The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass:
“The Offertory, Consecration, and Communion are the principal parts of Holy Mass: they are intimately connected with one another, but are not of equal significance. In the Oblation the Sacrifice is prepared, at the Consecration it is really accomplished, and during the Communion it is entirely concluded and finished.”—Monsignor Nicholas Gihr
In this article we examine the Offertory, presenting the work of Monsignor Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Monsignor 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 St. 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.)
What is Offered, and Who
The words and the rite of the oblation before the Consecration relate to a twofold object namely, to the elements of bread and wine, and also to Christ’s Body and Blood. In the first place, the oblation (oblatio) relates to the Eucharistic elements: the bread and wine are withdrawn from common use, consecrated to God and previously sanctified, that they may be in a manner prepared and made fit for their unspeakably exalted destiny. We give up all claim to these earthly gifts and offer them to the Most High, with the intention and desire that He would change them in the course of the Sacrifice into the most holy Body and Blood of Christ. Accordingly, this portion of the Mass rite includes manifold petitions to the Most High, that He graciously accept and bless or consecrate the bread and wine offered.
Yet the Offertory has not exclusively for its object the mere elements of bread and wine, but also the real object of the sacrifice, the true and only sacrifice of the New Law, that is, the Body and Blood of Christ, which by Consecration take the place of the former substances of bread and wine, and thus become present on the altar. The Church, therefore, does not wait until the change of substance has taken place to offer to the divine Majesty the divine Victim; no, she already now offers the real Victim to the divine Majesty, regarding, as it were, the approaching Consecration of the sacrificial elements as if already passed. From the liturgical prayers of the Offertory, therefore, we may by no means conclude that the offering of the elements of bread and wine is a real sacrifice or constitutes a part of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Only Jesus Christ, present on our altars under both species as symbols of His death, is the perpetual sacrifice of the Catholic Church, our real and true sacrifice.
The Offertory is introduced by the kissing of the altar and the mutual salutation: Dominus vobiscum, Et cum Spiritu tuo. By these words priest and people reciprocally express the desire that the Lord would assist them by His grace. The nearer the moment of the sacrifice approaches, the more urgently do we require assistance from above. The Oremus, which the priest then says, relates not merely to the Offertory chant, but also to the whole series of prayers that are said during the Offertory. All present are thereby exhorted to unite with the celebrant to pray and make the offering in silent reverence.
After this the priest recites an Antiphon, which in the Missal is called Offertorium. The antiphon, originally with Psalm chant, exists because from Apostolic times until about the 11th century, it accompanied a procession of offerings at the Offertory. Remains of these are the offerings are still seen in the offering of a lighted candle to the bishop when receiving Holy Orders, as well as the presentation of two large lighted candles, of two loaves and two small casks of wine at the Consecration of a bishop and at the Benediction of an abbot.
The Offertorium (antiphon) at present is a shorter or longer verse, generally taken from the Psalms, sometimes from the other books of Holy Scripture, and only a few are composed by the Church herself. As to its contents, it constantly changes during the course of the ecclesiastical year, and gives expression to the dominant thought of the celebration of the day or Mass, and has, therefore, precisely the same significance and purpose as have the foregoing Introit and Gradual chants.
The Sacrificial Elements
In anticipation of considering the rites and prayers of the Offertory, we will consider the Eucharistic species in themselves and their preparation, that is, the remote preparation for the Offertory. Wheaten bread (panis triticeus) and wine of grapes (vinum de vite) are the two elements which are necessary for the accomplishment of the Eucharistic Sacrifice; hence they are frequently called the matter of the Holy Sacrifice. This does not say that bread and wine are offered in the same way that the Body and Blood of Christ in their real sense are offered. As on the Cross, so on the altar Jesus Christ alone is our Victim. Our Lord and Savior, at the first celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, consecrated bread and wine and prescribed the use of these elements for the accomplishment of the unbloody sacrifice in His Church for all future time. There are certainly some reasons which show the suitableness of these sacrificial elements.
Ears of wheat and bunches of grapes represent nature in her entirety, which is in a manner offered to God in the oblations. The offering of bread and wine then symbolizes also the donation of all created things as required of man. In the bread and wine, man offers himself and all that he is. It may then be inferred that the separate species of bread and wine are suited to represent the separation of the Blood from the Body of Christ, the painful death of Christ, Christ’s bloody sacrifice on the Cross.
Valid and Licit Matter
The Church requires that the matter used for the Consecration be not only valid, but, moreover, that it be permissible (licit) and as far as possible perfect. The bread destined for the sacrificial action must have been made of pure wheaten flour that has been mixed with natural water and baked in the fire; and that the bread be pure, whole and fresh. The sacrificial wine of the vine must have been pressed from ripe grapes, fully fermented, not soured, nor settled, nor artificially composed; as to the color and taste, it may be red or white, strong or light, naturally sweet or tart. With regard to the color, it is to be remarked that, although red wine symbolizes more perfectly than the white the Blood of Christ, still white wine is to be preferred, because in its use at the altar cleanliness can more easily be observed. Another prescription respecting the sacrificial elements is that the bread is required to be unleavened and the wine to be mixed with a little water.
It is a strict ordinance of the Church for the priests of the Latin rite to use unleavened bread for the Holy Sacrifice, while for the united Greeks it is as strictly enjoined, according to an old custom, to consecrate only leavened bread. There are more numerous and better reasons for the usage prevalent in the Latin Church; hence, the rite of the latter is to be preferred. These reasons are principally the following:
The first is the example of Christ at the institution of the Eucharist. It was the Pasch, so it is generally admitted that Christ consecrated unleavened bread. Although the words of the Lord to His apostles and their successors commanding them to do the same as He had done at the Last Supper may not have been a formal command to consecrate unleavened bread, still it is evident that in so grave and sacred a matter the example of Christ should not easily be departed from.
The second is that, in Sacred Scripture, leaven is usually employed in an evil sense. According to the counsel of the apostle (I Cor. 5:7-8) we must purge out the old leaven of sin and passion, of wickedness and wantonness, that we may be “a new paste, as we are unleavened” and be enabled, when thus sanctified, to partake of the immaculate Flesh of the Eucharistic Victim. Unleavened bread is therefore a symbol of purity. Unleavened bread is also different in appearance and taste from the daily bread that we eat; hence it is suitable by its appearance to indicate that under the Eucharistic veil no ordinary bread, but the true and living bread of Heaven is concealed.
Wine and Water
To the sacrificial wine a small quantity of natural water must be added, according to apostolic ordinance and the strict discipline of the Church. As this co-mmingling is a holy ceremony, it must take place at the altar before the Oblation and be made in the chalice itself. Even a drop fulfills the purpose. This mixture is so important and, therefore, so strictly prescribed, that it would never be allowed for a priest to begin the Holy Sacrifice, if he foresaw that no water could be procured. Profoundly significant are the reasons that favor the fitness of this ecclesiastical ordinance and practice:
The first is once again the example of the Savior. That the Lord at the institution of the Eucharist consecrated wine mixed with water is beyond a doubt. And in favor of this is the circumstance that the addition of water to the wine at the Paschal meal was a permanent and universally practiced custom. The ancient liturgies and holy Fathers are unanimous in asserting that the Savior mingled the Eucharistic chalice with water. Thus from the time of the apostles the Church has everywhere and at all times faithfully followed after the example of her divine Master, and has ever consecrated only wine mixed with water. She regarded it, as St. Cyprian writes in his letter to Caecilius, as proper that at the mixing and offering of the chalice of the Lord, she should observe the true tradition thereof, in order that at His glorious and triumphant return He may find us adhering strictly to that whereunto He had exhorted us, observing what He had taught and doing what He had done.
The second is that by these two elements, wine and water, the blood and water which flowed on the Cross from the wound in the side of Christ may be represented. The piercing and opening of the Heart of Jesus, with the stream of blood and water issuing therefrom, is a wonderful event and at the same time one full of mystical meaning.
The third is that the co-mmingling of wine and water in the chalice refers also to that intimate, mystical relationship existing between Christ and His Church. The drops of water which have been poured into the chalice no longer exist of themselves, but they are diffused in and incorporated into the wine, partaking of its qualities. Similar is the union of the faithful with Christ: by virtue of this union a change takes place in them and they are made partakers of the divine nature.
Finally, our rite is calculated to symbolize, moreover, that mystery by which the divine and human natures are united together in one person, namely, the Incarnation of the Eternal Word. This mystery is the root and source of all and of every supernatural relation of man with God in time and eternity.
Their Reverent Preparation
To the matter of the sacrifice, already before its oblation, are due the most scrupulous care and the greatest reverence, as is evident from their more remote preparation. Let us recall the epoch of the Middle Ages, so full of faith. Then it was that devout princes and princesses esteemed it high honor to be allowed to prepare and to provide the bread and wine for the Holy Sacrifice. In religious houses the preparation of the sacrificial bread was even accompanied with solemnity and with a kind of divine service. Thus was it prepared in the world-renowned Benedictine Abbey of Cluny. Grain after grain was selected, carefully washed, and carried in a special sack to the mill by one of the most exemplary monks. There he first washed the two mill-stones, covered them from top to bottom with cloths, robed himself in white, and then, with veiled face so that his eyes alone were uncovered, he began to grind the wheat. With similar care the sieve was then washed and the flour sifted. To prepare the bread from the flour was the duty of the highest official of the monastic church; two monks and a recently admitted brother shared the holy labor with him. Being well-washed and clothed in white garments, they baked the hosts in a blessed vessel. This edifying ceremony illustrates that it is very proper that persons consecrated to God prepare with all devotedness and reverence the bread for the Holy Sacrifice, regarding this preparation as a work of love and of conscience.
Denis the Carthusian (†1471) wrote, “Think of Him to whom you make your offering, that is, God the Father, Omnipotent and Eternal; the contemplation of His goodness, love, mercy, munificence, and beneficence should make the soul ascend with vehement love, and the consideration of His majesty and equity should fill the soul with reverential fear and humility.”