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The Liturgy of the Eucharist: The Preparation of the Gifts
The Liturgy of the Eucharist
At the Last Supper the Lord instituted the Paschal sacrifice and banquet and told his disciples to do it in memory of him. Through this the sacrifice of the Cross is continuously made present in the Church. The priest represents Christ the Lord and, like him, takes the bread and wine into his hands to say the same words as Our Lord so that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest does this in memory of Christ, just as the first disciples did following the Last Supper.
In ancient liturgies this part of Mass was called the “Mass of the Faithful”: the first part of Mass, the “Mass of the Catechumens” was as far as those preparing for baptism could go in their initiation. They heard God’s Word, joined their prayers to the Prayer of the Faithful, but weren’t ready to participate in the deepest portion of the Eucharistic mystery. Even today the passage from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist represents a change of gears: we’ve prepared, heard the Lord speak to us, and responded with faith, but now the Lord once again sacrifices himself for us. In this part of the liturgy the sacrifice he made on the Cross is made present for us, today, here and now.
If the emphasis in the first part of the liturgy was Word, faith, and response, the second part could be characterized as offering, sacrifice, and thanksgiving. Now the chair of the priest or bishop is no longer the focus, nor the ambo for the readings. The priest moves to the altar and remains there until after Communion: all attention is drawn to the sacrifice about to be made present on the altar, a sacrifice in which all are participating.
The Preparation of the Gifts
Our Lord took bread and wine, blessed them, and then distributed them to his disciples and told them to do the same in memory of him. Bringing the bread and wine and placing them on the altar is at the core of the Preparation of Gifts, and now it becomes a moment for the faithful to offer something of themselves to Our Lord, which is why it’s also been known as the Offertory and, even today, the hymn sung at this point of Mass is known as the Offertory hymn or chant.
The Presentation of the Gifts
In many celebrations of the Eucharist the faithful bring up the bread and wine to be used in Mass along with other gifts to serve the needs of the Church and of the poor. This hearkens back to when the faithful actually brought their own bread and wine for use in the Mass and brought it to the altar. This practice probably fell into disuse because it would make things somewhat chaotic today, and because it’s important, with so many varieties of bread and wine now available, to make sure the bread and wine used are suitable for worship.
Even though today the faithful aren’t those who directly prepare or buy the bread and wine that will become the Body and Blood of Christ, it is thanks to them that those offerings are possible. Typically on Sundays a collection is taken at this point that makes that bread and wine possible, and also gives the faithful an opportunity to contribute something to the Church and to those in need.
This moment of offering embraces both realities (providing for the Eucharist and providing for the needy), but the focus is coming forward with bread and wine for the transubstantiation into the Body and Blood of Christ during the Eucharistic Prayer. This is why the other offerings are received, but not treated the same way, since they’re for after the celebration of the Eucharist.
St. Augustine saw this procession as paralleling the procession up the aisles to receive Holy Communion. For him it was a “marvelous exchange” represented by the Incarnation: Christ takes our humanity to bestow on us his divinity (Enarr. In ps. 129,7). We make offerings that will become him, become divine, and will transform us as well if we receive him worthily. Those few faithful bringing up the gifts are not the only ones offering something: we all offer something, if not materially, spiritually, so that our offering may be transformed into something pleasing to Our Lord, beneficial to us, and beneficial to others. It’s a small token of appreciation for what the Lord is about to offer us once again on the altar and in Communion.