I. HISTORY.—According to the idea of thanksgiving which, after the example of the Last Supper (Matt., xxvi, 27; Mark, xiv, 23; Luke, xxii, 17, 19; I Cor., xi,24), forms a fundamental element of the Eucharistic service, all liturgies begin the Anaphora, the consecration-prayer, by thanking God for His benefits. Almost every account we have of the early liturgy mentions this (Didache ix, 2-3; x, 2-4; xiv, 1; Justin, “I Apol.”, LXV, iii, 5; LXVII, v). Clement of Rome quotes a long example of such a thanksgiving-prayer (I Cor., lx-lxi). So prominent was this idea that it has supplied the usual name for the whole service (Eucharist, Greek: eucharistia). The thanksgiving-prayer enumerated the benefits for which we thank God, beginning generally with the creation, continuing through the orders of nature and grace, mentioning much of Old Testament history, and so coming to the culminating benefit of Christ’s Incarnation, His life and Passion, in which the story of the Last Supper brings us naturally to the words of institution. In most of the earliest liturgies this enumeration is of considerable length (e.g. Apost. Const., VIII; XII, iv-xxxix; Alexandria, see Brightman, infra, 125-33; Antioch, ibid., 50-2). It is invariably preceded by an invitation to the people: “Lift up your hearts”, and then: “Let us give thanks to the Lord”, or some such formula. The people having answered: “It is right and just”, the celebrant continues, taking up their word: “It is truly right and just first of all to praise [or to thank] thee”; and so the thanksgiving begins.
Such is the scheme everywhere. It is also universal that at some moment before the recital of the words of institution there should be a mention of the angels who, as Isaias said, praise God and say: “Holy, holy, holy” etc., and the celebrant stops to allow the people to take up the angels’ words (so already Clem., “I Cor.”, xxxiv, 6-7, and all liturgies). He then continues his thanksgiving-prayer. But the effect of this interruption is to cut off the part before it from the rest. In the Eastern rites the separation is less marked; the whole prayer is still counted as one thing—the Anaphora. In the West the Sanctus has cut the old Canon completely in two; the part before it, once counted part of the Canon (see Canon of the Mass), is now, since about the seventh century (Ord. Rom., I, 16), considered a separate prayer, the Preface. The dislocation of the rest of the Canon which no longer continues the note of thanksgiving, but has part of its Intercession (Te igitur) immediately after the Sanctus, and its silent recital, whereas the Preface is sung aloud, have still more accentuated this separation. Nevertheless, historically the Preface belongs to the Canon; it is the first part of the Eucharistic prayer, the only part that has kept clearly the idea of giving thanks. The name “Praefatio” (from praefari) means introduction, preface (in the usual sense) to the Canon. In the Leonine and Gelasian books this part of the Canon has no special title. It is recognized by its first words: “Vere dignum” (Leonine) or the initials “V. D.” (Gelasian). In the Gregorian Sacramentary it is already considered a separate prayer and is headed “Praefatio”. Walafrid Strabo calls it “praefatio actionis” (“actio” for Canon; “De eccl. rerum exord. et increm.” in P.L., CXIV, 948). Sicardus of Cremona says it is “sequentis canonic praelocutio et praeparatio” (Mitrale in P.L., CCXIII, 122). Durandus writes a whole chapter about the Preface (De div. off., IV, xxxiii). He explains its name as meaning that it “precedes the principal sacrifice”.
The first Roman Prefaces extant are those in the Leonine Sacramentary. They already show the two characteristic qualities that distinguish the Roman Preface from the corresponding part of other rites, its shortness and changeableness. The old thanksgiving (before the Sanctus) contained a long enumeration of God‘s benefits, as in Clement of Rome and the Apostolic Constitutions. It is so still in the Eastern rites. At Rome, before the Leonine book was written, this enumeration was ruthlessly curtailed. Nothing is left of it but a most general allusion: “always and everywhere to thank thee”. But the mention of the angels which introduces the Sanctus had to remain. This, comparatively detailed, still gives the Roman Preface the character of a prayer chiefly about the angels and makes it all seem to lead up to the Sanctus, as the medieval commentators notice (e.g. Durandus, ibid.). The corresponding prayer in Apost. Const. (VIII) contains two references to the angels, one at the beginning where they occur as the first creatures (VIII, viii), the other at the end of the commemoration of Old Testament history (originally written in connection with Isaias‘s place in it) where they introduce the Sanctus (XII, xxvii). It seems probable that at Rome with the omission of the historical allusions these two references were merged into one. The “Et ideo” then would refer to the omitted list of favors in the Old Testament (at present it has no special point). So we should have one more connection between the Roman Rite and the Apost. Const. (see Liturgy of the Mass).
The other special note of our Preface is its changeableness. Here, too, the East is immovable, the West changes with the calendar. The Preface was originally as much part of the variable Proper as the Collect. The Leonine book supplies Prefaces all through for the special Masses; it has 267. The Gelasian has 54; the Gregorian has 10 and more than 100 in its appendix. In these varied Prefaces allusions to the feast, the season, and so on, take the place of the old list of Divine favors.
The preface after the ekphonesis of the Secret (Per omnia saecula saeculorum—here as always merely a warning) begins with a little dialogue of which the versicles or equivalent forms are found at this place in every liturgy. First “Dominus vobiscum” with its answer. The Eastern rites, too, have a blessing at this point. “Sursum corda” is one of the oldest known liturgical formulas (St. Cyprian quotes it and its answer, “De Orat. Dom.”, xxxi, in “P.L.”, IV, 539; Apost. Const.: “Ano ton noun). It is an invitation to the people eminently suitable just before the Eucharistic prayer begins. Brightman (infra, 556) quotes as its source Lam., iii, 41. Equally old and universal is the people’s answer: “Habemus [corda] ad Dominum”, a Greek construction: “Echomen pros ton kurion, meaning: “we have them [have placed them] before the Lord”. Then follows the invitation to give thanks, which very early included the technical idea of “making the Eucharist“: “Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro”. So with verbal variations in all rites. The Jewish form of grace before meals contains the same form: “Let us give thanks to Adonai our God” (in the Mishna, “Berachoth”, 6). The people answer with an expression that again must come from the earliest age: “Dignum et iustum est”. This, too, is universal (Apost. Const.: “Aksion kai dikaion). Its reduplication suggests a Hebrew parallelism. The celebrant takes up their word and begins the Preface always: “Vere dignum et iustum est” (Apost. Const.: Aksion os aluthos kai dikaion). The beginning of the Roman Preface is approached among the others most nearly by Alexandria. Our present common Preface represents the simplest type, with no allusions; all the old list of benefits is represented by the words “per Christum Dominum nostrum” only. This is the Preface given in the Canon of the Gelasian book (ed. Wilson, p. 234). Most of the others are formed by an intercalation after these words. But there are three types of Preface distinguished by their endings. The first and commonest introduces the angels thus: “per quem maiestatem tuam laudant angeli”; the second (e.g. for Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Apostles) begins that clause: “et ideo cum angelis”; the third and rarest (now only the Whit-Sunday Preface) has: “Quapropter. sed et supernae virtutes”. The Trinity Preface (“quam laudant angeli”) is a variant of the first form. All end with the word: “dicentes” (which in the first and second form refers to us, in the third form to the angels), and the people (choir) continue the sentence: “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus“, etc.
There are many prayers for other occasions (chiefly blessings and consecrations) formed on the model of the Preface, with the “Sursum corda” dialogue, beginning “Vere dignum” etc. From their form one would call them Prefaces, though not Eucharistic ones. Such are the ordination prayers, two at the consecration of a church, the blessing of the font, of palms (but this was once a Mass Preface), part of the praeconium paschale. They are imitations of the Eucharistic Preface, apparently because its solemn form (perhaps its chant) made it seem suitable for other specially solemn occasions too. The Leonine, Gelasian, and Gregorian Sacramentaries have our ordination prayers, but not yet cast into this Preface form. But through the Middle Ages the Preface form was very popular, and a great number of blessings are composed in it. This is only one more case of the common medieval practice of modeling new prayers and services on others already well-known and popular (compare the hymns written in imitation of older ones, etc.).
II. THE PREFACE IN OTHER RITES.—The name “Praefatio” is peculiar to Rome and to Milan, which has borrowed it from Rome. In no other rite is there a special name; it is simply the opening clauses of the Anaphora. In the Syrian-Byzantine-Armenian group, though this part of the Eucharistic prayer is still longer than the Roman Preface and has kept some list of benefits for which we thank God, it is comparatively short. The Byzantine Liturgy of St. Basil has a fairly long form. As usual, there is a much shorter form in that of St. Chrysostom. The Armenian form is the shortest and mentions only the Incarnation. But in the Egyptian group of liturgies the whole Intercession prayer is included in what we should call the Preface, so that this part is very long. This is the most conspicuous characteristic of the Alexandrine type. The prayer begins in the usual way with a list of favors (creation of the world and of man, the Prophets, Christ). Then abruptly the Intercession begins (“And we pray and entreat thee.”); joined to it are the memory of the saints and the diptychs of the dead, and then, equally abruptly, the thanksgiving is resumed and introduces the Sanctus (Brightman, 125-132). It is clear that this represents a later amalgamation; the two quite different prayers are joined awkwardly, so that the seams are still obvious. In all Eastern rites the Preface, or rather what corresponds to it, is said silently after the first dialogue, ending with an ekphonesis to introduce the Sanctus (the Alexandrine Liturgy has another ekphonesis in its Intercession). This accounts for its being less important an element of the service than in the West.
The Gallican Rite had a great number of Prefaces for feasts and seasons. Even more than in the old Roman Liturgy this prayer was part of the Proper, like the Collects and Lessons. But it was not called a Preface. Its heading in the Gallican books was “Contestatio” or “Immolatio”; the Mozarabic title is “Inlatio”. These names really apply to the whole Eucharistic prayer and correspond to our name Canon (Inlatio—`Anaphora). But as later parts had special names (“Vere Sanctus“, “Post sanctus”, “Post pridie”, etc.), these general titles were eventually understood as meaning specially the part before the Sanctus. Now the Mozarabic “Inlatio” may be taken as equivalent to the Roman “Praefatio”. The Ambrosian Rite has adopted the Roman name. Both Mozarabic and Ambrosian Rites keep the Gallican peculiarity of a vast number of Prefaces printed each as part of the Proper.
III. PRESENT USE.—The Roman Missal now contains eleven Prefaces. Ten are in the Gregorian Sacramentary, one (of the Blessed Virgin) was added under Urban II (1088-99). The pope himself is reported to have composed this Preface and to have sung it first at the Synod of Guastalla hi 1094. The Prefaces form a medium between the unchanging Ordinary and the variable Proper of the Mass. They vary so little that they are printed in the Ordinary, first with their solemn chants, then with the ferial chants, and lastly without notes for Low Mass. The appendix of the new (Vatican) Missal gives a third “more solemn” chant for each, merely a more ornate form of the solemn chant, to be used ad libitum. Otherwise the solemn chant is to be used for semidoubles and all days above that, the simple chant for simples, ferias, and requiems. The Preface is chosen according to the usual rule for all proper parts of the Mass. If the feast has one, that is used; otherwise one takes that of the octave or season. All days that do not fall under one of these classes have the common Preface, except that Sundays that have no special Preface have that of the Holy Trinity (so the decree of Clement XIII, January 3, 1759). Requiems have the common Preface, as also votive Masses, unless these latter come under a category that has a proper one (e.g., of the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Ghost, etc.). Votive Masses of the Blessed Sacrament, like Corpus Christi, have the Christmas Preface. There are other extensions of use (the Preface of the Holy Cross for the Sacred Heart, etc.), all of which are noted in the Propers of the Missal and in the Calendar.
At High Mass after the last Secret the celebrant at the middle of the altar, resting his hands on it, sings: “Per omnia saecula saeculorum” etc.; the choir answers each versicle. He lifts up the hands at “Sursum corda”; at “Gratias agamus” he joins them, and at “Deo nostro” looks up and then bows. At “Vere dignum” he lifts the hands again and so sings the Preface through. After “dicentes” he joins them and bowing says the Sanctus in a low voice, while the choir sings it. The deacon and subdeacon stand in line behind him all the time, bow with him at the words “Deo nostro”, and come to either side to say the Sanctus with him. At Low Mass all is said, the server answering the dialogue at the beginning.