A couple of weeks ago I said Mass at Guardian Angels Catholic School for one of the little Grades. They were First or Second Graders; I don’t remember exactly. It was like saying Mass in front of a box of mice. They squeaked, fidgeted, ran in circles and, occasionally, bit one another.
Their classroom teacher asked me to explain the parts of the Offertory of Mass. Evidently, they were studying Mass in their Religion class. I did fairly well with the task until I got to the Washing of the Hands. I explained that this was a hold-over from long ago when people would bring up food offerings for the poor along with the offerings of bread and wine for Eucharist. The presider would receive the bread and wine, and then fruits, vegetables, cheeses, eggs, chickens, etc., intended to feed the poor. Before he continued with the celebration of the Eucharist he had to wash his hands. The need is no longer, but the ritual remains. At this point the school kids became completely distracted.
According to their teacher, they had been at a farm recently, and had the opportunity to hold chicks and chickens. My mention of chickens and eggs sent their imaginations back to the farm; Mass was downhill from there. Before I lost their attention, however, I think I managed to make an impression. Before I ventured into the dangerous territory of chickens, I had explained the purpose of the Offertory Procession.
For the first few hundred years of the Christian faith, Christian communities were very small – no more than a few dozen people. When those communities gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, each member of the congregation brought bread and wine from their home. The members of the congregation formed a procession to put the bread and wine on the Altar. After the Presider had given thanks over the gifts (the prayer we call the Eucharistic Prayer), the consecrated bread and wine were distributed back to those who had offered them: everyone received back the same bread and wine (now consecrated), that they had offered individually. They received it as Communion with the Lord, and often brought it to their relatives who were sick or imprisoned.
This format of offering, having one’s offerings consecrated and receiving back one’s own offering (now the Sacramental presence of the Risen Lord), worked well as long as congregations remained small. After the Emperor Constantine gave Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire, Christian congregations swelled in numbers, and it was no longer practical for people to bring their own bread and wine to church. Instead, the clergy purchased bread and wine sufficient for the Sunday congregation. In order to maintain the direct connection between the people, their offerings and the Sacrament they received, the bread was made in the shape of money. Today, the shape remains, but the connection is lost.
In the ancient world, money was coins – only. Paper money is a very recent invention. The breads purchased on behalf of early Christian congregations were made in the shape of coins in order to remind the congregation that the offerings put on the Altar were their offerings, and that the Sacrament they received had come from those offerings. If we were going to update this practice we would make Communion breads in the shape of debit cards. It might make receiving Communion a little cumbersome, but it would be a good reminder of what the bread and wine symbolize.
The Offertory Procession is not a matter of logistics. If I needed to get the bread and wine from the Credence table to the Altar in the most efficient manner possible, I would put the Credence table immediately next to the Altar. The Offertory Procession is an intentional choice to walk those offerings from the midst of you to the Altar in order that, when you walk up to the Altar to receive Holy Communion, you know well that you are receiving (now consecrated), what you first gave.
There is a saying about computers, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It’s true of adding machines as well as super-computers. If you put in bad data, you’ll get bad results; if you put in good data, you’ll get good results. It is also true of our participation in the Lord’s Supper: what we get out of it depends very much on what we put into it. If you feel like you really don’t get much from Mass, I can take a good guess about why that’s so. Let me make a few suggestions about how you might “get more” out of your participation in Mass.
The Liturgy of the Word, the Scripture readings at Mass, do not function the way that the “Coming Attractions” function at a movie theater. Movie theaters show advertising prior to the featured movie in order to keep patrons occupied. The Liturgy of the Word is neither “warm-up” for Eucharist nor something to fill time until we get down to business. The Scriptures are the voice of God. The Liturgy of the Word is God’s guidance for your daily life. Your participation in the Liturgy of the Word is greatly enhanced when you read, and pray with, the Sunday Scripture readings before you come to Mass. You can find those readings on the internet and in several good publications. Don’t wait until the last moment. Read the readings before coming to Mass. Don’t be pleasantly surprised, be guided by God’s voice.
The second thing required for successful participation in Sunday Mass is to pray every day. As the old saying goes, “A bird can’t fly on one wing.” Your ability to pray as a member of the Sunday congregation depends entirely on your ability to pray alone. Reciting a few memorized prayers is good prayer, but it’s not enough prayer. Prayer with the Scriptures on a daily basis is the best prayer; it is the only prayer that makes you able to hear God’s voice at church on Sunday. Like voting in the city of Chicago, daily personal prayer with the Scriptures is something to be done early and often.
Thirdly, if you come to Sunday Mass to pray privately, you are denying yourself both private prayer and public prayer. Sunday liturgy is solemn prayer, but not necessarily somber, and is never done alone or in silence. If you feel the need for private prayer, that is an indication that personal prayer is lacking from your daily routine. If you are bothered by the idiosyncrasies of the people around you this morning, you might be missing the point. The particularity of this congregation is an opportunity to catch glimpses of the face of Christ. The Lord Jesus is present in this congregation, both in his humiliation in the Passion and in his glory in the Resurrection. This opportunity presents itself only rarely; don’t waste it.
Lastly, our purpose here is to give God our worship. God deserves our worship because God has already given us more than we can ask or imagine. It is appropriate that we offer God the very best of what we have because we know that God returns the best possible to us. We owe God our full attention, our presence from the beginning of Mass until the very end and our unending gratitude.
Today’s second reading says, “as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26) What we do here this morning is in remembrance and imitation of the Lord Jesus. There is no other reason to be here, and no other gift worth receiving. If Holy Communion is just a thing to be obtained, we’re probably getting a lot less than we imagine. However, if it is an action that represents the beliefs and values that guide our daily lives, we are already citizens of the Kingdom we await in its fullness.