I recently learned something that changed the whole way I go to Mass anymore.
I first heard it on the extremely excellent Liturgy Guys podcast,* but I think long enough has passed that it’s ok to write about it now.
If you asked a group of Catholics, “What’s the point of the Mass?” you might get dozens of different responses. We can imagine what they might be: to praise God, to worship in community with the Universal Church, to conform ourselves to the reality of Paradise by experiencing a foretaste of the Heavenly Jerusalem in the sacred liturgy, etc.
This could be pretty confusing since all these answers are right. But in such a case, there is always a primary reason for doing something. Luckily, the rubrics of the Mass give us a very clear “mission statement” in the offertory:
Priest: Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.
Assembly: May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all His holy Church.
Sacrifice is the key word. Let’s unpack this.
The offertory is often treated as a sort of interlude between the homily and the rest of church, where some guys buzz around the altar, setting up all the cups and towels, and the old men walk around with the baskets asking for money. Usually a song plays, which is the only one everybody sings because there’s nothing else to be doing.
It turns out, though, that the offertory is the whole key to our active participation in the Mass.
Bread and wine are brought toward the sanctuary. On Sundays, this is usually done by members of the assembly. There used to be a time when members of the laity would actually donate good bread and wine from their stores. This doesn’t really happen anymore, which is fine. Note that the priest and ministers descend from the sanctuary (which is, in a supernatural but very real way, Heaven) into the congregation, accept these gifts, and bring it themselves back up to the altar. If we put money in the collection basket, this is a pretty obvious sacrifice too.
But is that all we’re called to, as people in the pews? To sing the song while some weird family (they always seem to have matching outfits) brings the gifts up, and drop a fiver in the basket?
No. As always, the liturgy calls us to much more. Our sacrifice (as in “My sacrifice and yours“) is also a sacrifice of praise. The offertory is the time for us regular people to bring our intentions, hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, and place them on the altar along with the bread and wine. We should be offering the totality of ourselves as a sacrifice to God and uniting it to Jesus’ sacrifice of self on the cross. We ask God to accept our sacrifice (“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…”), make it holy, and redeem and perfect it – just as happens with the bread and wine.
If we think of the offertory in this way, then we can see it’s not just a musical break or unfortunate “dead air” after the homily. We should, therefore, prepare mentally before Mass so that we can have our intentions in the forefront of our minds and make our self-offering well.
* I wish I could remember which Liturgy Guys episode this comes from. If anyone out there knows, please leave a comment.