I remember during my years growing up in our small-town parish that, when our family was scheduled to bring up the gifts during the Offertory at Mass, it was a big deal. My mom would make sure we all wore coordinated Sunday-best clothes, and we had to arrive at our parish early on these special days. Then, we had to make what seemed like such a long walk all the way down the main aisle of the Church to give the priest the bread and wine to be offered at the Eucharistic prayer. I often thought, “Why is this such a big deal?” I was also an altar server on other Sundays, and I thought we could easily bring the bread and wine to the priest from the credence table like the other sacred items. All of this extra effort for the offertory with a special spot on the ministries schedule, a long procession, and dressing up a little extra made me think a lot about this interesting part of the Mass.
It was years later that I would finally connect the dots and come to understand the importance of this childhood curiosity. In 2011, the new translation of the Mass was being implemented, and there was a change in translation in a peculiar place. As a priest, I was now going to say at the conclusion of the offertory, “Pray brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father,” instead of just “our sacrifice”. This new translation more closely aligns with the Latin text and calls to mind that what just happened in the offertory is a significant sacrifice of the baptized gathered in the assembly, distinct from the sacrifice of Jesus about to be represented upon the altar through the prayers of the ordained priest.
Indeed, the offertory is important because it is a significant contribution to the sacrificial character of the Eucharist. The reform of the offertory after Vatican II allowed this important part of the Mass to have a greater prominence after years of decline. In the early Church, sacrificial references to the Eucharist are present in the Didachē, the writings of St. Clement of Rome, and—most explicitly regarding the offertory—St. Justin Martyr. After continued development of the offertory with prayers and processions in subsequent Church history, it saw a minimization during the medieval era. During the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II, it was Pope Paul VI himself who insisted upon giving the offertory a new and special prominence in the Eucharistic celebration when he offered some insight after the 1967 Synod of Bishops, “The offertory should be given a special prominence so that the faithful may exercise their special role as offerers.”
During the offertory procession and prayers at the altar, the faithful are not just observers of a sacrifice but agents of their own proper sacrifice as well. This is most fitting, as the Eucharist is a sacrament of the Incarnation of Jesus as he assumes our humanity in order to bestow on us his divinity in a “marvelous exchange.” While there is definitely a primacy of grace with God’s initiative coming first in this exchange, our presence and participation at the Eucharist is part of this sacred giving and receiving. God offers himself to us, and we offer our needs, gratitude, and burdens to him. This is one way that St. Paul understood the meaning of his own trials offered to God as he exclaims, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body” (Col 1:24).
As the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward in procession by the faithful and then slightly elevated upon the altar by the priest, we have a key opportunity to participate in the Eucharist by joining our individual spiritual sacrifices to Jesus through this ritual moment of our celebration. Perhaps the sufferings of others or our own have pierced our hearts during the week, or possibly we have particular intentions we have carried with us on this Sunday. It could be that, during our week, we became more aware of the many blessings of the Father that fill our lives, and this fills our hearts with gratitude. Whatever it may be, we all carry within ourselves many things we could potentially offer to the Lord during the offertory. As we watch the faithful chosen to carry the bread and wine in procession, or as we watch the priest lift up the paten or chalice at the offertory, we can consciously unite the sacrifices of our lives to the Eucharist as it is being celebrated. The specific role each person plays in the drama of life is now caught up in the one sacrifice of Jesus in the midst of each Eucharist celebrated throughout the entire world, whether in parish churches, chapels, cathedrals, monasteries, or other sacred places. It is as if we are mystically pressing the wounds of our lives against the glorified wounds of our risen Savior, fully present in each Eucharistic celebration, to experience healing and peace with our whole being—body and soul—in union with Jesus.
So, yes, it was fitting that the offertory was a big deal in my hometown parish church many years ago. It wasn’t just an embellished way to get the bread and wine in the hands of the priest, but it was also a significant reminder of an important way all the baptized participate at Mass as unique offerers, expressing our own friendship and exchange with Jesus in his supreme offering for us. May an increased awareness of the significance of the offertory increase our own participation and communion in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.