Before reading this chapter, ask yourself/share with friends: What does this part of the Mass mean to me? Do I pay sufficient attention so that I can absorb the richness of the spirituality in the prayers?
Preparation of the Gifts
The second major part of the Mass begins with the preparation of the gifts that are to be presented to the Father. This is sometimes wrongly called the offertory. The gifts, bread and wine, are brought to the altar in procession preferably accompanied by song. It’s best if all who receive communion take bread and wine presented during the Mass at which they are present, so all the breads and all the wine should be a part of the procession. Taking hosts from the tabernacle should be avoided.
The gifts of bread and wine are brought from the far end of the church through the assembly to indicate these are gifts from the people. Most importantly, this indicates the people are making a gift of themselves to be transformed with the bread and wine. This is a matter that is not at all understood by the people and perhaps the liturgy needs to be modified to make it more obvious that the people are making a gift of themselves just as Christ gifted himself to the Father. Pope Benedict XVI takes this idea even further.
This humble and simple gesture is actually very significant: in the bread and wine that we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 47, 2007)
This observation has a cosmic ring to it which I will develop further in Chapter 18: Eucharist and the Cosmos.
The collection is often taken up at the same time and brought to the altar. This money is presented to assist the poor, to provide upkeep for the local clergy and pay for all the infrastructure of the parish. The money that people take from their pockets and purses can be seen as a symbol of themselves, though I doubt that this enters the consciousness of many.
The bringing of gifts to the assembly – for the sake of the poor, for the use of the community, and for the sacramental table – is an important ritual and symbolic part of Christian gathering. (David N. Power, Eucharistic Justice in Theological Studies, December 2006, Vol. 67, No.4, p.866)
The priest receives the bread and wine and places them on the altar. A little water is added to the wine with the prayer:
By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
The water can be seen to symbolise the human nature of Jesus which is united in a mysterious way to his divine nature. The water may also symbolise ourselves who ardently desire to be united with Jesus both in his humanity and in his divinity. The prayer recognises that there is something of the divine as well as the human in each of us.
The spirituality of the Eucharist increases our awareness of the divine within our frail humanity.
Bread & Wine (Patrick Negri, 2003)
The Work of Human Hands
The presider presents the bread and the wine to the Father by elevating them a little above the altar with prayers to accompany these gestures. Both prayers begin, ‘Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation’, a brief prayer of praise taken from the Jewish tradition.
The prayer for the bread says
Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.
The prayer for the wine says
Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.
Both prayers recognise that the gifts have come to us through material grown in the earth and then processed by human hands. The earth produces all the food that we eat and has done so for humans since we first evolved, perhaps 200,000 years ago. Prior to that, the planet sustained the life of every creature that has ever lived over millions of years from the tiniest bacteria to the mightiest dinosaurs and whales.
The prayers also pay tribute to our human civilization which has learned over thousands of years how to cultivate wheat and grapes to produce better crops and then to process these into high quality products. Consider the way farmers have tried all kinds of methods of growing wheat and grapes; all the different varieties, all the different ways of harvesting and storing; and the actual processing of the wheat into bread and grapes into wine. These skills are gifts from God and it’s fitting that we offer them back to God in the Eucharist.
This close link between the Eucharist and the land motivates us to do all we can to preserve the fruitfulness of the earth which is now under serious threat due to global warming, water shortage, pollution and salinity. Eucharistic spirituality leads to greater respect for all God’s creation and motivates us towards greater ecological sensitivity.
‘The work of human hands’ evokes thoughts of the billions of men and women who labour day after day to earn an upkeep for their families. We remember those who work on the land producing all the food and drink we need and those who work in factories, offices, schools and mines.
Human hands and human minds have given us the wonders of fine art from the likes of Michelangelo and Beethoven. Doctors, surgeons and nurses have used their hands to heal the sick and the injured. We can reflect on all these achievements and give thanks to God at this point in the Eucharist.
Offer Yourself to be Transformed
Both the prayer for the bread and the prayer for the wine look forward to the transformation of these gifts into our spiritual food and drink. ‘Transformation’ is one of the key words for the Eucharist and has received a lot of attention in recent times. The bread and wine now being presented to the Father will be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. But that’s not the only transformation that should take place in this wonderful mystery. We are to be transformed along with the bread and wine.
I will deal with this at some length in Chapter 12: Eucharist as Transformation. I will just say here it’s a very good practice to offer yourself to be transformed together with the bread and wine. In your imagination you knead into the bread any parts of your physical body that require healing. You pour into the chalice your emotional and spiritual difficulties with the firm conviction these will be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This surrendering of ourselves with the bread and wine is a very important element in our spirituality. It contributes hugely to our active participation in the Eucharist by making us more personally involved.
Prayer over the Gifts
After the bread and wine are presented to the Father, there is a prayer over these gifts. This prayer is variable like the Opening Prayer and the Prayer after Communion. These prayers may ask the Lord ‘to purify us in mind and heart and make us always eager to serve you’ or ‘help us grow in holiness and faith’ or ‘bring us closer to eternal salvation’. There is not much point in attending the Eucharist unless we are prepared to change, to grow in holiness, to become more mature people, to be more loving, to become more like Christ our leader. It’s good to listen carefully to these prayers and make them our own with a sincere ‘Amen’: ‘So be it’.
Sometimes the prayer refers to ‘a holy exchange of gifts’ as in the prayer for the twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B which says
Lord, accept our sacrifice as a holy exchange of gifts. By offering what you have given us may we receive the gift of yourself.
There’s a two way process going on here. Everything we possess ultimately comes from God: our material possessions, our bodies, our health and our skills. These are gifts from God, but we offer them back to God in recognition that they come from him.
Eucharistic Prayer III confirms this thought: ‘May he (Christ) make us an everlasting gift to you.’ The spirituality of the Eucharist challenges us to ‘gift’ ourselves to God.