The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Offertory, Part Two
In this article we examine the Oblation or Offering of the Host, 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: Nikolaus Gihr, Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgisch und aszetisch erklärt. Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877.)
The Offering of the Host
The preparation of the elements of the Sacrifice includes the separation, the dedication, and the blessing of the bread and wine for the exalted end to which they are destined. This preliminary sanctification of the Eucharistic elements, if not essentially necessary, is yet in the highest degree just and proper. The earthly elements are to be taken from the sphere of nature into the higher order of grace, that is, they are to become holy things, before the Holy Ghost changes them into the Body and Blood of Christ.
The oblation has in its favor the example of Jesus Himself, who at the Last Supper, in His character of High-priest, taking the bread and the chalice with wine “in His holy and venerable hands,” and “raising His eyes to Heaven, blessed, as He gave thanks” to the Almighty Father, the earthly gifts of bread and wine, that is, He as Man fervently prayed for that moment and for all future time that the elements be changed, a change which He as God together with the Father and the Holy Ghost would effect not only then, but as often as the words of Consecration would be pronounced as prescribed. The Church, therefore, imitates the Savior, when in the course of the sacrificial celebration up to the time of the Consecration, she repeatedly blesses the Eucharistic elements, and implores of God their acceptance, sanctification and transformation. The Offertory of the elements begins with the offering of the Host, wherein we may distinguish the act and the prayer of the Oblation.
The Act of Oblation
The priest takes the paten with the Host resting thereon and elevates it, that is, he offers it as a sacrificial gift to the Lord God “who dwells in the highest,” and he does this by holding it, as it were, before His eyes, and joining to it the supplication that the Lord would graciously accept it. The raising of the Host is intended to express the act of presentation. At the same time, the priest, as is conformable to the first words of the accompanying prayer, raises his eyes to the Crucifix on the altar and lowers them again almost immediately; this harmonizes with the rest of the oblation prayer, wherein he is mindful of his unworthiness and first of all offers it for his own sins.
After the conclusion of the prayer, the celebrant makes with the paten and Host the Sign of the Cross over the place on which the Host is to be placed.
This ceremony is intended to bring before the mind in a striking manner that the Cross and altar are holy places, where, though, indeed, after a different manner, one and the same Sacrifice was once and is now offered. The very same Body that hung upon the Cross is laid on the altar; as the Cross was once deemed worthy to bear the atoning Sacrifice for the world, so is now the altar.
The Oblation Prayer
“Accept, O holy Father, Almighty and eternal God, this unspotted Host, which I Thy unworthy servant offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for my innumerable sins, offenses, and negligences and for all here present; as also for all faithful Christians, both living and dead, that it may avail both me and them for salvation unto life everlasting. Amen.”
This prayer, which is as terse in composition as it is rich in thought, affords an answer to various questions that may be asked with regard to the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
Who is to receive and accept the Host? The oblation prayer states: “The holy Father, the Almighty, eternal God.” The Church in the Mass generally addresses herself to God the Father, in order to unite herself to the Savior, who on the altar offers Himself to His heavenly Father. God is our Father and through His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, He has conferred upon us the dignity as well as the goods and privileges of children of God. God is the infinitely “holy Father.” Thus does the Savior call Him in His sacrificial prayer as High-priest (Jn. 17:11). God, whom we may with confidence call our Father, is, moreover, the “Almighty, eternal God,” to whom, on account of His majesty and glory, the sacrifice of the most profound reverence and humble subjection is due; finally, He is the “living and the true God,” to whom alone sacrifice may and should be offered.
In the liturgy the Lord is often designated as the living and true God, in contradistinction to the inanimate and false gods, which are vain, powerless, and full of deception. The priest offers the Sacrifice to the “living and true God,” who created heaven and earth. The “living” God is life itself, the eternal and uncreated life, the source of all life; because from Him proceeds both natural and supernatural life, the life of grace and glory in the world of angels and of men. In God and from God all things live and move; out of Him there is but death. The “true” God is truth itself, the primordial and purest truth, the fountain-head of all truth. St. John writes: “We know that the Son of God is come, and has given us understanding that we may know the true God, and may be in His true Son. This (Christ) is the true Son of God and life eternal” (I Jn. 5:20-21).
What is offered to God the Father? An “unspotted Host.” By this expression the Eucharistic Sacrificial Body of Christ is to be understood, and in a secondary way the Eucharistic Sacrificial bread which will become His Body. That the term unspotted Host is not exclusively applied to the bread there present, but is to be referred mainly to the Body of the Lord soon to be present under the appearance of bread, is clearly evident from the context, as also from the comparison of this prayer with other oblation prayers, recited before the Consecration. Only the Body of Christ is that unspotted Host, which secures for us atonement of sin and salvation, for which supplication is made. (Panis non est immaculata illa hostia pro expiatione peccatorum oblata, sed solus Christus.—Antoine de Mouchy, De Sacrificio Missae).
Hence the priest already before (as later after) the Consecration calls the gift that he offers immaculate, unspotted; for Christ is the absolutely pure, holy and faultless Victim. This offering of the Body of Christ is, in a measure, to be distinguished from the offering which takes place after the Consecration, and the difference consists in this, that here at the same time the bread is still presented and dedicated to the Lord God with the desire that He would accept it for the purpose of Consecration, that is, that He would bring the oblation of the bread to its final termination by the Consecration.
Consequently, the expression unspotted Host can be understood in a secondary way of the sacrificial bread lying on the paten, which is wholly faultless in consequence of the care taken in the selection of the prescribed materials and in its preparation. The eye and heart of the priest are directed to two things while he raises on the paten the “unspotted Host,” imploring its favorable acceptance by the heavenly Father. These two things are, namely, the sacrificial Body of the Lord, soon to be present, and the sacrificial bread soon to be changed, which is present in reality.
Who performs the offering? The priest who acknowledges himself in the oblation prayer as an unworthy servant of God. The priest is God’s servant. The Lord who “raiseth up the needy from the earth, and lifteth up the poor from the dunghill, that He may place him with princes, with the princes of His people” (Ps. 112:7-8), the Lord hath called him into His sanctuary, that he may serve Him there all the days of his life. But it is especially at the altar that the priest is penetrated with a sense of his unworthiness to discharge this honorable and sublime service. The humblest office in the house of God is more exalted than the greatest worldly position. Now when the priest considers his misery and frailty, his ingratitude and sinfulness, how painfully should he not realize that he is quite unworthy to serve the Most High and, above all, in the most holy mystery of the altar?
For whom does the priest offer the Sacrifice? In the first place, for himself, then for all present and, finally, for all Christians. The celebrant, therefore, first offers the unspotted Host as a sacrifice of propitiation for his own sins, to obtain remission of all guilt and punishment; upon the altar there is, indeed, the very Body in which the Savior bore our sins on the Cross and atoned for them by His death (I Pet. 2:24). The priest knows full well that he is not holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, but that he is encompassed with infirmity; therefore, must he, in the first place, offer sacrifice for his own sins and afterward for those of his people (Heb. 7:26-27). He confesses his sins and faults and negligences to be “innumerable.” Though even his sins be but trivial, they are still many and in their number lurks the danger. See you not how the little drops swell the streams and tear up the earth? All the sins incident to the very living of this wretched life of ours, the priest would daily atone for and efface by the Sacrifice of the Altar.
The priest, in the second place, offers and prays expressly for all present, that is, for all those who are devoutly assisting at the divine service and who are uniting in the Holy Sacrifice; such persons, consequently, partake of a more special and abundant share in the fruits of the Sacrifice. Like the loving, solicitous Mother she is, the Church forgets none of her children; she, therefore, permits the priest to offer and pray for all the faithful who belong to the communion of saints and who still stand in need of assistance, consequently, for all her children, whether this present world yet retains them in the flesh or the world to come has already received them stripped of their mortal bodies, whether they still are combating on earth or suffering in purgatory.
For what purpose is the Sacrifice offered? That to all “it may avail unto eternal life,” that is, that the Sacrifice may apply to them the benefits and blessings of Redemption, not merely for time, but for all eternity. Salvation is the ideal and the sum of all the good things that Christ brought into the world, for we acquire possession of these goods when we obtain salvation. This salvation begins for us here below in receiving pardon, and is completed in the other world in beatitude. Now, on the altar there flows the universal and inexhaustible fountain of salvation, whence all spiritual gifts come to us. Hence the priest prays that the Eucharistic Sacrifice may be unto all so efficacious a means of salvation, that they may attain to glory of soul and body in eternity.
The Example of Our Lord
The Lord celebrated the Pasch of the New Testament beginning with an oblation, that is, by blessing the bread and the chalice, as also by giving thanks to God the Father. By these two actions we must not understand the uttering of the words of Consecration yet; for there is thereby designated another act entirely different from the Consecration, that is, a preparatory prayer of blessing and thanksgiving preceding the Consecration, the conclusion of which are the words of the Consecration. This pre-sanctification of the elements was wholly fitting, since their accidents remained after the Consecration, and, in like manner, the thanksgiving also was fitting before and during the performance of a mystery as equally glorious for God as it is beneficial for men.