The Preparation Of The Gifts
Having spent a few columns on the Liturgy of the Word, we turn now to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which the words and deeds of Jesus at the Last Supper and at Calvary are made present in the Church for the sake of our salvation. As you recall, the Liturgy of the Eucharist can be divided into three parts, in accord with Jesus' saving words and deeds:
First is Preparation of the Gifts, the bread and wine together with the water, the very things which Jesus Himself took into His own hands at the Last Supper;
Second is the Eucharistic Prayer, a prayer of thanks and praise to God for His marvelous plan of salvation most fully revealed and accomplished in Christ. During this great prayer, the offerings of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ;
Third is the breaking of bread followed by Holy Communion. Though we are many, we receive Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ by which we are made one.
In the coming weeks, we will look more closely at all three parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but for now, let us focus on the preparation and offering of the gifts of bread and wine. As everyone knows, on Sundays and holydays, the ushers pass the basket to collect the offerings of the faithful. This practice is not of recent origin but stretches back to the early days of Christianity. These gifts are used not only for the upkeep of the Church but in large part for the Church's charitable outreach, an outreach of which we are all a part. Our offerings are expressive of our daily toil and, at the same time, our need for the sublime charity of Christ who gave His life for us so that we might love others as He has loved us. After the collection has been taken (and placed in tamper-evident bags), the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward, usually by a family or individuals chosen prior to the beginning of Mass. As the gift-bearers proceed toward the altar, an offertory chant or an appropriate hymn may be sung. The gifts of bread and wine as well as the offerings of the faithful are received by the priest-celebrant with the assistance of the deacon and the altar servers.
In the meantime, the altar has been prepared by placing on it a corporal (a special cloth on which the Body and Blood of the Lord are placed), purificators, the Missal (book with Mass prayers), and the chalice. It goes without saying that the altar linens should be clean, pressed, and in good condition. In addition, the vessels used for the Body and Blood of Christ (ciborium and chalice) should also be in good repair. The vessels used for the Precious Blood of Christ should not be glass goblets for household use but rather should ordinarily be of a precious metal, silver or gold, or at least of a solid, worthy, and non-porous material. Similarly, the paten (disc on which the large host used by the priest is placed) and the ciborium should ordinarily be made of precious metal or another solid and worthy material, and handled with reverence (see General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 327-332).
Then the gifts of bread and wine are prepared and offered. The priest lifts up the paten with a large host and says (according to the revised translation): "Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands. It will become for us the bread of life." And the congregation responds, "Blessed be God for ever." Notice what this prayer says: whatever we give to God we have already received from him. The bread we offer comes from the earth and from the work he enables us to do. The bread we offer represents both the bounty of the earth and indeed the sum of our toil. We offer this bread to God the Father, knowing by faith that they will become "the Bread of Life," that is, the Body of Christ.
The deacon (if he is present) or the priest pours wine into the chalice together with a drop of water. This symbolizes Christ, the Son of God, who assumed our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. Through the Eucharist, we truly come to share God's own life more and more deeply.
Then the priest offers the mixture of wine and water by saying: "Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you, fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink." And again, the congregation responds, "Blessed be God for ever."
Often, while the bread and wine are being offered, the congregation is singing and thus we do not hear these prayers or respond to them. It is also not inappropriate for these prayers to be said inaudibly by the priest even when there is no hymn. Nonetheless, we need to be aware of these prayers and unite ourselves with them in spirit, so that, in the offering of bread and wine, we may offer ourselves – all that we have and all that we are – to the Lord, so as to be transformed by one sacrifice of Christ that is about to be offered. We should note that, while these offertory prayers were introduced in 1970 with the Revised Missal of Pope Paul VI, they reflect ancient Jewish prayers such as Jesus might well have used at the Last Supper. They also reflect venerable patterns of prayer that connect us to the Jewish roots of Christian worship.
Next you will see the priest bow profoundly and very quietly utter a prayer. He says: "With humble spirit and contrite heart, may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God." Here the priest is recollecting himself interiorly to offer the Paschal Sacrifice for himself and for and with his people. These inaudible prayers in the midst of public prayer remind the priest of the admonition received on the day of his ordination: "Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord's cross." This is not only a personal piety but indeed a heartfelt prayer to serve God's people in humility and holiness.
At this point, the priest may incense the gifts. Psalm 141:2 states: "Let my prayers be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening sacrifice." As the smoke rises, so too our offerings and prayers rise up before God's sight. The priest incenses the gifts, the crucifix, and the altar itself. Then the priest is incensed and the people, for we must all be caught up in "the one sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world" (Eucharistic Prayer IV).
There follows the washing of the priests hands. Again the priest prays inaudibly: "Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin." Here he is quoting Psalm 51, asking for the grace to offer the great sacrifice of love in truth, love, and purity. Here too the priest is not merely seeking his own salvation; he is asking to be made worthy to fulfill the office of priest to which he has been called for the sake of the people he serves. Even an unworthy priest can offer Mass validly – for the Lord will not be deterred from reaching his people – but what a tragedy when the Holy Sacrifice is offered unworthily. These prayers are in the liturgy from ancient times to remind us, your priests, what we owe to God and to you.
Next, the priest turns and says: "Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Father Almighty." And the congregation responds, "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." The two italicized phrases call our attention to two changes in the new translation. Formerly the priest prayed, "...that our sacrifice may be acceptable..." In translating the Latin "meum ac vestrum" (my and yours) literally, the translation is not saying there are two separate sacrifices one offered by the priest and the other by the people, but rather it points to the different ways in which the priest and the people participate in the one sacrifice of Christ: the priest offers the sacrifice in the very person of Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church, and the people offer themselves in union with Christ.
The Mass is an offering of all the members of Christ's Body, the Church, in union with the Head of the Body. The new text also explicitly translates the word "holy" with reference to the Church. In the Creed we profess our faith in "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." So too, at this juncture the liturgy reminds us that the Church is endowed with the holiness of Christ and that we, as members of the Church, must seek to become holy by participating in this "holy and living sacrifice."
This portion of the Mass con- cludes with the Prayer over the Gifts. Like the Opening Prayer and the Prayer after Communion, the Prayer over the Gifts varies depending on what Mass is being celebrated, such as a Sunday in Ordinary Time, the feast day of a saint, and so forth. In this prayer, the priest prays that the offering that has been prepared will be acceptable in the sight of God, that it will become the Body and Blood of Christ, and that we will be changed by sharing in the great mystery of faith. The Congregation responds by saying, "Amen."
In the next few columns, we will study the Eucharistic Prayer, from the Preface to the Our Father. In the meantime, may we ask for the grace to approach the Eucharist with the attitude commended to us by St. Paul: "I urge you, therefore, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2).