A familiar expression among Catholics that continues to linger from the old Latin Mass is the reference to the presentation and preparation of the bread and wine at Mass as the “offertory” of the Mass. The true offertory of the Mass is of course the canon of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer, during which the Body and Blood of Christ, the consecrated bread and wine, are offered as a sacrifice to the Father for the glory of God’s Name and in atonement for the sins of mankind. Accordingly all four canons of the New Order of Mass explicitly concur with the following words of the first Eucharistic Prayer which make clear that during the canon of the Mass the assembled faithful are not merely offering God plain bread and ordinary wine but are actually offering God Christ’s own Sacred Body and Precious Blood: “…from the many gifts you have given us we offer to you, God of glory and majesty, this holy and perfect sacrifice: the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.”
The ritual that so many Catholics still label the offertory should rightly and properly be referenced as “The Presentation and Preparation of Gifts,” as the new Roman Missal correctly does. This new termination (actually fifty years old) rightly heightens the worshipper’s appreciation of the Eucharistic Prayer as the authentic offering but also allows the worshipper a moment to reflect on the importance of the community’s practical gifts of bread and wine, which are fruits of the earth and vine but also “the work of human hands.” Mass as celebrated in the current rite happily transfers the anonymous elements of bread and wine from a sanctuary credence table to a prominent spot in the midst of the assembled worshippers to be tendered by assorted members of the community as contributions representative of all the gifts, all the donations, all the good works, that a parish community might thankfully offer to God during their Lord’s Day assembly. This graphic presentation of gifts from people to priest emphasizes that these gifts be truly representative of the many good deeds, the many works “of human hands,” the many acts of charity and justice that the believing and worshipping community has performed during the week. Such an actual presentation of gifts puts a little pressure on the assembled faithful to make sure that these gifts are not hollow donations, not mere symbols, but truly represent the work of their hands, their efforts to serve God and neighbor during the week.
The no nonsense judgment scene from the celebrated twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel account will be read from all Catholic pulpits this coming Sunday celebrating the Solemnity of Christ the King. Christ assumes various authoritative roles during this parable appearing first as Son of Man and then as shepherd and finally as king, probably indicating that he gave this instruction on more than one occasion, the several images blurring into one as St. Matthew put his pen to paper. So this scene of ultimate judgment is clearly a celebration of Christianity’s core values. It cannot be overrated and it must not be undervalued. Here, Christ means business. Here, unquestionably, Christ lists the ultimate “work of human hands,” the quintessential works of mercy, that the humble bread and unpretentious wine being carried up the aisle are meant to represent at every Mass.
As the celebrant accepts the presented bread and wine from the assembled faithful, it is to be hoped that he is also receiving the many occasions when the assembled faithful actually witnessed the hungry and gave them food, really encountered the thirsty and gave them drink, truly met a stranger and made them feel welcomed, in fact chanced upon the naked and clothed them, indeed faced the ill and cared for them, and finally learned of the imprisoned and visited them. As Christ taught elsewhere with equal eloquence, a believer may not present his or her gift at the altar while that person’s daily life is fruitless, or worse, sinful. The believer must “go first and be reconciled,” go first and feed the hungry, go first and slacken a thirst, go first and welcome the stranger, go first and clothe the naked, go first and care for the ill, and go first and visit the less fortunate. Only then are the community’s earthly elements of bread and wine fit to be accepted and then transformed into Christ’s own flesh and blood. Otherwise Mass and its presentation of gifts become a terrible cheat and a tragic disappointment.
At Mass, every day must be judgment day as the faithful present suitable gifts not only of bread and wine but suitable gifts of good deeds and good works to God to be offered to Him solemnly during the Eucharistic Prayer.