Some in the contemporary liturgical academy and bureaucracy wish to remove the Offertory as a component of the Mass. They wish to replace it with a simple action of the assembly setting its table, an action in which all reference to sacrifice and the distinction between priest and assembly disappears. They find the language of sacrifice at this point in the liturgy premature because the sacrifice is actually offered later, in the eucharistic prayer. To support their preference, they sometimes appeal to the 1969 change in the Roman Missal, which now entitles the rite “Preparation of the Gifts,” rather than “Offertory.” Yet despite the change in title for this part of the Mass, the same General Instruction continues to use “Offertory,” too, in describing the rite: the phrase “offertory chant” (or “antiphon”) is used four times, and twice the rite is called “Offertory.” Even the new prayers, “blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,” still say, we “offer” (“offerimus”) bread and wine.
As for the distinction between priest and assembly, this remains quite clear in the General Instruction: the faithful present offerings of bread and wine which are accepted by the priest from them and placed on the altar by priest or ministers. The original Latin of the Orate Fratres in the 1969 missal has the priest saying “my sacrifice and yours.” It was the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) translation which blurred the distinction at this point with “our sacrifice.”
The offertory of the Roman Rite developed over many centuries and shows parallels to the Byzantine liturgy. Jungmann tells us that until the early Middle Ages it was customary for the lay faithful to bring bread and wine to the clergy, to the accompaniment of choral chant. Those doing so might say a personal prayer of offering and petition. As outward lay participation declined through the high and late Middle Ages, the priest began to say these prayers himself.
Characteristic of the offertory prayers in the pre-1969 missal is their way of speaking about the bread and chalice as if they already were the body and blood of Christ. The bread is “this immaculate sacrifice” offered for remission of sins and salvation of all Christians living and dead; the chalice is the “chalice of salvation.” We have a verbal parallel here to the Byzantine liturgy which begins with an elaborate ceremony of cutting and arranging the bread, in which the bread symbolized both Christ born in Bethlehem and Christ the Lamb Who is to be sacrificed. At the “Great Entrance,” priest and deacon exit and return to the sanctuary in solemn procession holding up the veiled bread and chalice which are venerated by the people, who bow and sing a text about Christ invisibly escorted by hosts of angels. The bread and wine are already — “anticipatively” — symbolically, Christ Himself.
Already in the third century, according to Saint Cyprian of Carthage, water is mixed with wine because Christ is believed to have done so, but the rite also signifies the union of the Church (water) with Christ (wine). In the fifth century, Theodore of Mopsuestia taught the faithful to see Christ symbolically being led to His cross when the offerings were brought to the altar. One of the most influential writers in Church history, the anonymous Syrian monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, described the entire liturgy as a seeing of God and His saving works under the veils of the sacred symbols. This is what the Christian “mysteries” are, a seeing of divine-human realities, ultimately Christ Himself, through sensible signs. Saint Paul speaks of “the mystery” as God’s long-hidden but now revealed will to unite Gentiles and Jews, even all things, in the one body of Christ (Ephesians 3:4-6, 1:9-10). But marriage also is a “mystery” for Paul, who sees in it the union of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32). In Revelation 1:20, the seven stars held by Christ are a “mystery” — through them John is to see the angels (messengers, bishops?) of the churches to whom he will be writing.
The 1969 edition of the Roman Missal dropped much of the symbolic anticipated presence and offering of Christ. True enough, the current prayers “Blessed are you” unambiguously refer to the bread and wine as bread and wine which we offer in exchange for what they will become. Nevertheless, some of the prayers over the offerings (super oblata in Latin), said immediately after the assembly’s “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands,” still speak of the offerings in a manner redolent of the older editions of the Missal. The following are excerpts: “may this oblation which took away the offense of the whole world on the altar of the cross” (Exaltation of the Cross); “by these sacrifices wash your departed servants of their sins” (All Souls); “enlighten your church by the offered gifts” (Dedication of the Lateran); “we offer that sacrifice from which all martyrdom takes its origin” (Martyrs, paschal time; and what sacrifice could this be but Christ himself?); “may the Holy Spirit abundantly reveal the secret of this sacrifice” (Pentecost, day); “we offer the sacrifices by which your Church is marvelously reborn and nourished” (Easter day); “accept the sacrifices of human redemption” (Wednesday of Easter octave); “we offer you the sacrifice of propitiation” (Holy Family); “Lord, favorably look upon the gifts of your Church, not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but what is proclaimed, offered, and consumed through the same sacrifices, Jesus Christ” (Epiphany). Furthermore the mixing of water and wine is still a “mystery” in the 1969 edition of the Missal.
Why might the offertory have developed over the centuries as an anticipated presence and offering of Christ before the consecration itself? The sacrifice of Christ, into which the Church enters in spirit, actually occurs at the consecration, yet it does not have the form, “We offer you.” These explicit words of “offering” come afterward, at the oblation part of the eucharistic prayer, after the anamnesis. The Church receives Christ’s sacrifice at the consecration, but she joins Christ in self-offering afterward, at the oblation. So, why can she not also anticipate the sacrifice, seeing Christ symbolically in the presented bread and chalice at the offertory? Further, once the gifts of the faithful have been handed to the priest, who represents Christ and who will transform them by His words, they have been set apart from ordinary use. The anticipated presence of the divine Lord brings about a “sanctuary” from which He will feed us with His body and blood, becoming one body with us.
Such a pattern is characteristic of liturgical time. The spirit of the liturgy is not, “We’ll say ‘offer’ later in the eucharistic prayer, so don’t say it now,” but, “From how many different perspectives can we see the same mystery and still not exhaust its beauty?” The spirit of the liturgy is solemn play, not rational analysis. The texts and ceremonies are subtle and rich, not univocal or monochromatic. Provided the same texts established by the pontiff of Rome or by Saint John Chrysostom are followed, to mention just two of the Church’s rites, each Christian at Mass has space and freedom in which to experience Christ in different ways, all of which manifest the same many-splendored reality. The offertory of the Roman Rite can be taken as an anticipated offering of Christ, or as a holy exchange of gifts, and so why not both? In this small but important matter, the Church should retain the full richness of its liturgical inheritance.