The late Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar was one of the most important theological writers on the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the 20th century. I was introduced to Congar's work about twenty years ago. I prize his three volumes as some of my finest material on the Spirit. Father Richard McBrien says Congar's theology has six principal elements in it. I would like to underscore only one of them: epiclesis.

Epiclesis refers to a special section in the offering of the prayer at the Mass. Since the Reformers rejected the idea of sacrifice in the Eucharist they also rejected this term. 9780824516963_2
The idea behind epiclesis is to offer thanksgiving to God for his past mercies and to offer petition for his continued benevolence in the present. In ancient liturgy it was rooted in the Didache which said, "Remember, Lord, thy church . . . " The prayer focused upon asking God to deliver the church from evil, to perfect it in love and to gather it into the kingdom. The image behind this word is that the eucharistic bread is made of many grains and the wine of many grapes, but the food is one as Christ is one and the people must receive it with thanksgiving as the Spirit comes down upon the meal. 

The prayer of epiclesis developed into the request for the Holy Spirit to make the elements of the body and blood of Christ become a blessing to all the people of Christ. It was a petition that the Holy Spirit come upon the bread and wine as well as the celebrants of the meal. Protestants rightly rejected the idea of "sacrifice" (at least in one sense) but they quite likely over-reacted by removing the prayer of epiclesis altogether, or that is my view at least.

Congar argued that the entire life of the Christian church is "one long epiclesis." What he meant by this was that the church is to continually call down the Holy Spirit upon itself and the world that it seeks to serve. The epicletic character of the church should be present in many of the church's activities but especially at the table of the Lord. I believe this idea is not only ancient but consistent with John Calvin's view of the eucharist too. Calvin, as some readers will know, believed that the Holy Spirit came upon the actual elements, and the participants, with the result being the actual presence of Christ in mystery presented to living faith.

If the church is "one long epiclesis" then the character of our life together should be marked by constantly calling down the Holy Spirit in power among us. This is truly one of the most Christian and basic prayers we could offer. But I almost never hear it in Protestant churches, with the exception of charismatic ones.

I have long been persuaded that this is precisely what Jesus is talking about in Luke 11:13. If we would know the Spirit's great power there must be a continual epiclesis among us. We must ask the Father for the greatest gift he can give to us as the living church of God: the Holy Spirit.

"Dear Lord, grant that we may stop quarreling about how this happens and teach us to ask you for the Spirit with all our hearts. Make us a 'one long epiclesis.' Amen."

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  1. Rick Schnetz October 6, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Dear John,
    I grew up as a Roman Catholic Christian but spent 25 years in the Evangelical Christian community before returning to the RCC about 6 years ago. I know how troubling the word ‘sacrifice’ is for many, and for good reason.
    I have a three page article that I find myself reading again and again to help me get the right perspective on the word “sacrifice” as it pertains to Christian sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of Jesus. It presents a Trinitarian view of sacrifice:
    “Sacrifice: the Way to Enter the Paschal Mystery”
    By Robert J. Daly, S.J. | May 12, 2003 [from America magazine]
    As always, Blessings to you,
    _Rick Schnetz

  2. Nathanael October 6, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    You may be interested to know that in the new “Lutheran Service Book”, they have reincluded a eucharistic prayer in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. Although the prayer is directed to the Father (where the epiclesis is directed to the Holy Spirit) it follows the ancient church tradition of the eucharistic prayer including the following petition: “Gather us together, we pray, from the ends of the earth to celebrate with all the faithful the marriage feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end.”

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