Friday, May 09, 2014

The Theology of the Offertory - Part 5: What the Offertory Really Means

This is the fifth article in an ongoing series. The previous parts can be read here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.
Having explained in the previous articles of this series what the Offertory is not, I propose here to explain via positiva what the Offertory is.
Throughout Her history, the Church has for various reasons often found it necessary, or at least useful, to qualify or add to earlier statements of belief. A perfect example of this is the Nicene Creed as we currently use it in the Mass; we often call it by this name as a convenient shorthand, but it is more properly known as the “Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed”, the title which it has in the Ambrosian Missal. Several of its articles are additions made at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 to the original Nicene Creed, against various heresies which had sprung up since the Council of Nicea. Thus, the Nicene Creed originally stated, like the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, without further elaboration; the words “the Lord, the giver of life… he has spoken through the Prophets,” were added against the heresy of Macedonius, who taught that the Holy Spirit is not God.
The Offertory serves a similar function, namely, to render more precise and explicit what is vague and implicit in the Canon, or to add what is not present. Here I shall examine the text of the most widely used form of the traditional Offertory, that of the Missal of St. Pius V, and enumerate several such points. I do not pretend to say here all that could be about the theological ideas contained therein. It is of course also not the only form of Offertory. Being as it is a later additions to the Order of the Mass in the Roman Rite, the Offertory has many variants, and I will present the text of some of these in a future article in this series.
The Offertory prayers of the Roman Missal, from an edition printed at Lyon in 1500. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Réserve des livres rares.
1. In the variable prayers of the Mass, and in the Canon, whenever the priest speaks in the first person, it is always in the plural. (“Therefore we beseech Thee, most clement Father etc.”) In the first prayer of the Offertory, Suscipe, Sancte Pater, he speaks to God in the first person singular, while referring to the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice: “Receive, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, this immaculate host, which I, Thy unworthy servant, offer to Thee…” This is an important statement of the role of the individual ordained priest, without whom the Sacrifice cannot take place. Even if the people are present only in one server, or not present at all, the priest himself can offer the Sacrifice, but no number of the lay faithful can offer It without him. (As a locus theologicus, this prayer serves as a useful corrective to the modern tendency to overemphasize the people’s role in the Mass, to the detriment of the priest’s.)
2. The priest offers the sacrifice for “(his) innumerable sins and offenses and negligences,” a point which is nowhere stated explicitly in the Canon. Immediately after, he offers it also “for all those that stand around (the altar), and also for all faithful Christians, living and deceased.” This is an elaboration of the later part of the Te igitur, and of the two Mementos in the Canon, which ask the Lord only to remember the living and the dead. Here it is stated more explicitly that the sacrifice itself “profit(s) them for salvation, unto eternal life.” This is affirmed also in the second chapter of the Council of Trent’s Decree on the Mass, (Session 22) and the third anathema which follows it.
3. The prayer at the blessing of the water was originally written to be said on Christmas, and gives a beautiful summary of the economy of salvation; the words here in italics were added for use in the Offertory. “God, who established the dignity of human nature, and more wondrously reformed it, grant us through the mystery of this water and wine, that we may be partakers of His divinity, Who deigned to partake of our humanity.” It declares first of all that our salvation comes from God Himself, and not from a lesser being sent by Him, as many heretics have taught. Secondly, salvation is not merely deliverance from sin, but union with the divine nature in Christ’s mystical body, made possible by the divine condescension in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection. The addition of this prayer to the Ordo Missae declares that the Eucharist, Christ’s abiding presence among us and within us, is an intrinsic part of this economy of salvation, as He Himself says, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6, 54) 
The Canon itself is more reticent about this, speaking of salvation as deliverance from eternal damnation, being counted in the flock of God’s elect; for the dead, a place of “refreshment, light, and peace”, for the living, “some portion … and society with (God’s) saints”. The Canon also does not explicitly mention the Incarnation.
4. The prayer at the elevation of the chalice refers to it as “calicem salutaris – the chalice of salvation”, a phrase taken from Psalm 115. Especially in light of the words which follow almost immediately after, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” this phrase is naturally associated with Christ’s words to the Apostles John and James, “Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink?”, (Matthew 20, 22-23) and His prayer during the agony in the garden, “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me.” (Matthew 26, 39) St Jerome writes in his commentary on St Matthew, “In the divine Scriptures, we understand ‘chalice’ to mean the Passion”. The priest later says the full verse of the Psalm before he drinks the Precious Blood, “I will take the chalice of salvation; and I will call upon the name of the Lord.”
Just as Christ foretold to the two Apostles “My chalice indeed you shall drink.”, and said that each of us must “take up his cross and follow (Him)”, (Matthew 10, 38) St Paul describes the life of a Christian thus: “present your bodies a living sacrifice (hostiam viventem), holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service.” (Romans 12, 1) The Eucharistic chalice is emblematic not only of Christ’s Passion and offering of Himself to the Father, but of our union of ourselves with Him in that offering.
The prayer concludes with the phrase, “May (the chalice) ascend with the odor of sweetness.” In Ezekiel 20, 41, God says to the people of Israel, “Unto the odor of sweetness I will receive you,” and St Paul describes the presence of the Church in the world as follows: “Now thanks be to God, who always maketh us to triumph in Christ Jesus, and manifesteth the odour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are the good odour of Christ unto God, in them that are saved, and in them that perish.” (2 Corinthians 2, 14-15) This prayer then forms a bridge between the preceding one and the prayer “In humble spirit and contrite heart, may we be received by Thee, o Lord, etc.”, associating the offering which all members of the Church make of themselves to God at the Eucharist.
5. The prayer “Veni, sanctificator - come, o Sanctifier” is a form of Epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist, an element which is not formally present in the Roman Canon. Although the Holy Spirit is not named as such, the first word “Veni” is clearly reminiscent of the Pentecost hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus”, and a variety of hymns and antiphons associated with that feast. Before he blesses the elements by making the sign of the Cross over them with his hand, (as he will do repeatedly in the Canon), the priest lifts his hands in a circle and raises his eyes. This is the same gesture that he makes at the beginning of the Gloria, the Creed and the Canon, indicating the importance of the action.
6. After the incensation of the bread and wine, and the washing of the hands, the priest says the final prayer Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas, which resumes the whole thought of the Offertory ritual. (As described in the second article in this series, this prayer is one of the oldest parts of the Offertory.) Taking the Offertory prayers as a unit, then, we note how they form a hierarchical representation of the whole Church, both in heaven and on earth, affirming its presence at and participation in every Mass. The first prayer is addressed to God the Father; the second is about the Son; the third and fourth are about the individual members of the Church; the fifth is about the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sends upon the Church and upon each of its members. The prayers at the blessing of incense refer to St Michael the Archangel, and “all the elect”, the Saints in heaven. The psalm at the washing of the hands refers to the Church on earth, “I will wash my hands among the innocent, and encompass thy altar, o Lord…I have loved the beauty of Thy house…in the churches I will bless Thee.” The final prayer recapitulates, referring to the Trinity, the Passion and Resurrection, (and by inference, the Incarnation), the Saints, and our spiritual commerce with them.
The Vision of St John of Matha, (founder of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Captives); by Juan Carreño de Miranda, 1666. Musée du Louvre  caption
I referred above to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed as an expansion of the Apostles’ Creed. Although this was previously the only Creed said in the Mass, the Apostles’ Creed continued to be used, in both the ritual of Baptism and in the Divine Office. In the Novus Ordo, it may be said in place of the Nicene Creed; while one may debate the advisability of this option, it would be absurd to claim that its introduction into the rite of Mass is in some way a repudiation of the Nicene Creed. Likewise, one may certainly debate the advisability of replacing the historical Offertory prayers of the Missal of St Pius V with table blessings of rather vague Jewish inspiration. However, any claim that the Church by doing so actually changed (or changed back) its belief in the Eucharistic sacrifice, or the role of the ordained priesthood in that sacrifice, is merely absurd. It is now all the more so, since the Church has officially reintegrated the traditional form of the Offertory into Her liturgy not once, but twice: first in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, and more recently in the Use of the Anglican Ordinariate.

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