Last week, we looked at the first few silent prayers of the offertory. After the priest holds the chalice and says the silent prayer, “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation…”, he places the chalice on the corporal. Now, both elements, the bread and the wine, have been initially prepared to be offered to God. The priest then steps back and bows slightly and offers this silent prayer. “With humble spirit and contrite heart, may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may this sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.” As we saw in reflecting on previous prayers in the Mass, the wine and the bread are symbols of the lives of the priest and the congregation. And so, the priest explicitly asks that the offering of our lives be accepted by God. And what will make this offering acceptable to God? A humble spirit, a contrite heart.
This prayer has Scriptural origins. The wording is adapted from a prayer by the three young men in the book of Daniel who are thrown into the fiery furnace for not worshipping a pagan idol. “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bulls, or tens of thousands of fat lambs, So let our sacrifice be in your presence today and find favor before you; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame. And now we follow you with our whole heart, we fear you and we seek your face. Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy” (Daniel 3:39-42).
It can be a great help if we place ourselves in the context of the furnace in the story from Daniel. Whether we recognize it or not, we all are just as much in need of a savior now as the men in that furnace.
In this prayer, we give everything we have, knowing how little that is, at the same time that we, with great hope, “seek [God’s] face.” With this prayer, we promise to follow him “with our whole heart” while we also know that we cannot do that without his “kindness and great mercy.” With these conjunctions of opposites, we perfectly capture what is happening at this moment in the Mass: although we are dying, in great desperation we are offering everything we have, which we know is practically nothing—only a little bread and a little wine. At the same time, we count on God’s mercy, and we are begging for him to manifest his Presence to us and save us as we fear him and seek his face. Furthermore, we are making a promise for how we will conduct ourselves in the future, should he be willing to accept our sacrifice. We will follow him with our whole heart and walk in the fear of the Lord.
The prayer from the book of Daniel, in turn, hearkens back to the famous prayer written by David following his sins of adultery and murder. “For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.” (Psalm 51: 18-19). The psalm goes on to express how the Sacrifices, initially dismissed by God, will be offered and accepted but only after proper preparation, foremost of these being the adoption of a humble and contrite spirit. God desires this disposition in us above all, for nothing we do will matter if we are not repentant. In offering adapted prayer at this point in the Mass, the priest further encourages contriteness for his own sins. The significance of this spiritual encouragement will be significant for the next silent prayer said by the priest.
The priest then turns to the side and moves away from the center of the altar to the place where the servers are waiting for him with a bowl called a Lavabo, a pitcher, and a towel. The server pours the water over the priest’s hands into the Lavabo as the priest prays, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquities and cleanse me from my sins.” This prayer further acknowledges the priest’s need for grace and spiritual purification as he prepares to undertake this momentous consummation of the Liturgy. Because this prayer is offered in private, it also invites the priest to have a quiet, intimate moment with the Lord, acknowledging his sins and asking for mercy before his final entrance into the Eucharistic prayer.
This can be a time of real humility and gratitude as the priest prepares to take the last, crucial steps in the most important thing he does during the Mass. There is a movement, a few steps, that takes place between the hand-washing at the side of the altar and the return to the middle of the altar before facing the people and inviting them to pray. This movement provides an opportunity for a movement of the heart as well. Strengthened by his act of humility and the grace of cleansing he receives from the Lord, the priest can move with a determined heart into the center of the altar. Now he is ready. With a strong heart he now faces the people and confidently summons them to pray with him and for him: “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”