The Rite Questions: Liturgical Significance of One’s Offering
Q: Is there any liturgical significance to placing one’s offering in the basket as opposed to opting for a regular, automatic withdrawal from a bank account?
A: Like nearly all liturgical elements, the Preparation of the Gifts or offertory is rich in significance. The liturgy’s “sacramental principle” has inward and otherwise undetectable realities made manifest through sensible signs and symbols. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) directs, “Even though the faithful no longer bring from their own possessions the bread and wine intended for the liturgy as was once the case, nevertheless the rite of carrying up the offerings still keeps its spiritual efficacy and significance” (73).
The question is, first, what does the Preparation of the Gifts mean, and, second, what is the most suitable way to signify, symbolize, or sacramentalize this unseen reality?
While there is certainly a practical reason for the details of the preparatory rites—bread and wine, vessels and cloths need to be arranged—there is also a spiritual, yet no less real, meaning to the preparation of the altar and gifts.
The gifts that are brought forward—bread, wine, and even monetary offerings—represent the heart of those offering the gifts. The GIRM describes the oblation, the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in these insightful terms: “in this very memorial, the Church, in particular that gathered here and now, offers the unblemished sacrificial Victim in the Holy Spirit to the Father. The Church’s intention, indeed, is that the faithful not only offer this unblemished sacrificial Victim but also learn to offer their very selves, and so day by day to be brought, through the mediation of Christ, into unity with God and with each other, so that God may at last be all in all” (GIRM 79).
The Book of Daniel’s story of the three young men in the fiery furnace illustrates well the heart’s movement at this point in the Mass. Having been thrown by King Nebuchadnezzar in the white-hot flames, Azariah offers this prayer: “For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins. We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were burnt offerings of rams and bulls, or tens of thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today and find favor before you; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame. And now we follow you with our whole heart” (3:37-41).
In other words, the only gifts the three young men had to offer to God was their hearts! God hears their prayer, sending his angel to drive out the furnace’s flames, “as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it. The fire in no way touched them or caused them pain or harm” (Daniel 3:50).
The Preparation of the Gifts signifies our own offering hearts. The priest himself will even pray the words of Azariah after their preparation: “With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day by pleasing to you, Lord God.” He will then command us to pray that his sacrifice and ours “may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.”
If the preparation of ourselves to offer our hearts to God is at the “heart” of the Preparation of the Altar and Gifts, then we can ask—and be in a better position to answer—what are the best means to signify this liturgical action.
Is there any liturgical or spiritual significance to giving via regular automatic withdrawals, scan-able barcodes or QR (“Quick Response”) codes, or the old-fashioned basket? Any method can be used mindlessly—or, as it were, heartlessly—just as each can be used as a true sacramental means to bring forward our whole selves.
These three ways of giving are all legitimate variations, as long as they help symbolize the movement of the heart to the altar and, along with Christ, to the Father in the Holy Spirit.