After the Gospel, the next time that the priest offers silent prayers and makes significant gestures is at the offertory.
As the altar is being prepared, all of the patens with the hosts are placed on the corporal (the square piece of cloth that the priest or deacon lays out). Then the priest is ready to place the celebrant’s paten with the larger host on the corporal. Before setting it down, he offers a prayer that is said silently when a song is being sung for the offertory.
“Blessed are you God of all creation for through your goodness we have the bread we offer you. Fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” “Blessed be God forever.”
If said out loud, the last piece is said by the congregation. This prayer is incredibly significant especially with regards to understanding the Mass as a Sacrifice offered to God. First, the priest offers words of praise to God focusing on his work as creator. We human beings are not creators as much as we are assemblers. Everything we make, we make using God’s ‘stuff.’ He created the very atoms that form the bread. He created the cycle of nature that grew the wheat. He created the scientific process that allows for the baking of wheat and water into bread. Truly, it is only through his goodness that we have this bread to offer.
That being said, we humans have our part to play. The wheat was grown, gathered, and then baked by the 'work of human hands.' And so, through human effort, we cultivate God’s gifts and offer them back to God. But here we offer God more than just bread. It represents all that we offer to God at this Mass. As the priest raises the paten with the larger host above the altar, we have the opportunity to visualize all we have, our possessions, our families, our joys, our sorrows, our whole lives on the altar.
In a mystical way, each of us and our petitions will be offered on that altar, united to the host as it is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, and then offered to God the Father in heaven (notice the Trinitarian nature of this event). At Mass, we offer God, again and again, our lives. Just as God is responsible for us having the bread, so he is responsible for our lives. And it is the purpose of each of our lives to offer them back to God willingly in Sacrifice.
After he finishes his prayer, he places the paten for the first time on the corporal. The corporal has a variety of purposes, but a large one is to give the priest a specific delineation of that which he intends to consecrate. The priest makes his intention to consecrate all hosts and wine on the corporal (or corporals) on that altar.
The next silent prayers happen at the pouring of the water and wine. The priest first pours wine into the chalice and secondly adds a few drops of water. As he pours the water, he prays silently “By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” While the Liturgy of the Eucharist is closely tied with Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, this particular prayer focuses on another great mystery: The incarnation. In Christianity, “mystery” is always fundamentally a wedding of human and divine, of material and spiritual, of time and eternity, of the finite with the infinite: “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). When God became man, divine love embraced our weak, finite humanity and raised it up, as indicated in this offertory prayer.
St. Cyprian offers a wonderful reflection on the mixing of these elements:
“For because Christ bore us all, in that he also bore our sins, we see that in the water is understood the people, but in the wine is showed the blood of Christ. But when the water is mingled in the cup with wine, the people are made one with Christ, and the assembly of believers is associated and conjoined with him on whom it believes; which association and conjunction of water and wine is so mingled in the Lord’s cup, that that mixture cannot any more be separated.”
While the water and wine can also be understood to symbolize the water and blood that flowed from the side of Christ as he hung upon the Cross, the primary symbolism is that of the mystical mingling of humanity and divinity in Christ, both in the incarnation itself and also in this particular instance of the Mass, where we consume Christ and are made one with him.
The priest then raises the chalice and offers a prayer very similar to the one he prays when raising the paten (not shown here for the sake of space.)
The priest offers two more silent prayers before the offertory is over. Those two prayers will be the subject of next week’s article.