Monday 17 October 2011

The Offertory

The seventh in the series of sermons on the Mass, preached by Fr Joseph Welch on Sunday 16th October, during the Forty Hours' Devotion:

And so we come to the seventh in our series of Sunday sermons on the Mass, and turn our attention to the Offertory, very appropriately during this weekend of our Forty Hours devotion.

To understand the Offertory, indeed to understand the whole Mass, we have first to be reminded that the Mass is not primarily something that we do. The Mass is, first and foremost, something that Christ does. The Mass is the supreme act of homage and adoration offered by Christ, the Son of God, to His Father, and carried out in humble obedience; an act of expiation to make amends for our sins, and of propitiation to appease the wrath of God because of the injustice of our sins; an act of thanksgiving for all that God has bestowed upon mankind; and an act of supplication, appealing to the Father for all that sinful man yet needs. These are the four ends of the Mass: adoration, satisfaction for our sins, thanksgiving, and supplication.

All of these four ends were accomplished on Calvary when Christ, in dying on the Cross, offered Himself to the Father on behalf of sinful mankind.

The Mass and Christ's offering on Calvary are, then, one and the same thing. The Mass is simply the continuation in time of that offering on Calvary.

So when we come to Mass, we come, not primarily to get something out of it, but to accept Our Lord's invitation to join in His act of adoration, His offering of Himself, to the Father. In other words, we come primarily not to receive but, like Christ arriving on Calvary, to give. And the offertory is the moment in the Mass where this point is, perhaps, most apparent.

At the offertory, the pure and unblemished bread is offered up in preparation for its becoming the Lamb of God sacrificed on the altar of the Cross. But it also represents us. In the bread, offered up to the Father by Christ in the person of His priest, is also offered all that we bring to the Father: our adoration and praise, our thanksgiving for all the gifts He has given us, for all of our joys, our hopes and our aspirations and our longings. But alongside these joys we bring, too, all our sufferings, all that weighs us down or troubles us, our anxieties, our ills, our loneliness, our confusion, our despair, and, in addition we bring to God all those for whom we wish to pray. Even our sins are brought to Him as we beg forgiveness and sanctification.

As the priest raises the patten at the offertory we should, in our mind's eye, place on that patten alongside the bread, all that we have come to give to the Father, asking Our Blessed Lord, the mediator between we sinful creatures and our sinless Creator, to offer it to the Father on our behalf, and to purify our gift from any selfish or vested interest with which our prayers may be tainted.

Then the priest mixes wine and water: a tiny drop of water is comingled with the wine in the chalice. That tiny drop of water, which signifies our smallness, our limitedness, our humanity, is dropped into the vast richness of the wine, the vastness of God’s greatness and mercy, the richness of His grace and His love. Once that drop of water is poured into the wine it is, as it were, lost, no longer detectable, because God's infinitely merciful love absorbs us into His being, into a share of His life, sanctifying and making divine that which is sinful and human. Like the drop of water in the wine, we become lost in God's love.

The chalice too, then, is offered up by Christ in the person of His priest on our behalf but, once more, we, in our mind's eye, place within that chalice all that we have brought to the Father, asking our beloved Lord to offer it to Him.

Here then, at the offertory especially, we see how the Mass is primarily something which Christ does. And we? What is our role? Are we merely spectators? Certainly we, as it were, get caught in the updraft of Christ's offering to the Father; we get caught on the coat-tails of Christ’s upward movement. But our gift of self is taken up by Christ precisely because we have responded to His call like Mary the sister of Martha, and like Our Lady herself.

When Our Lord went to Bethany after Lazarus has died, Martha rushed to her sister Mary and said, "The Master is here and calls you". Mary rose quickly and went to Him (Jn 11:28,29). So in the Mass our Master calls to us, and we, rising from our places, hasten to Mass to join in His life-giving work.

And just as God courted the chosen virgin of Nazareth, who surrendered herself entirely to her Lord, and was promptly overshadowed by the coming of the Holy Spirit; so, too, God woos us, invites us to surrender ourselves to Him. We do so in the offertory of the Mass, and we, too, are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit as the greatest Gift known to mankind descends from heaven upon the altar in the hands of the priest, and we become one with Our Lord in Holy Communion.

Let us pray, then, that both the priest's sacrifice and ours, which we offer up in unison, may be acceptable to God the Father almighty.