EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth part of Fr. Longenecker’s series in which he explains the deeper significance of the elements of the Catholic Mass. Part one is “The Mass: Praising & Processing.” Part two is “The Mass: The Living Word.” Part three is “The Mass: Psalms & Hymns & Spiritual Songs.”
One of the most common stumbling blocks I encounter in Catholics’ ability to live their faith to the fullest is the inability to forgive. Not only do people carry grudges in their hearts, but they carry hearts full of worries, fears, and anxieties. The truth is, worries, bitterness, and fear are like a dark poison in our lives. We don’t need this poison, and God doesn’t want us to be burdened with it. The good news is that there is a simple and effective way to get rid of it.
The beauty of God’s plan is that in the ordinary practice of our Catholic faith, we have been given all the tools to be free of the worries, grudges, and fears that weigh us down. The key is in the word offering. At the heart of the Mass is an offering. In fact, the whole point of Mass from beginning to end is to focus on the offering that is being made, and the way to see this is to consider four offerings that take place within the Mass.
‘Let go and let God’
There is a little phrase we’ve all heard time and again, and the reason we’ve heard it so often is because we need to hear it often. The phrase is, “Let go and let God.” We need to learn how to offer up our guilt, our grudges, our fear, and our anxiety, and the structure of the Mass helps us to do so.
The first offering we make is in the Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass. There we join together and say the Confiteor:
I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask Blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
Too often we think of the Penitential Act simply as a recollection of the bad things we have done. But in the Penitential Act we can bring to God much more than that. We should also open up the hidden places of our heart and let go of the poison. We’re giving it all to God.
It is important therefore to realize how expansive this offering of our sins really is. Notice that we confess not only our dark deeds, but our thoughts and words. Notice that we confess not only what we’ve done, but what we’ve left undone. Finally, notice that we confess to our “brothers and sisters.” In the early Church, confession was public. Imagine standing up in front of the whole church to make your confession! Although we don’t confess publicly now, we do acknowledge that we are confessing not only to God but to our brothers and sisters. For every sin not only offends God, it also offends others.
The Penitential Act is therefore the first offering we make to God. We say, “Here it is, God. I’m giving it all to you — the joys and the sorrows, the hopes and the fears, the disappointments and the triumphs.” This first offering then prepares us to join in the second offering.
Gifts from God, gifts to God
The second offering is the offertory itself. The ushers take a collection, and the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward in a procession. It is easy to miss the meaning of this part of the Mass and to imagine that it is simply a practical matter of getting the collection taken so the church has enough money to keep the lights on.
However, every action in the liturgy has a deeper meaning. In the early Church, the faithful brought little loaves of bread and jugs of wine when they came to Mass. This literal offering of the people was then brought forward. Some of the bread and wine was consecrated at the altar. The rest was given to the poor. Today we do the same thing by bringing forward the bread and wine, but our offering for the poor and for the work of the Church is made financially.
As we make our financial offerings, we should also remember that this gift is not simply practical. Our tithe and gift should be a sacrifice — our level of giving should be so great that it hurts a little. In this way we make a real sacrifice and so join in the offering that will take place on the altar. If our offering is sacrificial, it helps break the hold of greed in our lives and helps to purify the troubles in our hearts and lives.
‘Lift up your hearts’
The actions and gestures of the Mass are deeply meaningful, and the more we understand them, the more we will connect with what God is doing through the Mass. When the gifts are brought forward in procession, the second offering is being made. The priest takes them and then prepares for the third offering.
The priest lifts the bread and says:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.
This prayer comes to the liturgy from the ancient Hebrew prayers of thanksgiving. The wording reminds us that the work of God is completed by “human hands.” In other words, we must cooperate with God to receive the fullness of his blessing. (The priest says a similar prayer for the wine.)
Then, as the priest prepares to consecrate the bread and wine, he says, “Lift up your hearts!” This, combined with the whole action of the priest at the altar, is a participation in the third offering, which gathers up and purifies all the others. Here the gifts of bread and wine are transformed to become the body and blood of Christ. After the consecration the priest lifts the bread and wine in another action of offering. Then when he says, “Behold the Lamb of God,” he again lifts the bread and wine, not only to show the people, but also as an action of offering or oblation to God.
It is through the priest’s words and his whole action of offering that the transformation takes place, and it is as we participate in this action of offering that our own offerings are complete. When we see the Mass as an offering and a sacrifice, we realize that all those grudges and guilty feelings, all those fears and worries, are lifted from us. We lift our hearts to the Lord, and with them we lift the burdens of our hearts.
A living sacrifice
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes:
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship (12:1).
This is the fourth and final sacrifice of the Mass. After we receive Christ’s body and blood, we return to our place and offer ourselves, our souls, and our bodies as a living sacrifice. In other words we say to God, “Here I am, Lord. Send me. Use me for your service in the world.”
This fourth and final offering seals what has gone before and completes the offering we have made to God earlier in the Mass. As we make the positive promise to serve him, it is amazing how the guilt, the grudges, and the fears disappear.
I am convinced that Catholic worship does what we believe it does. We say that we have been reconciled, ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven. When we participate fully in the Mass, this is exactly the work God does within our hearts and lives.
When we come to Mass therefore, it is important that we do not simply think of it as a Christian fellowship time. The Mass is not just a time to sing songs and hear an inspiring talk about being good citizens. It is not simply a time to think about how to make the world a better place or to learn how we might be better people.
Instead it is a meeting place of heaven and earth, where God, by the power of his grace, reaches down to touch us, and we, by making a full and complete offering, receive the power to be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ.