In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we continue our series of sermons on the Mass, its constituent parts, there origin and their meaning.
Last week we discussed the Prayers of the People and the General Confession, after which the celebrant reads a selection of Biblical texts known as the “Comfortable Words” – a short series of four texts from the Gospels and the Epistles:
“Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.
“Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Matthew 11:28
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16
“This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” 1 Timothy 1:15
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1 2
The “comfortable words,” like the Prayers of the People and the General Confession, were innovations introduced into the liturgy after the Reformation. These four passages of Scripture serve as a short rehearsal of the central mystery of Christianity: the incarnation of Jesus for our sake; and they function as an invitation to us to come to Jesus in the sacrament of the altar, having unburdened our hearts in the foregoing prayers and confession.
And this brings us to the main event of the mass: the liturgy of the sacrifice, the first part of which is called “the offertory.” “The offertory” refers at one and the same time to the ritual actions that are done at this point in the mass, and also to the text, usually taken from the Psalms, along with its antiphon, that is chanted by the choir. The practice of chanting an antiphon and verse from the Psalms at this point in the mass originated, probably, in North Africa in the third century. We know that St. Augustine introduced the practice to his church in the town of Hippo, because he makes mention of a tract, now lost, in which he defends the practice against one of its detractors, named Hilarius. But in addition to the antiphon and verse chanted by the choir, the principle and essential action of the offertory is the bringing of bread and wine to the altar.
The first thing to notice about this action of bringing bread and wine to the altar is that it is a reminder of the fundamental Christian principle that “matter matters.” Our faith is intimately connected with material realities – with bread and wine, with water and oil, and wax and smoke, with human bodies, and the difference and complentarity of men and women. Our faith is concerned with soul and spirit, to be sure, but it is not MERELY concerned with soul and spirit. Throughout the centuries there has been a tendency among some to reduce Christianity to a disembodied, essentially spiritual enterprise. But the offertory is a stark reminder of the centrality of the material creation in the ongoing narrative of salvation, and of the words from the very beginning of that narrative: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day,” (Genesis 1.31).
But the reason that bread and wine are brought forward is partly obvious: it was these elements that the Lord used at the Last Supper, when he instructed us to “do this.” And throughout the centuries the Church has insisted that bread and wine alone may be used at the Eucharist – and not, e.g., tortillas and beer. The Catholic Church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law, for example, says that “The most holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist must be celebrated . . . in wine to which a small quantity of water is to be added. . . . The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt,” and likewise the bread must be made only of wheat (CIC 924).
The offertory is also the time of the “collection” – that is, in addition to bread and wine, MONEY collected from the faithful is also brought to the altar. And this offering of money, along with the bread and wine, likewise has a very ancient origin, although frequently throughout history minted money was rare or unknown, and instead of money various kinds of goods were brought forward and offered by the people: oil, candles, and so forth. A vestige of this situation was retained in the papal liturgy at the canonization of a saint until the middle of the 20thcentury. At the offertory of a papal mass of canonization, certain cardinals and laymen would present to the pope offerings of bread, wine, water, candles, and cages with live birds in them. This practice lasted until the 1960’s.
Money or material goods are offered, most obviously, because they are necessary in order for the Church to pursue its mission. We have to pay the bills. But, as Fr. Homer Rogers famously put it, at the end of the day, God doesn’t need your money; but you need to get rid of it. So the offertory is an opportunity to reorder our priorities, to remind ourselves of what is truly important. Maybe I don’t need a new Lexus – but maybe the poor DO need to be fed; maybe the church DOES need a new air conditioner; maybe God DOES deserve to be worshiped with more beautiful (and therefore more costly) ornaments. Also note that most of us spend our waking hours transmuting our lives and our energy into money. So by offering some of that money to the Church and to her work in the world, through the law of transitivity, we are actually offering to God our time and our energy, our lives, our SELVES, that that money used to be, before it became money.
Just so, the money offerings are made at the same ritual moment as the offering of the bread and wine. And note that, in the modern offertory prayers the celebrant takes pains to say that the bread (e.g.) is not merely the “fruit of the earth,” but is also the “work of human hands.” That is to say, human energy and time have gone into making bread and wine out of the raw material of wheat and grapes. And when the bread and wine are offered, human labor is offered together with and in it. We should be mindful of these realities during the offertory, and indeed throughout the mass – that here, on the altar, we are offering and presenting to God not just bread and wine, but also “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice.”
Which brings me to my final point: we all join together in offering this sacrifice. At the conclusion of the offertory, just before the main sacrificial action, the priest says to the people: “Pray Brethren, that this MY SACRIFICE AND YOURS, may be acceptable to God the Father almighty.” This is something that we do together. And indeed our doing it effects and creates our togetherness. St. Paul said: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread,” (1 Cor. 10.17). Drawing attention to the analogy of many grains of wheat being mixed together in water and baked into a single loaf – and by extension, the juice of many grapes being poured into one chalice – the author of one of the earliest known pieces of Christian literature relates the following prayer of the celebrant at mass – a prayer still in use today: “As grain, once scattered on the hillsides was in this broken bread made one, so may your Church be gathered from all lands into your Kingdom by your Son.”
On this score, in centuries past, many saw in the offertory a mirror image of the act of receiving communion. We offer bread and wine; we receive the Lord’s Body and Blood. And thus, in many places, not only was communion restricted to baptized Christians in a state of grace, but the offertory was too. Fr. Jungmann notes that
“In the Syrian Didascalia there is a long discussion outlining the duty of the bishops and deacons to watch out from whom they accept a gift; the gifts of all who openly lived in sin were to be refused, whether they were the unchaste or thiefs or usurers or even Roman officials who had stained their hands with blood.” (Vol. 2, p. 20)
And he notes that a synod at Arles (France) in the 6th century forbade Christians who dissented from the Church’s teaching or were at enmity with one another from participating in the offertory – so inimical is disunity to the action of the mass.
And this of course echoes Jesus’ own words in Matthew’s Gospel: “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift,” (5.23f).
Let us all be aware of these realities, particularly during the offertory. Are we at peace with God, with our brethren, and within ourselves? St. Paul warns of the possibility of “eating and drinking judgment” on ourselves (1 Cor. 11.29) if we are not. Let us come to God’s altar, but let us come in penitence and in faith, offering ourselves without reservation – offering all that we have and all that we are – to him who gave himself for us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.