The Eucharistic Prayers all begin with God. In the ancient manuscripts, this invocation took the form of addressing God as “You”, which in Latin is Te. As these Missals (the books that contain the words for the Mass) became more artistically enhanced through what is known as illumination of a manuscript, the “T” often became a Cross. In time—and with the invention of the printing press—a page began to be added to the Missal between the Sanctus and the beginning of the Canon with an image of Christ crucified. This seems like a small point, but I have always found it beautiful: this connection that the offering of Christ on the Cross is the same offering we enter into at this Mass. They begin not with our action, but with God.
In the United States, we have begun kneeling by this point, which sometimes creates an elongated pause between the Holy Holy and the beginning of the Canon itself. Sometimes this can distract us from seeing the connection between what we have already begun: this great act of Thanksgiving that is now continued by the priest. I am convinced that kneeling became a posture because what used to be done was actually more difficult—that of remaining profoundly bowed for the entirety of the Eucharistic Prayer! A profound bow is not just a tilt of the head, it’s from the waist. Try holding that posture for a couple of minutes! In the past, posture was less uniformly regulated for Christ’s faithful—the laity—during Mass. Today, we have been given these more uniform postures as an attempt to show “a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the sacred liturgy: it both expresses and fosters the intention and spiritual attitude of the participants” (IGMR, 42). What this is saying is that these common postures help us all to recognize that we are all taking part in this offering of the Mass together.
The prayers before the consecration take different forms in the different Eucharistic prayers. In Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon), they continue the action of thanksgiving and petition from the Preface, including prayer for the whole Church—individual living members of the Church who participate for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to God and praying in communion with all of the saints who are paying their homage to God in their heavenly worship of Him.
I want to take a brief moment to expound on the prayer for the Church in the Canon. It is what begins Eucharistic Prayer I and it also begins the preparation for Communion in the prayer immediately preceding the Fraction Rite. In the first prayer, we hear that we are praying not “for our pope and bishop” but praying “together with our pope and bishop and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the Catholic and Apostolic Faith.” What binds the Church is this action of offering, in which everyone is participating: the pope, bishop, us, the communion of saints, all are here! These prayers are not arbitrary. Even if some of them occur after the consecration in other Eucharistic prayers, they are all stating something that we hold to be true: that at this one Sacrifice, all of heaven and earth come together to unite in the worship of God the Father through Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
For further study see:
The Priest and the Canon of the Mass
Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, 13 Sept 2008
Sacramentary of Charles the Bald, ~890s