We don’t make a big distinction in the bulletin about the two major parts of the worship service, but you may notice that the Prayer Book refers to the first part of the Eucharist service as The Word of God. It includes the Lessons, the Nicene Creed, the Prayers of the People, and the Confession. The second part of the service is called The Holy Communion which, not surprisingly, encompasses all the prayers and actions of holy communion.
There’s a middle part, however… a transition between the two parts. It’s called the Offertory, but it doesn’t get a lot of attention in print. In fact, it’s a rubric, a general instruction: The Celebrant may begin the Offertory with one of the sentences on page 376, or with some other sentence of Scripture. During the Offertory, a hymn, psalm, or anthem may be sung. Representatives of the congregation bring the people’s offerings of bread and wine, and money or other gifts, to the deacon or celebrant. The people stand while the offerings are presented and placed on the Altar.
But the presentation of the gifts – the Offertory – assumed great importance in the early church. St. Cyprian, martyred in Africa in 258, chided those who came to Mass and received the Eucharist but made no offering of their own: “You are wealthy and rich, and do you think that you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, not at all considering the offering? Who comes to the Lord’s Supper without a sacrifice, and yet takes part of the sacrifice which the poor man has offered? Consider in the Gospel the widow…”
St. Augustine was impressed by a fifth-century procession of gifts in Rome in which the faithful brought, from their own homes, things from their kitchen tables. After handling all the gifts, no wonder the priest had to wash his hands! Augustine called this an “admirable exchange” – for their gifts, God gave back Jesus. There is even a prayer over the gifts that uses Augustine’s language: “Lord, receive our gifts in this wonderful exchange: from all you have given us, we bring you these gifts, and in return, you give us yourself.”
The Offertory includes the bread and wine: unleavened bread (or wafers) made only of pure wheat flour and water, and wine only from grapes. Why? Because that’s what Jesus used. He told us to “do this” in his memory, and if “this” changes too much, we’re no longer following his command.
The Offertory also includes the collection of money. Yup, it’s in the Bible. From the very beginning, Christians have brought, along with the bread and wine for the Eucharist, gifts to share with those in need. Tithing and almsgiving are acts of worship and express not only our desire to help those in need but also our generosity to God. In the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (9:10-15)
Contrast that with a joke that makes its way around every few years: A $20 bill and a $1 bill are next to each other in a man’s wallet. The $20 bill says, “Isn’t life great! I get to go to the best places: to movies and nice restaurants and the mall.” The $1 bill replies, “Well, I go to church.”
Bread. Wine. Money. We lay upon the altar not only creation’s goods, but ours, too. The gifts are not mere wheat and grapes and cash, but all three are the work of human hands. Symbolically, that’s us on the altar, offering ourselves to God. In the eucharistic prayer, we ask God to send the Holy Spirit to change the gifts and change us as well.
Now, on the heels of this little treatise on the Offertory, comes a change in the liturgy (at 10:30, for now) that I have wanted to do for some time. There isn’t anything wrong with the way we have done the Offertory, but we have different things going on at the same time: we bring up the bread and wine, trade them for the alms basins, then bring up the alms basins, all while the table is being set and the choir is singing. The Offertory deserves its space and the preparation of the table deserves its own space. Soooo….
Starting today, we will be making the offering of our gifts while the choir sings an anthem (or, on some occasions, as music plays). There will be no activity up front at the altar. When the alms basins and the elements are brought forward, I will receive them (and this Sunday includes the Capital Campaign Pledge Cards dedication!) and then we will set the table as usual. You may be seated during this time. Use it as a time of prayer or watch what is taking place at the altar. These are holy times for holy acts!