St. Gregory the Great: ‘The Mass will be a sacrifice for us to God, when we have made an offering of ourselves’
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
Bring an offering and enter His courts, worship the Lord in His temple.”— Psalm 96:8-9
What do you bring? To those who say, “I don’t get anything out of Mass,” Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen would answer, “It’s because you don’t bring anything to it.” This is of such importance that we must ask ourselves, “What is it that I should bring to the Mass?” The simple answer is to bring exactly what St. Joseph and Mary brought as their offering for the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple—”two turtledoves” (Luke 2:22-38).
A sacrificial offering. When we speak of the Mass, we correctly refer to it as the “holy sacrifice of the Mass.” For it is truly the sacrifice of Christ upon Calvary offered once in time in a bloody manner that is sacramentally made present on our altars in an unbloody manner. But as Christ is a “priest forever” (Psalm 110:4) and offers Himself eternally in the liturgy of heaven, He does not offer Himself apart from His Mystical Body. This is why at the Last Supper Jesus entrusted the Mass to the Church with the command, “Do this in memory of me,” so that His eternal offering might be that of the “whole Christ,” Head and Mystical Body. Our Mass is a participation in the heavenly liturgy, and since Christ is both Priest and Sacrifice—the One who offers and is offered—each of the baptized must also offer and be offered in every Mass “through Him, with Him, and in Him.”
Common priesthood of the faithful. When we are baptized, we are made members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and united to His priesthood. And since the sacrifice of the Mass “is an exercise of the priestly office of Christ,” we, too, must exercise our “common” priesthood in union with Him through the hands of the ordained priest. Otherwise, we are but spectators at Mass.
With the help of an icon. To better understand this great dignity of ours, let us reflect upon the mystery of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple that St. Luke details for us with the aid of an icon (synonymous with “image”). For what God commanded of the Israelites regarding the requirement for their participation in the Temple sacrifice is no less true for each of us regarding our participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass: “No one shall appear before [the Lord] empty-handed” (Exodus 23:15).
A thousand words of Scripture. In the eyes of the Church, icons and sacred Scripture are of equal and complementary dignity. For as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other” (n. 1160). The great blessing of icons is that they truly are “worth a thousand words” of Scripture and more. Icons enlarge our view of the written Word and make the mystery more visibly present and vivid to the eyes of our heart.
Within the Temple of God. The setting of this icon is within the Temple of Jerusalem, represented most prominently by the large canopy structure, the altar, and the “royal doors” to the sanctuary. Behind St. Joseph is the Temple entrance representing the threshold of every Catholic church. And behind Simeon at the far right, we have an image of the Father’s house, the goal of our life’s journey as God’s prodigal children. In the canopy structure that resembles the “baldacchino” of our cathedral, we have an image of the mystery of “the glory of God” that fills the desert tabernacle and the Temple of Jerusalem, and the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation (cf. Exodus 40:34; 2 Chronicles 7:1; Luke 1:35). This represents the reality that occurs when the priest asks, in the “epiclesis” of the Eucharistic Prayer, for God to “send down” His Spirit upon the gifts on the altar “so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Our offering and Christ’s. Though the icon appears to be a static snapshot in time, there is a dynamic and “priestly” action occurring, which reveals something of the great mystery of the holy sacrifice of the Mass and the exercise of our baptismal priesthood when we participate in it. It begins with the hands of St. Joseph, which seem to be in the motion of offering the two turtledoves that Mosaic Law permitted as a substitute for those too poor to afford a sacrificial lamb (Leviticus 12:8). Standing next to him is Anna, the prophetess. Though her eyes seem focused upon the offering in Joseph’s hands, she points to Mary from whose hands Simeon has received the infant Jesus. Between Mary and Simeon there is a sacred threshold, the “royal doors,” through which only the priest can pass through into the sanctuary. And it is Christ Jesus our “great high priest” who through His Passover sacrifice has “passed over” this divide and is forever the “minister of the sanctuary” (Hebrews 4:14; 8:2).
The figure of Simeon. In the elderly Simeon, who lovingly accepts the infant Jesus into His arms, we see two fatherly images—that of Abraham “the father of faith,” and that of God the Father, “the Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:9). The image of Abraham evokes the memory of the sacrifice of Isaac and his prophetic words, “God Himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8). And in every Mass, through the mystery of “a most glorious exchange,” the substitute sacrifice of two turtledoves representing the Church’s “oblation,” becomes the true sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God the Father: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
The figure of Anna. St. Luke tells us that Anna, the prophetess, “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 the promised Redeemer (Luke 2:37, 38). In the figure of Anna with the scroll of God’s Word in her hand, 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 and to “lift up [our] hearts.”
The measure of our participation. The Offertory is that crucial hinge in the Mass where we transition from the Liturgy of the Word—from the ambo—to the Liturgy of the Eucharist—the altar. And it is this decisive part of the Mass that truly determines the measure of our full and conscious participation.
Our two turtledoves. In the two turtledoves, we have an image of the only offering we can possibly make in the poverty of our fallen nature—the offering of our body and soul, representing all of our life. Of ourselves, we are unable to offer a sacrifice pleasing and acceptable to God. Though the worth of our offering may seem less than even the “two small coins worth a few cents” that the poor widow offered in the Temple (Mark 12:42), Jesus will give it an eternal value in His.
“A humbled, contrite heart.” During the offertory, then, as the gifts of bread and wine are brought up and the altar is prepared, it should be our greatest desire to make the offering of all our prayers and hopes, our joys and crosses, our labors and works of mercy, and all our struggles and sufferings of body and soul. We should offer our vocation in life and all the sacrifices it entails, and all our failures and poverty of soul with the same spirit that moved King David to pray, “My sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn” (Psalm 51:19). And then ask your angel to bring your offering to the altar and to place it upon the paten and within the chalice, and with hearts united and invited by the priest of the altar to join our offering and voices together we pray, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of His Name, for our good and the good of all His holy Church.”
Mary, an image of the Church. In Mary, the Church sees its image and its outstanding model of love, faith and hope, humility, persevering prayer, and liturgical worship. She who stood beside the altar of the cross and united her heart to Christ’s and His sacrifice, longs for us as our Mother to be of united heart with our offering. And Jesus, who refuses nothing His Mother asks, will receive our offering and join it to His. This is beautifully expressed in the “Prayer over the Offerings” of the Mass celebrating “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Image and Mother of the Church (II),” and “The Blessed Virgin Mary at the Foot of the Cross (II)”:
“Lord, transform these gifts, which we bring to you with joyful hearts, into the Sacrament of our salvation… for she is the shining model of true worship for your Church and of our duty to offer ourselves as a holy victim, pleasing in your eyes. Through Christ our Lord.”
“Lord, let our gifts be consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, so that the sacrifice of the altar, offered in union with the Virgin, may wipe away our sins and open for us the gates of heaven. Through Christ our Lord.”
The fifth century North African bishop, St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, highlights the importance of the offering we should make of ourselves in every Mass:
Christ “became our offering to the Father, and through Him our offering is now acceptable…. Through Him the sacrifice we now offer is holy, living, and acceptable to God. Indeed, if Christ had not sacrificed Himself for us, we could not offer any sacrifice. For it is in Him that our human nature becomes a redemptive offering” (From the Liturgy of the Hours).
The glorious exchange. What this icon so beautifully captures is the “glorious exchange” that occurs in every Mass when the two turtledoves of our offering become, through the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit during the consecration, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The Mass is truly a sacrifice that we must bring the offering of ourselves to if we are to be offered through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ. Only then can we offer God an acceptable and pleasing sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, atonement, and petition. And having participated in Christ’s sacrificial offering, we can rightly receive Him sacramentally, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in holy Communion with a joy that exceeds even Simeon’s.