The food is prepared and the family table is set for the banquet to come.  Every Mass is both a supper and a sacrifice.  The Offertory conveys both meanings. Of course, what most needs preparation is us.  We have been invited to the Lord’s Supper.  Along with the bread and wine that will be changed into the body and blood of Christ, we beseech the Lord to transform us as well into his likeness.  We join ourselves to Christ as one acceptable oblation to the heavenly Father.     

The Offertory Gifts

A collection is taken on Sunday for the support of the parish, the priest and the works of the Church. The sacrifice of treasure signifies our self-offering.  Along with the gifts of bread and wine, gift bearers and ushers bring the offertory to the altar.  We enter into a special rhythm:  God gives us grain and grapes— we take these gifts and transform them into bread and wine— we give or dedicate the bread and wine to God.  This is the offertory.  The Eucharistic prayer that follows has God giving us the gifts transformed into the body and blood of his Son— united to Christ we offer ourselves with Jesus back to the Father, that we might be sanctified and transformed.  The gifts represent us and just as the bread and wine will be destroyed and consecrated into the body and blood of Christ; we want to be transformed as well into the likeness of our Lord. We must die to our old selves so as to be made brand new. Water will also sometimes be brought forward but is not technically considered a gift.  Of course, this view might be challenged in a world where many lack clean drinking water.  Water is a powerful symbol of life and death. 

Mixing the Water into the Wine

Early in the development of the Mass, debate arises over how much water should be added to the wine. Some of the rites would permit as much as one-third of the admixture. The West reduces it to a drop. There is even the addition (in some circles) of a small spoon that measures out one drop of water.  While not a big issue today, I can recall Donald Cardinal Wuerl being quite insistent with a deacon that a drop only should be added to the wine in the chalice. 

The drop of water is mixed with the wine prior to the blessing of the cup. During this action, the minister quietly prays, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The water signifies both the humanity of Christ and our incorporation into him. What was a Christmas prayer referencing the incarnation becomes a supplication that our humanity might be divinized by the graces of the sacrament.

Jewish Table Blessings over the Bread & Wine

The pre-Vatican II liturgy by comparison to the reformed of the post-conciliar, arguably gives an inordinate attention to the offertory, even being depicted as a “natural” sacrifice prior to the “supernatural” oblation. Indeed, the transition in language from “offertory” to “preparation” highlights something of a return to the early Church’s approach.  While there is a heavy anticipation in the Tridentine offertory as to what the gifts will become, the Mass of the Vatican II reform merely stresses the acquisition and blessing of bread and wine.  Indeed, this demarcation betrays a strong albeit controversial recovery. The priest offers the bread and the wine to God, so that it might be made holy.  The revised prayers are literally Jewish table blessings.  Our Lord would have employed similar prayers at the Seder of the Last Supper.

Holding up the paten for the hosts, the priest says: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer to you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” If audible, the assembly responds: “Blessed be God forever.” Similarly lifting the chalice of wine, the priest says: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer to you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.” The people repeat the response.

The significance of earthly bread and wine at the offertory is almost passed over so as to emphasize the spiritual gift of the Eucharist that follows with the consecration. It should be acknowledged that after the second century there is a growing importance placed upon the “matter” of the offertory gifts, likely in response to the repudiation of matter by the Gnostic heretics.  Starting with St. Irenaeus, there is a new emphasis upon the earthly elements as the first fruits of creation. Mention is made of the congregants bringing up the offertory gifts. St. Hippolytus speaks of the deacons taking up the gifts. He is among the first to make a comparison between earthly oblations and the sacred oblations of Holy Church.  By the time of St. Cyprian, the bringing up of the gifts by the faithful has become the general practice.  The offerings for the needs of the Church are logically attached to this procession with the bread and wine. It confirms the virtue of charity as a necessary preparation of congregants for the Eucharist. An offertory chant or hymn would accompany the procession as is so often the case today. During the following centuries, practical directives are issued against placing either symbolic or other material gifts upon the altar with the bread and wine for consecration. While donations are first only received from the faithful, Trent would change this and allow gifts from anyone. Further, efforts are made to correct any trafficking in Mass stipends.  

Exclusive Use of Unleavened Bread or Hosts

While the early Church always seems to view both leavened and unleavened bread as licit, from the ninth century on there is a general ordinance in favor of unleavened just as at the Last Supper.  The churches of the East would tend to retain the use of leavened bread. Concerns about the making of altar breads would see the transfer of its manufacture from the laity to religious houses. Starting in the twelfth century, the desire to create special bread would lead to the familiar disks, with the priest’s hosts being slightly larger.  Given scrupulosity about particles, multiple hosts are made for congregants that do not require fracturing.     

The round wafers come to be called hosts. Originally the word “hostia” refers to the living thing that is the sacrificial victim to be killed.  The true “hostia” would be Christ; nevertheless, the name would stick with the unconsecrated wafers. Similarly, the word “oblata” or oblation is used for the bread offered. There seems no getting around an anticipation in the language used.

As for the wine, initially red is preferred in the East and West for symbolic reasons.  However, as the use of the purificator becomes common, the West transitions to white wine.  Either may be used today in the West but there is still a preference for white given the difficulty to remove red stains from linen.

The mingling of the water and wine is not a Palestinian custom but a Greek practice that becomes popular among the Jews during the time of Christ. It is referred to in second century liturgies. The insightful words of St. Cyprian are often repeated: “When someone offers only wine, then the blood of Christ begins to exist without us; but when it is only water, then the people begin to exist without Christ.” Adding water to the wine symbolizes the intimate union of the faithful with Christ. There can be no separation.

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther rejects the commingling of water and wine as “unfitting” because of its stress upon our oneness with Christ.  (Remember that Luther only believes in juridical imputation and rejects the Catholic notion of justification by grace through transformation into Christ. He argues that one is not changed or made holy by grace but rather disguised by it. Luther also rejects the Catholic notion of transubstantiation and argues for the presence of Christ and the bread and wine in the sacrament (consubstantiation).  He fails to fully appreciate the Mass as a sacrifice where bread and wine is destroyed and Christ is made present. Other reformers go further in distancing themselves from Rome. Forfeiting a genuine priesthood, the Protestant churches would abandon an authentic Eucharist celebrated throughout history going back to Christ and his apostles. They would emphasize the Lord’s Supper as a meal but lose track of the ancient appreciation of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice. 

The Lavabo

Prior to the Lavabo there is an option for the priest to incense the gifts. Priests wash their hands before Mass and so the Lavabo of the offertory is wholly symbolic. Back in fourth century Jerusalem, the deacon would wash the hands of the priest at the start of Mass.  Of course, the use of incense and fumbling with charcoal might have been another rationale for its inclusion.  I am personally reminded of the legends around poor Pontius Pilate. It is said that he is constantly washing his hands and yet lamenting that he could never get them clean. Given our part in the passion and death of Christ, I suspect we are all Pilate. 

The priest in particular wants clean hands as he is configured to Christ by his ordination and is regarded as acting at the altar in the person of Christ.  He above all is conscious of his sin as he stands at the altar for the one who is all holy. Just as we have the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, here is a secret prayer and gesture that speaks to the sorrow for sin and the need for spiritual cleansing. The priest says quietly or inaudibly: “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.” The prayer is said quietly so as not to detract from the two-fold offerings and the Prayer Over the Gifts. Aware of his sinfulness and shortcomings, the priest washes his fingers at the Lavabo.  He prays, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”  This is a brief but important gesture and prayer.  The priest is intensely aware that he is just a man; and yet, at the altar he is another Christ, a sharer in Christ’s one High Priesthood. He is only a creature and yet he has been configured to Christ for this great sacrament.  He has the authority to forgive sins. He has the power to call God down from heaven and to make him substantially present in the consecrated host and chalice.  He is Christ arriving at Calvary so that we might all be present at our Lord’s redemptive sacrifice.

This ritual serves a purpose similar to the use of a holy-water stoup for the people to cross and sprinkle themselves at the church doors or entry.  We are reminded of our baptism and our need to be washed clean and holy.  The old Ethiopian Mass would have the priest wash his hands after unveiling the offertory gifts and instead of drying them he would wave his fingers at congregants so as to sprinkle the water upon them. He does this not strictly as a reminder of their baptism as we might today but with a verbal warning against approaching the altar unworthily.  

The Orate Fratres 

There is a long history to the “Orate Fratres” as always coming at the completion of the preparation of the gifts. Many liturgists interpret it as not merely the end of the offertory but as a tag connecting it to the canon and anaphora or Eucharistic prayer.  The priest says: “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” The congregants respond: “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.” Then is said the Prayer over the Offerings or the “oratio super oblata.” This part of the Mass delineates something of the intention of the priest from that of the congregants.  The priest will apply the fruits of his intention for those who have made a request and possibly who have given him a Mass Stipend.  Each congregant also has his own fruits.  Together, the celebration is rendered as efficacious. The priest leads the people in the Mass.  This prayer makes it very clear— if there is no ordained priest then there can be no Mass. Congregants may dialogue with him and participate, but the priest is in the role of Christ and his role is thus necessarily one of mediation. 

Prayer Over the Offerings

The Prayer over the Offerings once said quietly is now said aloud.  It is a prayer of petition.  Here is an instance from the Second Sunday of Advent: “Be pleased, O Lord, with our humble prayers and offerings, and, since we have no merits to plead our cause, come, we pray, to our rescue with the protection of your mercy. Through Christ our Lord.”  The people respond, “Amen.”

Along with the Collect and the Prayer after Communion, the Prayer Over the Gifts is variable from week to week or even changes daily during the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, as well as during the sanctoral days.  There is no invitation to pray because it has already been given with the “Orate Fratres.” The priest prays over the gifts and the people respond, “Amen.” As he will do throughout the liturgy, he prays with his hands extended.  This is his primary sacerdotal gesture. He prays not just for himself but for the entire gathered community.

About Father Joe

Father Joe Jenkins I am the pastor of Holy Family Church and a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
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