He dwells among us: Holy exchange of gifts

As God gathers us to Himself in holy sacrifice, what do we bring to Mass?

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“That my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” –Luke 2:19

Trying to find the ideal gift to give a loved one or a friend can be very difficult and even stressful. But when we find that perfect gift for someone, there is a special joy we experience in the surprised joy of the person who receives our gift. Now imagine if in giving our gift we were to receive an even greater gift in return from the person who received ours — our joy and theirs would be that of both giving and receiving!

Such should be our joy and that of Christ’s in the beautiful and holy exchange of gifts in every Mass. For in the gift of the Eucharist, Jesus makes us sharers in God’s own life! “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb!”

Does the Mass change your life? Does it fill you with a peace and joy that the world cannot give? Sadly, for far too many Catholics this is not the case. And I truly believe it is because in large part we have lost the true meaning of the offertory. For if the Mass is a holy exchange of gifts, the decisive moment that determines this exchange is the offertory (the presentation of the gifts, preparation of the altar, and prayers over the offerings). We must bring the offering of our very self in every Mass if we are to receive the gift of gifts in exchange.

Do we “attend” Mass or do we “assist” at Mass? Are we spectators or participants? To assist at Mass is not only to “pray the Mass,” but to be offered — “Through him, and with him, and in him….” And the offertory is that pivotal point.

Unfortunately, as one Catholic lamented, the offertory seems to be simply an “intermission” where we pause to sing and wait for the collection basket to come around, and for the gifts to be brought up to the altar. But if we see it that way, then in reality we offer nothing.

So crucial is the offertory that the music should be more instrumental and subdued, and proper time given to sacred silence, so that we might more prayerfully prepare the total and intimate gift of our life, with all its struggles and challenges, so as to offer it with the bread upon the paten and the wine within the chalice on the altar.

The offertory is that crucial part of the Mass where we transition from the Liturgy of the Word — from the ambo — to the Liturgy of the Eucharist — to the altar. And it is the Introductory Rites and the Liturgy of the Word that help us to better prepare our offering. As St. Gregory the Great reminds us, “The Mass will be a sacrifice for us to God, when we have made an offering of ourselves.”

In the Penitential Act and Kyrie, we confess our sinfulness and ask for forgiveness and reconciliation, not only from God, but from the people of God as well. For every sin, no matter how personal, is nonetheless a social sin that harms the Body of Christ as well. Jesus tells us, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). And so we do in every Mass. Only sacramental confession, though, can wash us of serious sin — mortal sin.

In the Gloria that follows, we rejoice with all the angels and saints in the God who saves us from our sin. In it we are reminded of the four purposes of assisting at Mass: to adore the God of our salvation, to offer thanksgiving and praise, to seek atonement for our sins, and to petition the Lord to receive our prayer.

The Introductory Rites conclude with the “Collect,” the collective prayer of the faithful offered by the priest, wherein we pray for the grace to receive more fully the treasures of the mysteries of our faith. We have thus been prepared for the Liturgy of the Word, that we might more keenly listen and make fruitful within our heart the “Good News” of the Lord.

Enriched by the Liturgy of the Word, we are then better able to renew the faith of our baptism, professed in the Creed, and to respond to God, who has spoken to us in the Scriptures. And in the prayer of the faithful that concludes the Liturgy of the Word, we petition for the needs of the Church, the world, our community and civic leaders, and other needs.

All of this has served to prepare us for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which begins with the offertory. Just as at the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, St. Joseph brought the offering of the poor — two turtledoves — as prescribed by the law, so, too, we now bring our poor offering of body and soul — all that we are — to the altar. All our joys and sorrows, all our prayers and sufferings, our vocation as a husband or wife, father or mother, all our struggles and triumphs — in a word, all that we bring forward with the gifts. And through the priest who acknowledges the goodness of the Lord who has blessed us with all that we now offer, he bids us, “Pray brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.”

At the consecration, the gifts we have offered, by a miraculous and holy exchange, are transformed (transubstantiated) into the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! The gift that we offered during the offertory is now offered up to God in union with Christ’s sacrifice. We began by offering our self with and through the gifts of bread and wine, and now we offer ourselves through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ. Every grace we receive with an open heart serves to transform us more and more into the image of Christ, but holy Communion even more so. Only our selfishness, and the withholding of the total gift of our self to Christ, can prevent that transformation.

The words Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman by the well, “If you knew the gift of God” (John 4:10), are words He speaks to us before every Mass. And to receive this gift of God, we need to bring our gift to the altar.

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