The Mass in Slow Motion – The Offertory

Now it’s time for the offering. The scriptures warn us not to appear before God empty-handed (Ex. 23:15; Ex 34:20; Dt. 16:16). Bread and wine are the official gifts presented but they also represent our very lives given to God. In the Old Testament the priest always sacrificed something separate from himself, (an animal, occasionally libations or cereal offerings). But In the New Testament, Jesus the High priest offers his very self. The priest and the victim are one and the same! Each of u sin baptism are made priest (different from ministerial priests), prophet and king. As priests we are asked to offer our own self to God. The bread and wine are brought forward but we place our own lives on the paten, in the chalice. Further, our gift of money, of our substance, is also a symbol of our very self. So it is time for the offering, are you ready?

The general instruction of the Roman Rite (GIRM) describes the offering this way:

The offerings are then brought forward. It is praiseworthy for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at an appropriate place by the priest or the deacon and carried to the altar. Even though the faithful no longer bring from their own possessions the bread and wine intended for the liturgy as in the past, nevertheless the rite of carrying up the offerings still retains its force and its spiritual significance.It is well also that money or other gifts for the poor or for the Church, brought by the faithful or collected in the church, should be received. These are to be put in a suitable place but away from the eucharistic table. The procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory chant which continues at least until the gifts have been placed on the altar. (GIRM 73-74)

History – The Offertory procession was in the early days if the Church an important part of the Mass. However, in the very earliest days of the Church it was probably not necessary. Since the Mass was held in close proximity to a meal (the agape meal) and since the community was small an generally gathered in a house the bread and wine were already close at hand. Hence there was no special stress laid on the offering of these. However, at least two things brought about a change. In the first place, the Mass was removed from the context of the fraternal meal early on due to difficulties experienced with this format (cf I Cor. 11). Secondly, the rise of gnosticism promulgated a disdain for matter and the whole material order. This was incorrect to a Christian understanding of the world and it was necessary to stress the value of earthly creation. The heavenly gift had an earthly origin. Thus the offering of the material gifts came to a new prominence in the liturgy. By the middle of the third century it had become a general rule that the faithful should present gifts at the Eucharistic solemnity. They brought not only gifts of bread and wine, but also gifts besides for the Church, and the clergy and the poor. There were many things described: food stuffs, candles, oils and the like.  The descriptions of these offertories vary a good bit but some were very elaborate. Gifts were brought forward and sorted out on the spot by deacons and others. Some were brought to the altar and others laid aside…whew!  By the 11th century all gifts were gradually replaced by legal tender (money). And so we have the collection. Increasingly the clergy simply obtained bread and wine from these monies. The offertory procession began to decline in most places during the Middle Ages even despite the continued  encouragement by the Church. Processions began to be limited only to certain designated feast days. By the 16th the offertory procession had all but disappeared. In the aftermath of the Council of Trent there were attempts to revive them but to little avail, Why it was  unsuccessful in not exactly clear but it seems related to the financial entanglements of the Church and a desire not to stir up       old angers against the Church  in regard to money and gifts. Today, the offertory procession has generally been restored and is encouraged by the directives. The current practice steers a middle course however, since the offertory rite, although having a procession still retains a basic simplicity and has not thus become as elaborate as those of antiquity. Likewise, the prayers are brief and to the point.

The Gifts of the bread and wine are placed on the altar with accompanying prayers.

The host. The word Host referring to the bread is from the Latin, “Hostio” meaning I kill, I slaughter and hence means “victim.”  Recall that in the earliest days the bread destined to be consecrated was selected from that bread which the faithful brought forward during the offertory procession. However, early on there is seen the tendency to provide for it carefully from other means so as to assure its fittingness. Likewise, as the number of communicants increased, it became tedious to break one large host into many smaller pieces from the one host as had been the tradition. Now the individuation of the hosts took place before the Mass and this eventually led to the hosts in the form we have today. With the move to unleavened bread (in the west) the exclusion of bread provided by the faithful became a matter of course since it was not something they ordinarily had on hand. The definitive move to unleavened bread in the west took place in the eighth century. It is to be baked with flour and water without any yeast. At the Last Supper Christ probably took this kind of bread (Mazzah) which was also called the bread of affliction (the bread of nomadic shepherds who had no home of their own). The Exodus accounts also point out that unleavened bread was required of the Passover Meal since there was no time to knead the dough in the original exodus and hence unleavened bread was required of the ritual. Canon Law indicates that the bread must be made of wheat alone (no other ingredients such as honey etc. are to be added).  and recently made so that there is no danger of corruption.(Canon 924.2) Likewise the bread used should appear as actual food. But the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship remarks that this is to be understood as linked to the consistency of the bread and not to its form which remains the traditional one (i.e. the traditional rounded hosts).  Likewise, the preparation of the bread should keep in mind the        dignity due the Eucharistic bread and that it be able to be broken in a dignified way, does not give rise to excessive fragments and offend the sensibilities of the faithful when they eat it.(Inaestimabile Donum, # 8).

Wine was used by Christ at the Last Supper as a part of the Passover meal. Wine for the Jews of the Old Testament was a sign not only of festive joy but also of undisturbed possession of the land. To later medieval symbolism wine was also a sign of joy born of pain. Only when the grapes were crushed did they eventually yield wine. The wine used at Mass must be natural wine of the grape and not corrupt (Canon 924.3) In the ancient world, wine was usually much thicker and heavier than it is now. It was thus the custom for people to mix their wine with water and thus dilute it. This custom has been carried over into the Mass. Although it had originally a      practical purpose, it also gained a symbolic interpretation. Today,due to the quality of wines, it is largely symbolic. There are a number of popular symbols attributed to this mixing:

  1. The union of Christ and his people The wine stands for Christ and water for humanity whose hope is to be lost in Christ.St. Cyprian for example wrote, “When wine is mixed with water in the chalice, the people are united to Christ…if the wine alone were to be offered, the blood of Christ would become present without us, if water alone were to be offered, the people would be there without Christ. (Epis. 63, ad Caecilanum, 13).<
  2. There is an allusion to the blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of Christ.
  3. The two natures (divine and human) of Christ are also symbolized in the wine and water. This is especially emphasized in the Eastern Liturgies.
  4. The present prayer at the mixing expresses both 1 and 3.

Prayers are said as each gift is place upon the altar. In the older forms of the liturgy, there was only one prayer said over all the offerings. This prayer was said aloud. However, during the Carolingian and under eastern influence the prayer came to be recited in a low voice (a tendency which reinforced its sacral character). Once the silent recitation of the prayer took place, there also tended to be the multiplication of prayers said by the priest piously and personally. In this way there evolved prayers recited by the priest as he received the gifts of bread and wine from the deacon. Over the years these prayers came to be considered less and less a purely personal prayer of the priest and more and more a formal, required prayer of  the liturgy. However, as sometimes happens, these prayers tended to grow longer and longer. There were several attempts to limit them. The form stabilized between the 10th and 12th centuries through a process too lengthy and complicated to explain here! They were formally standardized by the Missal of Pius V in 1570. Eventually there came to be a prayer at the offering of the bread, the mixing of wine and water, and the offering of the wine, concluded by a general prayer beseeching God to generally accept our sacrifice. These were set forth  in the Tridentine Mass but were changed in the new order of the Mass.
(See appendix 9). The prayers of the New Order of the Mass are based on a prayer used by our Lord Himself at the Last Supper. They would be worded in approximately this way:

Blessed is the Lord our God, ruler of the universe,
who causes bread to come forth from the earth. For
every man, moreover to eat and drink and enjoy the
fruit of all his labor is a gift from God. (Eccl 3:13)

You are blessed, lord our God, King of the universe,
You who created the fruit of the vine.

Hence the new prayers point back to the Passover especially while the prayers of the Tridentine Mass emphasized the sacrificial aspects of Eucharist. The prayers may be said either aloud by the priest or secretly. There is a preference indicated in the General Instructions which goes as follows:

  1. The priest says the formulas in a low (secreto) voice during the singing;
  2. If there is no music or singing, the priest says the texts quietly; or,
  3. He may (licet) say them aloud; and the people may (potest) say the acclamations at the end (i.e.Blessed be God Forever).

After these two prayers the priest bows and says secretly this prayer “Lord God We ask you to receive these gifts which we offer you with humble and contrite hearts” This text is from the Book of  Daniel (3:39-40) where it is prayed by Azariah who, missing the sacrifices of the temple, realizes that it is the spiritual sacrifice which best pleases God. It appears gradually in ancient liturgies and was made obligatory by the Missal of Pius V (1570). It is retained in the Mass today.

Here are two videos depicting an offertory procession. The first is a typically American one, albeit in the informality of a “youth Mass” The Second is in the setting of an African Parish. In both Africa and many parts of Asia, offertory processions are big affairs, featuring a lot of dancing and congregational participation as you’ll see.