to concentrate the mind on the pending actions of the Holy Spirit. First to perform the divine miracle of changing bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Secondly to plead that the ever active and present Holy Spirit is prepared to transform the recipients of this sacrament to share the fruits of salvation.


Suggested Further Reading:-


Crockett, W.R. Eucharist: Symbols of Transformation Pueblo Publishing Company New York 1989

Johnson, M.E. (Editor) Issues in Eucharistic Praying East and West: Essays in Liturgical and Theological Analysis. Liturgical Press Collegeville Minnesota 2010

Jungmann, J.A. The Mass of the Roman Rite Translated by Brunner, F.A. and revised and abridged into one volume by Riepe, C.K. Burns & Oates London. 1959

Mazza, E. The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite. Translated by O’Connell, M.J. Pueblo Publishing Company New York 1986.

Fr John Gayford is a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross