Metacosmesis Mundi Per lncarnationem
What's this Life All About Anyway?
The Offertory and the Liturgy
by Helen W. Ray, with illustrations by Nancy M. Brown
The Vine Press, Oratory of St. Mary and St. Michael,
Gloucester, Massachusetts, ©1959.
The Perennial QuestionThere comes a time with all of us when we are apt to say to ourselves, "What's this life all about anyway? What is it for? What am I really doing here? Is there any real meaning to this so-called culture and to this society I am involved with? When I die, what will have been the meaning of my life-except perhaps that I have kept body and soul together up to that point, raised a few children maybe, perhaps done some good, contributed something to the world's stock of knowledge...? But what is the purpose? I die. My contemporaries die. Others take my place and do much the same that I have done. But in the end even our culture will die out. Another culture, a different society, will take its place. And so civilizations will continue to change throughout the ages. To what avail is all this living and working and striving, if the end is only a perpetual cycle of decay, death, and. new struggle, and decay and death again?
"What has my religion to do with all this? Am I only living in a world from which, if I follow the teachings of our Lord, I shall be finally extricated, and from which, if I am good enough, I shall go to a sort of nebulous place called heaven? Is the only purpose in life to find a way to get to heaven?"
How can we do something, in the love of our Lord, that is permanent, that will not die and be forgotten in the passage of time? We sometimes wish that we could offer ourselves to God in a way that would be really meaningful. We may wish to offer Him our totally surrendered lives. But if we are housewlves or mothers, bread winners or fathers, we cannot commit ourselves to a convent or monastery where self-offering can be carried out totally every day.
Yet we would like to give something to God, something He could take out of this world into eternity. If we could do so, our lives would not be in vain. If, with our lives and from our lives, we could prepare for God a gift which He would receive into eternity, something permanent would come out of our work. For if this gift were carried into heaven it would not be lost. It would have eternal value. It would last.
We today are not unique in wanting to give a gift to God. From earliest known times most peoples, including the Semites, especially those of the Jewish nation, have wanted to do the same thing. Before the destruction of their temple, the Jews were always trying to send a gift from this world to God. They offered goats or lambs, or in primitive times even a favorite son (as in the story of Abraham and Isaac). They tried to get these gifts through to God by burning them on an altar. These trial attempts were not successful because smoke cannot go into eternity, but the givers were trying, in the best way they knew, to achieve a purpose which was the same as ours.
These gifts were called sacrifices. In the religious use of the word, a sacrifice is something that is lifted out of the world of time into eternity. On the Cross our Lord made the first successful sacrifice in His own death, Resurrection and Ascension. Our Lord carried a gift, prepared on earth, from this world to God. This gift was Himself, His manhood, which included all that He had done in His earthly ministry. Our Lord went in His risen body from this world of time into eternity, into heaven.
Religious Meaning of SacrificeThe word sacrifice is used in every-day language today with a different meaning. It is now often used to signify a giving up of something for the sake of a better thing. For example, we say we make a sacrifice if we give up a movie to visit a sick friend. Or we give up cigarettes and devote the money to the church. But this is not the basic meaning of the word sacrifice. The most important meaning, the religious meaning, is to give a gift that can be lifted to God out of the world of time, a gift that can get through to God in eternity.
But in order for a gift prepared in this world to get through to God, it has to be substantially transformed. The Jews thought that a material gift was made available to God by transforming it into burning smoke. The great Christian discovery was that natural man alone, no matter how good his intention, is not able because of human sin to send a gift to God since he cannot provide one which is sufficiently perfect. Only the God-man, Jesus Christ, by the perfection of His life on earth, was able to do so. The gift was nothing less than His own body.
How can we make a gift that will be an effective sacrifice, that will get through to God? Episcopalians do not have to search very far. In our liturgy of the Holy Eucharist we speak of offering ourselves -- our total selves -- to God. What do we mean by our total selves? We mean all that we have done, the work of our entire lives. But how does this offering get through to God?
Our Lord has given us a way to make such a sacrifice. He has commanded us to take ordinary bread and wine as our offering. This bread and wine is the means by which the gift of our lives -- the good we have done, all the significant things that we have done according to God's will -- gets through to Him. He receives us through the bread and wine.
How is it that bread and wine are able to convey our lives? In the time of our Lord the work of many families, even of whole communities, was that of growing grain and cultivating grapes. As these families worked in the production of grain and grapes their whole lives became involved in the process. Their hopes, their associations with each other, their intentions, their good deeds, and their attitudes toward each other all entered into the history of their products. The finished bread and wine were actually the bread and wine of their lives, resulting from the work of their lives.
Modern Method of OffertoryToday most of us do not produce the bread and wine that is offered at the altar. But we become identified with these offerings, as we become identified with most materials in our world, by purchase. Part of the money we put into our church alms basin buys our bread and wine. In some churches where this idea of offering the bread and wine is fully understood, the communicants, as they arrive, purchase with a penny their own individual wafers of bread, thus directly becoming the owners of what is to be offered; they become identified with the bread in the most meaningful way, just as the people who used to make the bread in our Lord's day were identified with it. Each communicant puts his wafer into a dish which is later carried up to the altar at the time of the Offertory by members of the congregation chosen to represent the people. The individual gifts of all the communicants are thus joined on the way to the altar as a corporate offering to God. Then, at the Consecration, God transforms these gifts through the sacrificial power of His Son, so that they can be received into Himself. They become the Body and Blood of Christ, according to His promise.
We do not need to be concerned about how our gifts become the Body and Blood of Christ -- in fact, we haven't sufficient knowledge to be concerned -- but we do know definitely from our Lord's own statement that He makes the necessary change take place at the Consecration. Through the work of the priest, as he pours the wine and breaks the bread at the altar, as he gives thanks to God for them and blesses them, God acts upon the materials of the Church's Offertory and changes them. He changes them as He changed water into wine at the Marriage Feast in Cana of Galilee. He changes them from the temporal and material gifts of our offering into His risen Body and Blood. It is important to remember that it is into His risen Body and Blood that they are changed; for it is only within the risen Christ that they can be made eternal. They get through to God. They "go away" [John XVI, 7] from us even while we continue to live and work in the world as sacrificing persons.
And then comes the completing action of the Eucharist. In the Communion we, the Church on earth, receive our Lord's Body and Blood! The Sacrament which is returned to us contains our own lives joined and made one with His. He gives us back our lives after they have been perfected by union with His life.
In this way the Communion prepares us for our next offering to Him. We are strengthened by His eternal life in us. Our gifts, succeeding each other week by week, are made a permanent part of our Lord's kingdom of heaven. At each Communion they are given back to us again as a basis for preparing future Offertories.
From this interpretation of the Christian liturgy it fol1ows that the sacrifice of the church fulfills what has been the aim and the purpose of all sacrificial attempts from the earliest times: to return a gift, perfected in our world. to its proper and eternal end in God, who is its Creator.
As we give, as more and more of us prepare gifts from our temporal world and offer them to God in and through the bread and wine, our Lord's kingdom is extended and enlarged. Our lives can never be meaningless, and our work can never be lost, if we bring to Him our offerings for His kingdom.
God's Instruments in RedemptionOf course we are not doing all this by ourselves. By ourselves alone we cannot prepare proper gifts. We can do no good thing by ourselves. Through prayer, through confession of our sins, through opening ourselves to God, through careful preparation of the gift of our lives, we let God work in us to accomplish the kingdom of heaven. We are His instruments -- if we allow ourselves to be used. We are the Body of Christ on earth. We are the ones chosen by Him for the extension of His kingdom. His pioneering work on Calvary made it possible for us to offer real sacrifices at His altar.
An inaccurate phrase in the Prayer Book. has given rise to confusion on this point. It says that we offer "our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrIfice unto thee." Since, as we have seen, a sacrifice is something that must go out of time into eternity, it would be more correct to say that we offer the work and accomplishments of our selves, our souls and bodies. Our bodies are still there in the pew, and it is not they that go out of time into eternity at each Mass; it is not our bodies that are sacrificed.
At the end of our own earthly lives, after our individual deaths, we ourselves, as whole persons (which include not only the work of our lives, but our souls and bodies) can be offered to God on His altar. We know that after we are dead we can no longer make an offering ourselves. Others must do this for us. That is why those who live after us, who remain behind in the world, offer what are called Requiem Masses. The Offertory in a Requiem Mass contains the completed lives of departed persons. This Offertory is part of the Church's corporate sacrifice to God.
When we realize that we are privileged to offer to God the work of our lives on His altar every Sunday, and perhaps during the week, a new meaning comes into our lives. This meaning has eternal significance. We are able to satisfy the longing which most of us have to give of ourselves totally in a way which is both meaningful to us and eternally enduring in the presence of God.
As we go about in the world, every minute and every hour and every day, we are individually preparing our offerings to God. Nothing we think or do is irrelevant to this preparation, our job for God. But we do not and cannot offer our work to God by our own unaided individual powers. It is only because we are first members of the Body of Christ by virtue of baptism that we are able to bring offerings at all. The members of the Body of Christ must always act in the Eucharist together. Not even the priest can celebrate the Mass alone. After we have gathered our offerings during the week we come together with our brothers in the Body of Christ; we and the priest together offer the bread and wine of our lives. We make a corporate offering. We also ask God together, corporately, to free our combined offering from the sins we may have placed within it as we have prepared it. Our Lord said that when two or three are together and agreed in His name He would be in their midst. We never act alone as Christians.
Together, then, as we gather our offerings and bring them to the altar, we are contributing to the redemption of the world. The world is to be redeemed by exactly this process.
Redemption means bringing back, buying back, restoring. In the beginning of things God created the world good. That is to say, He created it and all the things in it and upon it in peace and harmony with each other. By abusing the God-given ability to choose betwen good and evil, man has brought sin into the world. He has disrupted the peace and harmony of the world. It is the vocation of every Christian to contribute to the restoration of this peace and harmony, working to eradicate sin and evil. It is our calling, through the Grace of God within us, to participate with our Lord in bringing about that Kingdom of God on earth for which He taught us to pray. As we continue in this work of redemption we repeatedly return its fruits to God under the forms of bread and wine.
Elimination of Offertory by CranmerBut why doesn't everybody know about all this? Why don't all Christians understand the Offertory in this way? The reasons are partly historical and partly theological.
The early church had an idea of sacrifice which included a full appreciation of the Offertory within the Eucharist. The primitive Christians intentionally brought their Offertorial bread and wine direct from home and farm. (Even the very poor could bring a little water, if nothing else, to be mingled with the wine in the chalice.) Christians recognized the preparation of the Offertory materials as their primary job. They were quite clear about this matter. They risked their very lives in gathering together to bring their bread and wine to be consecrated at the Eucharist. Despite continual persecution they gathered together at peril to celebrate the meaning of Our Lord's death and Resurrection. They understood that He had established a way of sacrifice. They understood that this was the only way their gifts could be got through to God.
Why are we having to recover their understanding of the Offertory? Why is it not part of our immediate heritage? The fact is that through the years of the history of the church the full idea of sacrifice in its completeness was gradually corrupted. By the time of the Middle Ages the church had forgotten its own primary mission. It became preoccupied with rules for the f purpose of qualifying souls for heaven -- with extricating souls from this world in order to get them comfortably into the next. The Offertory functions of the people were largely taken over by the priests. They acted alone in saying the Mass. And the people ceased at last even to make their Communions, or they made them very infrequently and for wrong reasons, which had no relation to the Offertory.
Then in England, at the time of the Reformation and under the influence of continental Lutheranism and Calvinism, Archbishop Cranmer, when he substituted the English Holy Communion for the Western Mass in the Book of Common Prayer, took out of the Eucharist all reference to any offering save that of alms money. The English "reformers," swayed by Luther and Calvin, believed that doing good works, accomplishing things for God in this world, was simply impossible because of the fall of man and original sin. These forerunners of the Puritans felt that man was justified by faith alone, and that therefore he could do nothing, even when baptised into the church, that might be acceptable to God as an offering. The effect of this attitude toward the sinful world was to ruin all idea of continuing sacramental sacrifice. Cranmer suppressed all thought and reference to an offering by the people at the time of the actual preparation of the bread and wine at the altar. He did, to be sure, leave in a mention of the offering of "our selves" at a later point in his liturgy, but he made sure that it was not connected with the Offertory. Nor did he use the word sacrifice in the right sense when he mentioned our bodies as a "living" sacrifice. (We may dedicate our bodies to God's work, but this is not to sacrifice them.) This tampering with the original meaning of the Eucharist was seriously wrong, and certainly did nothing to restore a true sense of the Offertory.
Recovery of Lost UnderstandingWithin the last few years, especially in Anglican churches, attempts have been made by theologians and liturgical scholars to recapture an understanding of what the Offertory is all about. A movement is under way to have the Offertory bread brought to the altar from the back of the church in the manner that has been mentioned. A provision for such practice in the Prayer Book liturgy would point up the purpose of the Offertory. In some parishes the collection of money for the benefit of the church is being distinguished from the true Offertory of bread and wine. Our money is an offering in a certain sense, to be sure, inasmuch as it can be devoted to the improvement of the world, but it can never be gotten through to God Himself sacrificially -- it cannot be transformed into our Lord's risen Body and Blood. Money is a practical requirement of the church, but it cannot be considered a sacrificial Offertory, even though it may be devoted to the purpose of helping to prepare a better offering of bread and wine.
When we Christians have fully recovered this lost meaning of the Offertory, we shall be able to go forward in the united business of the redemption of the world, for as a group we shall be living and preparing the best possible offering to God. Such a united effort would change the entire world.
If we Christians all shared this offertorial knowledge and hope and practice, what a difference it would make in our parishes, in our communities, in our world! The tremendous significance of the full concept of the Offertory should be seriously explored by all Christians, not only in terms of their own personal lives and their parishes, but also in terms of the economic and political condition of the whole world. When the Offertory is understood in relation to the practical world, Godly living, both individual and social, becomes for Christians not just an ought but a must. So this is what our lives are all about. This is what we are here for. This is the meaning and the answer for anyone who is a Christian. The Way of Salvation, the Way of Redemption, the Way our Lord gave us, is the Way of the Offertory, the Consecration, and finally the Communion in the Holy Eucharist. Through the Offertory our Lord has enabled us in the Sacrifice of the Altar to offer God the work of our lives.
BibliographyDix, Dom Gregory. The Shape of the Liturgy. Westminster: Dacre Press. 1954.
Mascall, E. L. Christ, the Christian and the Church. London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1955.
Mascall, E. L. The Recovery of Unity. London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1958.
Prestige, G. L. Fathers and Heretics. London: S.P.C.K. 1954.
Shepherd, Massey H., Jr. The Worship of the Church. Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press. 1952.
Smyth, F. Hastings. Discerning the Lord's Body. Louisville, Kentucky: The Cloister Press. 1946.
Smyth, F. Hastings. Sacrifice. New York: Vantage Press, Inc. 1953.