St. Gregory the Great: ‘The Mass will be a sacrifice for us to God when we have made an offering to ourselves’
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
“No one shall appear before [the Lord] empty-handed.”— Exodus 23:15
How wonderful it is after two long months to again open the doors of our churches for the public celebration of Mass.
While for some it is still prudent, for health concerns, to continue to watch Mass livestreamed and to make a spiritual Communion, we pray it will not be long before health concerns abate and remaining restrictions are lifted.
But no matter what, the one door that should always remain open is the door of our heart through which a most wondrous exchange takes place in every Mass.
What is it that defines our “active participation” in Mass and helps us to better “live our Mass” throughout the week? A beautiful answer can be found in an icon (synonymous with image) of the “Presentation of the Lord” that I was introduced to.
Did you know that in the eyes of the Church, icons and Sacred Scripture are of equal and complementary dignity? This is because, as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words.
Image and word illuminate each other” (n. 1160). One advantage, then, that icons bring to our reflections upon the sacred truths of our faith is that they truly are worth a thousand words. Icons help to enlarge our view of the written Word and to make the mystery more visible to the eyes of our heart.
With this in mind, we discover in this particular icon of St. Luke’s account of the “Presentation of the Lord” (2:22-38), a beautiful visual explanation of the wondrous exchange that takes place in every Mass.
The setting of this icon is within the temple, represented most prominently by the canopy structure (resembling our Cathedral’s baldacchino) above the altar and the “Royal Doors” (through which the priest enters the sanctuary) just to the left of Simeon. Though seemingly a static image, there is a dynamic action within this icon that follows the sacred motion of the Mass.
We see this sacred motion in the outstretched hands of St. Joseph with his offering of two turtledoves, which Mosaic Law permitted as a substitute for those too poor to afford a sacrificial lamb. Standing next to him is Anna, the prophetess. Though her eyes seem focused upon the offering in Joseph’s hands, she points to Mary and to the true offering that Simeon has received from her—Christ Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
In St. Joseph, we see the image of each one of us who enter the temple of the Church with the offering of the poor—with two turtledoves representing the total offering of our life—our body and soul. But despite the poverty of our fallen state, our offering should still represent the totality of our life as a sacrifice to God. And as our special intercessor in every Mass, we should especially ask St. Joseph to assist us in making this total gift of our life—all that we are, all that we have, all our worries and hopes, our joys and sufferings.
St. Luke tells us that Anna, who in the icon holds a scroll of Scripture announcing the mystery of the Word Incarnate, “never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” Additionally, she “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child” to all longing for their Redeemer (Luke 2:37, 38).
In Anna, we have an image of the Introductory Rite of the Mass and its Penitential Act, as well as the Liturgy of the Word, and Profession of Faith. It is this part of the Mass that serves to further prepare, encourage, and inspire us to make the total offering of our heart during the offertory at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The offertory is that crucial hinge of the Mass where we transition from the Liturgy of the Word—from the ambo—to the Liturgy of the Eucharist—the altar. It is that time of the Mass when we present our offering, symbolized in the bread and wine that are brought to the altar.
Insufficient as our offering is, something incredible will occur during the consecration.
The figure of Mary, who is an image of the Church, is central to this moment of the Mass. For what the Church receives from its members in the offertory (two turtledoves) will become by the action (overshadowing) of the Holy Spirit in the consecration, Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God. And in the figure of the elder Simeon, who rejoices in receiving the infant Jesus, we have an image of God the Father, who sees in this “oblation” of His Church “the sacrificial Victim whose death [He] willed to reconcile us to [Himself] (from Eucharistic Prayer III).
Too often Catholics forget this incredibly important part of the Mass and miss that it is a sacrificial offering to God the Father before it is a communion.
Before receiving Jesus in holy Communion, we first offer Him to the Father as an offering of atonement, as well as of adoration and thanksgiving. This is when we hear the beautiful words of the Doxology—“Through Him, with Him, and in Him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever.”
It is at this time when, as Father Joseph Putz describes in his book, My Mass, that “the gates of heaven are thrown open, our gifts are transformed into the heavenly Victim, and our offering goes up to God in union with our Savior’s sacrifice.”
Could anything be more glorious? If we come before the Lord “empty- handed” at Mass, without the intention of making a total offering of our self to God “through Christ, in Christ, and with Christ,” we are but spectators and our Communion with Christ will be without its fruitfulness.
For to the degree we offer our self to Christ is the degree with which He can communicate Himself to us.
The offertory of the Mass, then, is what helps to widen the door of our heart for this most marvelous exchange where we offer our body and blood, our very life, and we receive in turn the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, “the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation.” Only then can we “live our Mass” as a series of offertories throughout our day and week and give the gift of Christ to all we encounter.