“When I was a little girl,” the older Catholic woman said to me, “and I had any sort of complaint or problem, my Irish mother would listen sympathetically and then say in her brisk, no-nonsense way, ‘Well, offer it up, my dear.’”
As a convert to Catholicism, it was the first time I had heard that particular saying, but I knew immediately what the Irish mother meant. She meant that our sufferings and sorrows should be offered to the Lord as a share in his sufferings. That little saying was actually very profound theologically, and it connected perfectly with a Bible verse I had learned as a Protestant. In Colossians 1:24 St. Paul writes, “I complete in myself what remains of the sufferings of Christ and offer this on behalf of his body the church.”
Offering our sufferings, worries, concerns, and sorrows are one of the ways we make sense of what sometimes seems to be absurd and senseless suffering in our lives. When I was ordained as a priest, the meaning of “offer it up” became even more powerful and profound. I discovered a way that “offering it up” could bring real healing and peace for those who are troubled. Furthermore, this technique opened their spiritual lives to a new dimension where the Mass really began to matter.
Father, I can’t forgive
One of the most common cries from the heart that I hear as a priest is “Father, I want to forgive this person for what he has done, but I just can’t. The hurt just keeps going, and I can’t get it out of my mind.” People who have been wounded want to find forgiveness and peace, but often their mind goes back repeatedly to what has happened, and they still feel bitter toward the person who has hurt them.
In the Gospels Jesus’ foes were the Pharisees. They often got it wrong, but in one story they got it right. When Jesus was about to heal the paralyzed man, he promised forgiveness and the Pharisees were shocked. “Who does this man think he is?” they asked. “Doesn’t he know that only God can forgive sin?” They spoke the truth without knowing it. Jesus is God in human flesh. He therefore has the authority to forgive sins. Because Jesus is powerfully present at Mass, it is there that we can come to find the power to forgive those who have hurt us.
We say, “I can’t forgive that person!” That’s correct. In our own power we can’t forgive. But Jesus Christ can forgive, and with a very simple method we can learn how to access his power to forgive as we go to Mass each week.
Sacrifice or sacred meal?
In many parishes the central image for the Mass is that of the family meal. The people of God gather around the altar of God to celebrate his love for us. This image of the Mass is certainly one way of regarding the Eucharist, but we should not forget the older and more profound image of the Mass as a sacrifice.
In the ancient Jewish religion, the people offered sacrifices for many different reasons. They had thanksgiving sacrifices, sacrifices for sin, and sacrifices for redemption or forgiveness. The way to find forgiveness at Mass and to make Mass matter is to see the action of the Mass as a sacrifice. In a sin offering an innocent animal was taken to the altar, and the person’s sins were projected mentally onto the animal. Its death was a sign that the punishment due because of the sin had been paid. The animal sacrifices of the Jews pointed to the greater sacrifice that Jesus would make.
When Jesus died on the cross, he gathered up the sins of the whole world and took the blame. He said, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened” (Matthew 11:28). Elsewhere the New Testament says, “Cast all your cares on him for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). At Mass we bring the cross of Jesus Christ into the present moment, and its merits are applied to our needs. At Mass we meet Jesus, and he keeps his promise to take our burdens. This works in a very practical and down-to-earth way. To find forgiveness we need to go to Mass and “offer it up.” Seeing the Mass as a sacrifice, we offer to Christ that wound, dark memory, or seething resentment so it can be forgiven and forgotten.
Water under the bridge
We often say about a past grievance, “Forget about it; it’s water under the bridge.” For Catholics that little saying has even more meaning, because it is the water of our baptism that washes away the sins and brings forgiveness. Jesus is the bridge that opens the way to the other side where we find peace.
For Mass to matter in this way, we need to do certain ritualized actions and engage our imagination in prayer. First, when we go through the church door we should cross ourselves with holy water. Take time to do this—don’t just give yourself a hurried splash. This is a reminder that the water of baptism has washed us clean and given us the power to find forgiveness. Next, before we take our seat, we should stop and genuflect thoughtfully, recognizing the presence of Christ and gazing for a moment at the crucifix at the front of church. Then, once we are in our seat, we should pray, asking God to help us find forgiveness and make the intention that this Mass will be for the person who has wounded us. Ask him for a release from any bitterness and resentment we still feel.
As the Mass continues, whenever the priest or people make an action of sacrifice, bring that person who has wounded you to mind and offer him or her up. When the gifts are brought forward to the altar, envision that person being brought to the altar. When the priest lifts up the bread and wine, envision that person being lifted up to heaven. When the priest says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” see Jesus taking away the sin that is troubling you, forgiving the person who wounded you, and the healing the memory of the wound you cannot forgive. Then, as you receive Communion, receive it as a sign and seal of the forgiveness you have been granted.
The most wonderful thing about our Catholic faith is that it works. The things we say we believe really do happen at Mass. Jesus is there in the fullest and most powerful way, and he is there to do today what he did when he was on earth: to teach, heal, forgive, and take authority over evil.
Mass is not simply a family meal or a fellowship time. Nor is it simply one hour a week when we hear a pep talk from the priest, sing a few hymns, and decide to be better people. Instead Christ the Lord is present to his Church, bringing the forgiveness and reconciliation that only he can provide.
All we need to do is cooperate with that grace. If we come to Mass with faith and engage with what is happening with our minds, imaginations, heart, and emotions, then Mass will matter more and more. Once we have been healed of the wounds and sins that trouble us, new ways of making Mass matter will open up for us.
Before long we will find that “offering it up” at Mass becomes a way of praying not only for our own forgiveness, but for the forgiveness and peace of others. We’ll soon be able to “offer up” the needs and longings of our friends and family, the struggles of our community, and the turmoil of our troubled world.
Mass will become the time and place that is most important for us because we have learned, with the priest, to offer up the whole world to Christ’s healing and reconciling love. Finally, this is what it means when the Church says that the laity should “participate fully” in the Mass. It does not mean that every person needs a job to do. Instead every Catholic should participate with his or her whole body, mind, and spirit. Every thought, memory, intention, and decision needs to be brought to God and offered up in this way.
When we live this way, we will find that the Mass has become the center point of our week. It becomes the beating heart of our existence and the wellspring of the abundant and eternal life we have been promised.