A study of the texts used in the new translation of the Roman Missal for the Preparation of the Gifts helps us to better appreciate this part of the Mass.
Although this part of the Mass had been called the “offertory,” that label is no longer applicable. Unfortunately, however, incorrect as it is, since the action of offering takes place during the Eucharistic Prayer and not here, it’s a term that is often still used, thereby creating some confusion. The action that is being ritualized here is the “taking” action of the four-fold Eucharistic actions of taking, blessing, breaking and giving, as the priest takes the offerings of bread and wine, prays over them, and then places them on the altar. The rubric is clear that the priest is to hold the bread and the chalice slightly raised above the altar; it is not to be a gesture of elevating the offerings high, nor even at eye-level, but rather only slightly above the altar, since the elements are not being offered to God, but are being prepared by being prayed over. It’s important for presiders to enact this ritual gesture accurately, according to the rubrics.
The two main prayers of this rite are both modeled on Jewish meal prayers called berakoth (singular, berakah). Notice the parallel structure of the prayers for each of the elements: “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. Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.”
Although the word “offer” appears in the prayers, it is not used because the liturgical action of the offering of the sacrifice of Christ is taking place. Rather, the gifts are being prayed over as bread and wine that here and now are destined to be transformed and shared. Hence, the bread will become for us the bread of life; the wine will become our spiritual drink.
If singing or other music is taking place, the prayers are recited silently by the priest. If, however, there is no singing or other music going on, the priest has the option of saying them aloud, although this is an option; it is still perfectly legitimate for him to pray these prayers quietly, i.e., not heard by the assembly. If they are prayed aloud, the assembly’s response of “Blessed be God forever” affirms the nature of these prayers as that of blessing and praise.
Insofar as the prayers refer to God as “Lord God of all creation,” they connect the Eucharist with all of God’s creation. The celebration of the Eucharist, as is the case with all sacraments, employs material realities to convey divine grace. Thus, the materiality of the bread and wine reminds us that God uses the things of this world to mediate His grace, and that all of created reality has the potential to be a vehicle for the divine. Remember, God created the world and everything in it as good. Notice too how the elements to be transformed are expressive of the relationship of the human and the divine: they are at the same time gifts of God and the result of human labor.
Next, the priest prays that “my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” The phrasing in no way refers to two sacrifices, because in fact there is only one. It does highlight, however, that everyone participates in the one sacrifice, and thus the non-ordained, by virtue of baptism, nonetheless participate in offering the sacrifice together along with the priest. Each member of the assembly participates according to his or her role, and there is to be no confusion between the ordained and non-ordained. At the same time, the people have a real role to play in offering the sacrifice together along with the priest.
The response of the people acknowledges that the sacrifice God is asked to accept is one that is for both “the praise and glory of His name,” and “for our good and the good of all His holy Church.” Here is acknowledged the “holy exchange” that is part of the spirituality of the Eucharist: what we offer is given back to us to be used for God’s glory and for the building up of the Church. The offerings we bring to God will be transformed and given back to us as something more than we could ever accomplish on our own. We join our offering (bread, wine and ourselves) to Christ’s offering (Himself), and our gifts of bread and wine are given back to us transformed, so that we might be transformed to be His presence in the world and build up the Kingdom of God.