In this article we examine the continuation and conclusion of the Offertory, presenting the work of Msgr. Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Msgr. Gihr was a priest of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope Saint Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of Dom Prosper Guéranger. (The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgisch und aszetisch erklärt. Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877.)
The Church prays that God would sanctify not only the elements of bread and wine just offered, but that He would also, by the Eucharistic Sacrifice, make us wholly worthy to be presented to Him as an eternal sacrificial gift. Thus the priest in the name of all the faithful recites the following prayer of offering:
“O Lord, accept us, animated with a spirit of humility and contrition of heart; and grant that the Sacrifice we offer in Thy sight, this day, may be pleasing to Thee, O Lord God.”
These words are taken from a longer penitential prayer recited by the three young men in the Babylonian furnace (Dan. 3:24-45). Praising God, they walked about in the flames which did them not the least harm, and because they were prevented from offering exterior ritual sacrifices, they offered themselves as a propitiatory sacrifice for their sins and for those of their people, in order to obtain mercy.
The Invocation, the prayer that the Eucharistic Sacrificial gifts may be transubstantiated by the operation of the Holy Ghost, is found in all liturgies. But in the Greek and Oriental rites, it follows the act of Consecration; in the Roman it has its place among the oblation prayers which precede the Consecration. The priest solemnly invokes the Holy Ghost, whilst looking heavenward, then at the word benedic (bless), he traces the Sign of the Cross over the chalice and Host, praying: “Come, Sanctifier, O Almighty and eternal God, and bless this sacrifice, prepared for the glory of Thy holy name.”
While in reality all three Divine Persons accomplish the act of Consecration, it is most frequently ascribed to the power of the Holy Ghost. The proximate reason for this lies in the great similarity between the accomplishment of the Eucharist on the altar and the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the bosom of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, a relation often commented on by the Fathers. The Incarnation is, in a manner, renewed and enlarged in the Eucharistic Consecration.
As it is said in the Creed that the Son of God “became incarnate by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary,” we also acknowledge that the Holy Ghost, by His creative power as Lord and Dispenser of life, changes the inanimate elements of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. “How shall this be done,” says the Holy Virgin, “because I know not man?” The Archangel Gabriel, answering, said to her: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.” How shall the bread become the Body of Christ, and the wine, mingled with water, become the Blood of Christ? The Holy Ghost shall overshadow each and shall effect that which is beyond language and conception.
The oblation rites considered up to this point are followed in Solemn and Sung Masses by the incensing, which has been observed in the Roman liturgy in this part of the Mass since the eleventh or twelfth century. This incensing partly differs from the one that took place at the Introit of the Mass, since it has a richer rite and a more significant symbolism. While the priest puts the grains of incense on the live coals, he says:
“By the intercession of blessed Michael the Archangel, standing at the right hand of the Altar of Incense, and of all His elect, may the Lord vouchsafe to bless this incense, and receive it in odor of sweetness. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The prayers of the Church are always heard. By incensing the sacrificial gifts, the Church would emulate the celestial choirs in paying homage to the Divine Lamb on the throne. St. Michael stands at the right hand of the altar of incense and presents the incense of prayer and sacrifice in golden censers before the face of God. On Mount Gargano St. Michael appeared with a censer in his hand, on the spot where a church was to be built; hence it is said of him in the Office of the Church: “The angel stood before the altar of the temple, having a golden censer in his hand”; an unmistakable allusion is here made to the vision of the heavenly altar which St. John saw (Apoc. 8:3-4).
The sacrificial gifts are first incensed by tracing the censer three times in the form of a cross and then three times in the form of a circle over the Host and chalice, twice to the right and once to the left to indicate that the Divine Sacrifice may avail us both in prosperity and in adversity. Meanwhile, the following prayer is recited: “May this incense which Thou hast blessed, O Lord, ascend to Thee, and may Thy mercy descend upon us.”
The incensing is now continued and extended to the Crucifix on the altar, to the relics or images of the saints, to the altar itself, to the celebrant together with his attendants, to the clergy and people present. The words said while incensing the Cross and altar are as follows (Ps. 140:2-4):
“Let my prayer, O Lord, be directed as incense in Thy sight: and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and a door round about my lips. That my heart may not incline to evil words, to make excuses in sins.”
The clouds of incense which envelop the altar itself from all sides indicate that it becomes a transcendent Mount Calvary, the mystical mountain prefigured already in the Canticle of Canticles: “Till the day break, and the shadows retire, I will go to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense” (4:6). Inasmuch as the clouds of incense then spread from the altar throughout the entire house of God, they symbolize the divine benediction of grace. Grace is dispensed from the Sacrifice, first to the priest and through his ministrations to the faithful. This idea is conveyed in the ceremony of incensing, first, the celebrant, then the clergy and finally the faithful. At the same time the incensing of persons co-operating in and assisting at the Sacrifice contains a lesson and an admonition to them ever to be mindful of their nobility as members of Christ and temples of the Holy Ghost, that by their conduct they may spread everywhere the good odor of piety and godliness. That this incensing is also to be understood as a mark of honor, as a religious distinction in favor of all those who are incensed, is self-evident from what has been said of the signification and use of incense in general. When the priest returns the censer to the deacon, he says, “May the Lord enkindle within us the fire of His love and the flame of eternal charity. Amen.” And this wish the Lord will assuredly fulfill, since He Himself came to bring this heavenly fire upon the earth, and He desires nothing more than that it be kindled in all hearts and that it continue to burn without ever being extinguished (Lk. 12:49).
This washing dates from the earliest antiquity. After receiving in his hands the offerings of the people, the celebrant found it necessary to cleanse his hands again by washing them, and especially the fingers which were to touch the Most Blessed Sacrament; nevertheless, the symbolic signification of this action is mainly taken into consideration. The outward washing of hands symbolizes the interior purification of the whole man from all that sullies the soul and body; the circumstance of washing in reality only the tips of the consecrated fingers (both thumbs and both forefingers) is supposed to signify that the officiating priest should cleanse his heart and preserve it undefiled from even the slightest faults. The verses of the Psalm that the celebrant recites in the meantime (Ps. 25:6-12) are:
“I will wash my hands among the innocent: and I will compass Thine altar, O Lord. That I may hear the voice of praise, and tell of all Thy wondrous works. O Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth. Take not away my soul, O God, with the wicked, nor my life with men of blood. In whose hands are iniquities: their right hand is filled with gifts. But as for me, I have walked in my innocence: redeem me, and be merciful unto me. My foot hath stood in the right way: in the churches I will bless Thee, O Lord. Glory be to the Father, etc.”
“I have loved the beauty of Thy house.” The priest is consumed with zeal for the house of the Lord; he adorns it as worthily and as splendidly as possible, since the King of Glory does not disdain to dwell so silently and so hidden near us and among us. The place where the Savior has built His throne of grace is the cherished place of the priest; there he spends the most delightful hours; he gathers there the most precious graces.
After the washing of the hands, the priest returns to the middle of the altar; full of confidence he raises his eyes to the Crucifix, presently lowering them again; he then bows and prays:
“Receive, O Holy Trinity, this Oblation, which we offer unto Thee, in memory of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in honor of the blessed Mary ever Virgin, of blessed John the Baptist, of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, of these and of all the Saints; that it may be to their honor and to our salvation: and may they vouchsafe to intercede for us in heaven, whose memory we celebrate on earth. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.”
In this prayer the previous oblation of the Host and chalice is developed and perfected by the incorporation of new aspects. Firstly, while the first two Oblation prayers were directed to the Father and the Invocation was made to the Holy Ghost, the Church now offers the Sacrifice prepared on the altar to the Holy Trinity. Secondly, while it is self-evident that the Sacrifice of the Mass can and may be offered solely to the triune God, nevertheless, by an ecclesiastical ordinance which dates back to Apostolic times, frequent mention is made of the saints during the celebration of Mass; by this, great honor and distinction are evidently shown them. This we intend to express by saying, that we offer this Sacrifice “in their honor.” These words, indeed, signify the fruit accruing to the denizens of heaven through the Holy Sacrifice; the Mass being also offered to obtain for the saints the spread of their veneration on earth.
After the Suscipe sancta Trinitas has been concluded, the priest again summons all the faithful by turning to them and saying the words: “Pray, brethren” (orate, fratres) in an audible voice; then while again turning to the altar, he continues in silence, “that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty.”
The Eucharist is the Sacrifice of the whole Church (“my sacrifice and yours”); the laity partake in a variety of ways and in different degrees in the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, while the priest in their name and for their benefit alone completes the sacrificial action itself. Thus priest and people are at the altar bound together in a communion of sacrifice; and they offer not only the Host and chalice, but themselves also. In compliance with the invitation of the priest, the acolyte answers in the name of the faithful:
“May the Lord receive the Sacrifice from thy hands, to the praise and glory of His name, to our benefit, and to that of all His holy Church.”
The Orate fratres here takes the place of the customary Oremus, which was already said before the Offertorium, and introduces us to the prayer called the Secret. The prayer has this name because, from time immemorial, it has been said in an inaudible voice (voce secreto). Thus, Secret can be translated as the “silent prayer” (oratio secreta).
In regard to their construction, the Secrets harmonize perfectly with the Collects, but their contents are entirely distinct. The Sacrifice is not referred to in the prayers of the Collects, which ask some special grace regarding the mystery of the day celebrated; the Secrets, on the contrary, are oblation prayers, prayers that contain almost the same thoughts as those expressed in the Offertory. In the whole oblation rite, including the Secret, two closely connected petitions are present: first the petition that the sacrificial gifts prepared on the altar be accepted, blessed, dedicated, sanctified and consecrated; then the petition that the abundant and manifold graces of the Sacrifice be bestowed. After the priest has recited the Secret reverently in silence, in ending the last prayer, he raises his voice, saying aloud or singing: “per omnia saecula saeculorum” (world without end).
To this majestic conclusion the acolyte or choir answers in the name of the people “Amen,” that is, may what the priest has implored in secret of God be granted and fulfilled in every respect. This was done by the first Christians and has been done ever since; the Faithful restricted themselves to answering “Amen” after the priest had prayed in silence, thus making an act of faith, really sublime in its simplicity; as if they said: we know not what is best for us, but God knows it; now the Church has prayed, for in her name and by her commission the priest has prayed; the Church has placed on his lips the prayers which he has recited, we assent thereto, whatsoever they may contain, we can desire nothing better than what the Church desires, we can say nothing better than what the Church utters. So be it: Amen.