This reflection is based upon the readings for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year A: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Psalm 119; Romans 8:28-30; and Matthew 13:44-52.
The Gospel of Matthew continues the series of parables that we have been listening to these past few weeks with parables about the treasures that one finds buried in a field and is willing to trade everything to obtain. For the Church, the greatest treasure that it knows of is Christ and the eternal life that He has won for us through His life, death and resurrection. The Christian is to have so much confidence in Christ, and His victory over death, that we are to be willing to give everything to obtain that salvation. However, because it is often difficult to remember that Christ has won salvation for us through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus has commanded us to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday “in remembrance” of Him so that we may be strengthened to live our faith with the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
In this reflection, I will conclude the three-part series on the Mass by writing about the high point of the celebration of Mass, the Eucharistic Liturgy and the Dismissal Rites, which send us out into the world to bring to others the same Christ whom we have received in the Eucharist at Mass. Let’s start with the Eucharistic Liturgy.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist:
i. The Offertory and the Preparation of the Gifts:
We left off last time with the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word as the Prayers of the Faithful came to an end. The Eucharistic Liturgy begins with the Offertory and the Preparation of the Gifts. In the early Church, the person offering the Mass intention would provide the bread and wine for the Mass. Today, the collection is taken up to provide for the needs of the Church. This is needed to pay the staff that cares for the Church, the hydro, gas, taxes, insurance and many of the same costs that people have in their homes. Although it is a very unpopular way to participate in the Mass, helping your parish pay its expenses is a real obligation for the members of the community. This collection to support the Church is brought up with the bread and wine as a sign of what we hope to offer to God from the many blessings that He has given us. Such an offering is not intended to be the token five-dollar bill that so many give, but a real sign of our offering something back to God from the blessings that He has given us. A tangible and real sign of our thanks.
As the bread and wine are brought forward, they are offered to God with a prayer that recognizes God as the giver of all the gifts that we have received. The prayer said by the priest follows the form of blessing spoken in ancient Jewish rites, as it proclaims: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received this bread, this wine…” As the gifts are offered we are all invited to present the troubles and worries of our lives to the Lord that they may be transformed by the Body and Blood of Christ coming to us. Often this part is said silently during the Offertory Hymn. After the gifts are offered the priest bows and prays that the gifts that are offered may be accepted by God for the community. The gifts may be incensed at this time. The priest then washes his hands and prays that he will be worthy to offer the sacrifice. Once he has done that, he invites the entire community to pray that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father. After the community responds: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” What is offered by the priest, is for the whole community. The priest then concludes the offertory with the prayer over the gifts which asks God to accept the offering of the community. That offering is the bread and wine which will be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ for the spiritual nourishment of the community gathered.
ii. The Eucharistic Prayer:
a. The Preface:
The Eucharistic Prayer is the heart of the celebration. It recounts Christ’s actions and words that He spoke when He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper and commanded that we celebrate it in memory of Him. The Eucharistic Prayer begins with a Preface that sets the tone for the celebration. At a Jewish ritual meal, prayers known as the Kiddush Prayers are said to indicate the nature of the celebration. So too, the Preface sets the tone for the Eucharistic celebration. There are special Prefaces for different Solemnities, Sundays, Saints celebrations and occasions, like weddings and funerals. The Preface speaks about why we are gathering for a specific Sunday or event. It begins with the dialogue that we are all familiar with, in which we express the reason that the sacrifice is being offered. This dialogue begins with “The Lord be with you,” and continues on to express the reason for our “thanksgiving” in the celebration of the Eucharist.
b. The Sanctus:
The transition from the Preface into the text of the Eucharistic Prayer takes place through the signing of the Sanctus. This text which is often sung, proclaims the holiness of God and reminds us that at the Eucharist, we are coming into God’s presence. It is made up of two texts from Scripture. The first from Isaiah 6:3 when Isaiah had a vision of God in Heaven surrounded by the angels calling out: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty: the whole earth is full of His glory.” The second text is from Matthew 21:9 when the crowds welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They shouted, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” It anticipates the arrival of Christ on the altar in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. This was added to the Roman Rite in about the late fifth century.
c. The Eucharistic Prayer Itself:
After the Sanctus, we kneel for the praying of the Eucharistic Prayer. This is offered by the priest to the Father on Chris’s behalf for the whole community. The priest acts for the whole community in persona Christi—in the person of Christ. We should all be attentive to the words of the Eucharistic prayer and quietly pray along as it is offered. There are a number of different Eucharistic Prayers, but there are four main ones that are offered most frequently. Today, I will use the Third Eucharistic Prayer as the model for this discussion.
iii. The Communion Rite
In the Communion Rite, we pray the Our Father, asking that we might do God’s will. It is for this purpose that Jesus gives us His Body and Blood: that we might live in “communion” with the Holy Trinity and do God’s will for each of us in our lives. As Jesus appeared to His disciples after His Resurrection, and wished them His peace, He now appears in our midst on the altar and invites us to know the peace that is to be found in knowing that He has destroyed death and will be with us through the adversities of life. As His death has forgiven our sins, we are also called to live in peace with our brothers and sisters and to forgive their sins. We are to live in the peace of Christ. Before approaching the altar, we kneel again to acknowledge that who we are about to receive, is the Lamb of God- Christ Himself—who has come into our world to forgive us our sins. We acknowledge that we are not worthy of this gift, but because of His Word, our souls are healed and made worthy.
The Communion Rite ends with the Prayer after Communion, offered by the celebrant on behalf of us all. It asks that tremendous gift that we have received will bear fruit in our lives. This concludes the Eucharistic Liturgy.
The Dismissal Rites:
As I conclude these reflections on the Eucharist, I understand that I have said much, and yet I have said very little. I propose to offer a series of talks this Fall on the liturgy on Thursday nights at St. Peter’s Church in Toronto to continue this effort. All of us must take very seriously the words that we have heard in the parables of the last few weeks. The Eucharist is a great gift, given by our generous God. We must prepare our hearts to receive, nurture this gift, and truly treasure what we receive in it as the greatest of all gifts.
May our celebration of the Eucharist, lead us to find that treasure which gives all meaning to our lives—Christ the Lord.
Fr. Michael McGourty is Pastor of St. Peter’s Church in downtown Toronto.