Saturday, 11 April 2009

A specifically lay character to participation in the Eucharistic celebration

This is intended to contribute to this discussion, mostly in the comments, at Fr Peter's blog, but would be too long to post as a comment there. It is a write up of a catechesis I used in 2006, as part of a series on participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy, during monthly Eucharistic Adoration in the parish.

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on the 2nd February prompts a reflection on the Presentation of the Gifts.

The offertory prayers of the Mass, which follow the procession to the altar with the bread and wine, are as follows:

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. 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.
[Benedictus es, Domine, Deus universi, quia de tua largitate accepimus panem, quem tibi offerimus, fructum terrae it operas manuum hominum: ex quo nobis fiet panis vitae.]

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.
[Benedictus es, Domine, Deus universi,quia de tua largitate accepimus vinum, quod tibi offerimus, fructum vitis it operis manuum hominum:ex quo nobis fiet potus spiritalis.]
A Jewish prayer of blessing used at the synagogue:

“Blessed be thou, Jahweh, our God, King of the universe, who formest light and createst darkness, who makes peace and createst all things: Who in mercy givest light to the earth and to them that dwell thereon and in his goodness renewest creation every day continually. How manifold are thy works, Jahweh. In wisdom hast thou made them all, the earth is full of thy possessions….

“With abounding love hast thou loved us, Jahweh our God … for the sake of our fathers who trusted in thee, and whom thou didst teach the statutes of life, be gracious also unto us… put it into our hearts to understand, and to discern, and to hear, and to learn, and to do all the words of instruction in thy Torah in love. And enlighten our eyes in thy commandments …”[1]
We can reflect more closely on the words of these prayers: “Which earth has given and human hands have made” …"fruit of the vine and work of human hands”.

The bread and wine that are carried in procession to the altar represent the whole of creation. The bread and wine are to become the Body and Blood of Christ, and already in the presentation of the gifts they are already treated as a sign of Christ’s presence[2]. Christ is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of all creation. He is the origin of all that we receive in creation and the destiny to which it is all intended. If we offer Jesus Christ to the Father - as we will in the Liturgy of the Eucharist - then we are offering all of creation to the Father.

The Latin text of these prayers expresses the sense that what we are offering as we bring the bread and wine to the altar is something that we have received: “from your abundance we receive this bread/wine”.

We now turn to the second part of each phrase: “which earth has given and human hands have made” … “fruit of the vine and work of human hands.” As well as offering something that we have in the first place “received”, we also offer something that we have “made”.

The presentation of the gifts is a point in the Liturgy where the character of the lay vocation is particularly present. It is the special vocation of lay people to make the world a better place by their engagement in secular affairs. This comes about through our every day activity, in our families, in our schools, at work, in all the ways in which we take part in social action. At the presentation of the gifts, when we offer the whole of creation represented in the bread and wine, we are offering a creation that we have in some way “made”. We are offering our attempts to make the world a better place.[3]

There is a strong sense in the offertory prayers of our “offering back” to the Father what we have “received”. In Christ, we offer back to the Father a creation that has been made new in the coming of Christ, and that we try to make new in our living of the Christian life. The offertory procession expresses a dynamic of first receiving from, and then offering back to the Father, the whole of creation in Christ.[4]

The presentation of the gifts is a richly Marian moment in the Liturgy. This is seen when we compare the feast of The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple to what is happening at the presentation of the gifts during Mass. Mary offers her first-born to the Lord, fulfilling Jewish custom; she offers Jesus to the Father. Jesus, the alpha and omega, the beginning and end of creation, is offered to the Father. Mary, who is “full of grace”, represents the highest achievement of creation and she stands at that point where creation is ready to receive its saviour and redeemer. She is the one who “receives” the saviour and redeemer on behalf of the whole of creation (annunciation/nativity) and who “offers” him back to the Father (the Presentation). This is exactly the dynamic of the offertory procession, and more so when we see Mary as the figure of the Church, “receiving” the saviour and redeemer and “offering” him back to the Father in the Eucharistic Liturgy.

The presentation of the gifts is a feminine moment because of the element of “receiving”. This “receptivity” is a profoundly feminine feature of the Church. In the offertory procession, the “feminine” Church (Bride) brings to the “masculine” priest (Christ the bridegroom) the gifts to be offered to the Father.

If we are trying to “live the word of scripture” each week, our experiences during the week in trying to live that word are offered in the gifts of bread and wine. We can hold them in prayer, along with any other things we have done during the week to live out our Christian faith.

We can always arrange for girls to bring up the bread and wine at the offertory procession to reflect the feminine and Marian character of this part of the Mass.

We can think carefully about our choice of offertory hymns, to either reflect the Marian character of this moment in the Mass or to reflect the dynamic of “receiving” and “offering back”:
“All I have I give you, ev’ry dream and wish are yours. Mother of Christ, Mother of mine, present them to my Lord.”

“Holy Virgin by God’s decree’ you were called eternally; that he could give his Son to our race. Mary, we praise you hail full of grace.”

[1] Extracts from a berakoth preceding the recitation of the schema in the synagogue. Louis Bouyer Eucharist pp.62-63.
[2] cf the prayer “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours …”
[3] If, in the Eucharist, we see the key element as being that of Jesus “handing himself over”, of giving himself “for us”, then the aspect of the handing of the gifts by the lay people to the priest also takes on a sense of representing our “handing over of ourselves” in love for others. It represents our “handing over of ourselves” in living out Eucharistic charity towards our neighbours in the world.
[4] This dynamic also reflects the two meanings of communion that we examined in the first catechesis - sharing in the life of God (receiving) and sharing in the gifts that we have all received from God (offering back). The Jewish berakoth quoted above also has this double dimension.

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