"All things come of Thee, O Lord."
"And of Thine own have we given Thee."
At every Eucharist, the bread and wine to be consecrated is brought to the altar as part of what is called the Offertory. This action, sometimes overlooked in our anticipation of the Eucharistic Prayer and Communion itself, is not only essential to the liturgy itself but significant for the whole of Christian life.
At the Offertory, each of us shares in the offering not only of the holy gifts, but the whole of Creation to God. Our true priestly identity—a gift from Christ, the Great High Priest—is revealed. This is made particularly clear when incense is used in worship, where censing always speaks of a spiritual truth. At the Offertory, the first things censed are the gifts themselves. They will become for us Christ’s Body and Blood, the unique and promised point of contact and mutual indwelling spoken of by Our Lord. They are also signs of the holiness of all Creation…each stream, each rock, each forest, the skies and seas, each ecosystem. For us, nothing made by God is without at least an underlying or potential holiness. All Creation is being offered to God in each Eucharist by God’s people.
Next to be censed is the altar and the altar cross. Here we see illustrated the holiness of the altar—consecrated by the Bishop—as the appointed meeting place between God’s people and their Creator. By recalling the sacredness of this place, we are being reminded that the church is a temple of God, holy and precious in a world where holiness is largely absent, and where God is often rejected, ignored, and banished to the fringes. The altar cross is censed at this time, as well. In so doing, we honor the very instrument whereby God has restored life, holiness, and love to the world.
Finally, the People of God are censed as the last act before the Eucharist proceeds.* All of us, no matter what our function or role, are ministers of the precious Gospel of Christ into the world. This identity, this significance is being revealed and honored once more at this moment, the moment when we are prepared to offer the Great Thanksgiving in joy, wonder, and awe. During the season of Lent, there is a special opportunity to grow much deeper in the meaning of this last point.
When we leave the temple of God following the dismissal, we are not “released” from worship but renewed in our conscious identity as Christian…literally “little Christs” in Greek. When we make the sacred offering of the Eucharist, sharing in the fruits of Christ’s offering of himself for all humanity, we are meant to carry that out beyond the doors of the church building. To do anything less would be to make an idol of the liturgy, to block the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
We say we are liturgical Christians, and that for us the Eucharist is central: our own parish Mission Statement places the Eucharist at the heart of our sense of mission. But is this truly the case in our lives? Is the “world beyond the doors” the place of holy encounter we confess in word and deed through the liturgy? The question is of the essence for us today in an ever more secular world.
Lent is a season of deepening consciousness. To follow Christ as Lord and Savior means, in part, to believe that each moment, each encounter, is a holy encounter, a holy moment. The timelessness of the liturgy cannot be locked in the confines of Sunday morning. It means treating the Other in our life—be they strangers, family members, co-workers, our enemies, those in positions of authority over us, those who serve us, our intimate acquaintances, literally anyone—as one sent from God. When we come to live this way a bit more each year, we start to know what the power of our faith is: it is the Truth at “sets us free” to see another person as made in the Image of God and the world around us glowing with the Transfigured light of Christ. With this, the Eucharist really does become our direct participation in heaven, the Kingdom of God that is “already in us,” as Christ tells us.
I conclude with a prayer that continues to inspire and challenge me to live as I pray. This prayer—written in the nineteenth century by Philaret of Moscow—calls for an understanding of life as fully integrating our worship of God on Sunday with the daily life of the disciple. May you find it a gift to live “more nearly as we pray,” day by day, this Lent and beyond.
“Lord, give me the strength to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely on your holy will. Reveal your will to me every hour of the day. Bless my dealings with all people. Teach me to treat all people who come to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unexpected events, let me not forget that all are sent by you. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me the physical strength to bear the labors of this day. Direct my will, teach me to pray, and you yourself, pray in me. Amen.”
With prayers for a Holy Lent,
*It is customary to bow when being censed.