The path from the Upper Room through the grove of olive trees to Golgotha may not be more than a few hundred yards, but it was neither a quick nor an easy walk.

Similarly, the road to Emmaus was short on steps but long on meaning as eyes were opened to sacred Scripture and hearts were set ablaze in the breaking of the bread.

Each time the Church gathers at Mass we retrace the path of Jesus from Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday. The path is not quickly trod. The Mass concentrates the path of three days into about an hour of intense meaning. The meaning is most significant when we become active participants, bringing our own fears, worries, joys, hopes, dreams and pains along with Jesus to the cross.

The center and core of the Mass, the Eucharistic prayer, transports us mystically to the hours from the lifting up of Jesus’ own heart to the Father to the moment of His death and resurrection. These many hours are condensed to a few paragraphs.

The apostolic Church called this part of the Mass the anaphora, from the Greek verb meaning “to carry back,” since each celebration of the Eucharistic prayer carries us back to the Upper Room with Jesus, to live anew the precious sacrifice of His own flesh and blood.

We lift our hearts to God most high; we accompany Jesus through the Last Supper and to the Cross; we plead for His mercies upon us; we acknowledge the glory that is God’s. These are the living memories of the Eucharistic prayer.

A Living Remembrance

When a family gathers for an important event — a baptism, first holy Communion, a graduation, a wedding, an ordination, a reunion, or a funeral — there is a shared experience: stories are told about family members and memories of the past, and after a hearty time of recollection there is a meal.

“Remember when …” so many of those stories begin. Stories are recalled about grandfathers, aunts, sisters, siblings. These are memories that forge a family’s identity and make them unique. In the past, fingers pointed to pages in a photo album, and today a smartphone screen is passed around. “Remember when …”

The Mass is a family gathering for an important event, where stories are told about our family’s past (the Liturgy of the Word) and then we share a meal (the Liturgy of the Eucharist), which in truth is so much more than a simple meal — it is the sacrifice that brings us salvation. At the heart of this family event is the Eucharistic prayer, the anaphora, or the canon of the Mass. These are the family memories of the last words and actions of Jesus, brought to life.

For the first millennium of the Church, the Eucharistic prayer was usually chanted so that all in the church could hear it clearly. In recent centuries the emphasis was placed on the notion of mystery, and so the priest prayed most of the texts quietly. The Second Vatican Council restored the more ancient practice so that in the ordinary form of the Mass the priest prays or chants the texts aloud.

At the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, the priest, who stands in the person of Christ, invites the people to join with him in lifting our hearts to God. We begin the Eucharistic prayer by acknowledging together that it is right and just to give thanks to the Lord our God. We end it with a sweeping affirmation that all glory and honor belong to God in the Divine Trinity. What happens in between is nothing less than the miraculous act of our eternal salvation: the sacrifice in which Jesus is priest, victim and altar — the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

So vivid is this memory to Christians that in the early Church the pagan Romans accused Christians of true sacrifice and of cannibalism.

We are asked to remain silent during most of this prayer as an act of profound reverence and contemplation. In truth, we should fall into stunned silence in awe of what is happening before us at the altar: God made flesh, offering himself as an atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins, truly present in our midst! Much more than a passive experience of listening while the priest prays, the Eucharistic prayer invites us to open our hearts and our lives to the power of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. In the Eucharistic prayer, we lift up our needs and our petitions, and together with the priest we thank God, praise God, seek blessings from God, present our deepest selves to God for redemption and healing on the altar.

This is why the priest invites us at the outset to “pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, our almighty Father.”

A Memory Shared

The Roman Missal prescribes the liturgical rites of the Latin-rite Church, which is only one of more than 20 distinct churches within the communion of the Catholic Church. Each of these churches has its own form of celebrating the Mass. Though the outward form varies, there is only one reality of the Mass, only one Calvary, only one sacrifice. The various forms evolved from the cultural and linguistic uniqueness of various parts of the Christian world. Great centers of Christian history, such as Antioch, Chalcedon, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome developed a particular ritual and unique language for the celebration of the Mass.

Even today these historical and cultural differences impress their character on each of the churches that make up the worldwide communion of Catholic churches. The Mass of the Latin-rite Church — whether in the official Latin or translated into English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, or any language — is markedly different in its externals from the Divine Liturgy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, or the Mass of the Coptic Church, or of the Armenian Church.

Still, no matter the historical origin of the rites, every Mass celebrates the same reality: a living memory of the saving sacrifice of Christ in His flesh and blood.

The anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) of the Latin-rite Church is first recorded in a work entitled “The Apostolic Tradition,” attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, and which scholars traditionally accept as having been composed around the year A.D. 215.

It was written in Greek, which replaced the Aramaic-language prayers within a century after the ascension of Jesus. Greek remained the language of the Church, including the celebration of the Mass, until it was replaced by Latin in the Western Church — a slow transition that occurred from the mid-third century through the fifth century.

Today there are several Eucharistic prayers listed in the Roman Missal, but four are most commonly used. The others are for special purposes — Masses for reconciliation and for various needs. The second of the four principal Eucharistic prayers in today’s Roman Missal is nearly identical with the anaphora of Hippolytus. It represents the most ancient prayer of the Mass, predating what is traditionally called the “Roman Canon” by almost four centuries.

The other three Eucharistic prayers in the Roman Missal are of later origin, and they reflect the historical evolution of the anaphora, or canon, of the Mass in various parts of the Roman Empire.

Diverse forms of the Eucharistic prayer existed in common usage for centuries in different parts of the Christian world. The differences were not great, but there were variations in the words used and the order in which the parts of the canon were prayed. Historical names for rites such as the Mozarabic, Gallican and Ambrosian rites, or the Gelasian Sacramentary, may be familiar to some readers.

The so-called Roman Canon, which is listed first among the Eucharistic prayers in the Roman Missal, was compiled under the direction of Pope St. Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604). He wished to make uniform the texts of the Eucharistic prayer throughout the Latin-rite Church.

Since then, minor changes have been made to the words several times, but it remains substantially the same.

The third and fourth Eucharistic prayers were composed following the Second Vatican Council.

The third Eucharistic prayer is greatly influenced by the Gallican and Mozarabic rites of centuries past, and the fourth draws its substance from Eastern sources, especially the fourth century anaphora of St. Basil.