After being “sent out” with the homily, creed, and universal prayer, bringing the Liturgy of the Word to a close, the Mass begins again (in a sense) with the Liturgy of the Word. And just as the congregation was gathered in and prepared, given a gift, and sent out to share that gift in the Liturgy of the Word, so, too, will it be with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
In many ways the most practical part of the Mass—the altar needs to be set in order for the sacrifice to take place—many forget that every action in the mass is filled with symbolic meaning that help the congregation enter more deeply into the mystery. Sure, the practical reality is that we need to get the gifts from point A to point B, but do we ever stop to wonder why? Do we stop to ask how it should be done? Too often, I see parishes diminish the preparation of the gifts to a merely practical act and the richness of the gesture is lost. Here are a few “pet peeves” that I notice.
The collection is not brought to the altar, or if it is, it is brought up afterwards and not acknowledged by the priest. While, yes, the overall point of the collection is to raise money for the church and its needs, there is also a sense that it is a symbolic act of participation on behalf of the whole congregation. We are quite literally giving from ourselves what is necessary for the sacrifice before us and life of the church. It is not simply a practical necessity that we throw into the liturgy at this time because the people have nothing to do; it is integrally connected to the preparation of the altar and offering sacrifice. In this act, the congregation offers its own sacrifices in the form of donations, symbolic of our spiritual sacrifices. For this reason, it is very important that the collection be brought to the altar and received by the priest along with the bread and wine.
The gifts are all stacked on the altar by the altar servers so that they can go do other things. Just as it is the priest who receives the gifts from the congregation, it is the role of the priest to pray over them and place them on the altar. Placing them on the holy altar is a serious act of bringing the preparation to a conclusion, a concrete act of beginning the sacrifice. To simply stack the bread off to the side or place the wine down indiscriminately without any prayer or intention diminishes this act. There should be intentionality to this act, which means that only that which is being offered as sacrifice should be placed on the altar, and only when it is ready to be offered should it be placed down (and not moved or fiddled with until the actual institution narrative.)
The gifts are “offered” to God during the preparation. Often you will see at this time the priest holding the bread and wine above his head while raising his eyes. While no words are spoken, the gesture seems to indicate that he is raising the gifts to heaven, “offering” them to God. While seemingly intuitive, this is actually not the point of this part of the mass; the priest does not “offer” the gifts to God at this moment (this will come later with the anamnesis.) His purpose is to begin the fourfold act of Jesus: Take, Bless, Break, and Give. At this point, he is merely completing the act of taking, and blessing what has been received, offering a brief word of thanksgiving to God. For this reason, the Roman Missal is clear that when saying a prayer over the gifts, he “holds it slightly raised above the altar with both hands.”
Washing one’s fingertips alone. This final one may not make a lot of sense to the congregation as it is almost never seen, but it is still a weird pet peeve. After the gifts have been placed on the altar, the priest turns to the side and washes his hands. Starting in ancient times as a literal act of washing hands (because he has just received assorted gifts from the people that are no doubt dirty), today, we recognize this as a symbolic act of purification before offering the sacrifice: the priest asks to be worthy of what he is about to do. Some priests, however, taking the washing too literally, pour water simply on their fingertips, as, I guess, they believe that this is the only part of them that will actually touch the bread and chalice. This greatly diminishes the power of the sign and runs the risk of perpetuating a very narrow theology of cleanliness as we approach the body and blood of Christ. Is the host such that we should be afraid to touch it outside of our fingertips? Are we only to cleanse that which will touch it and not our whole selves? Wash your whole hands. And use lots of water.
In any event, I’m sure this post of pet peeves could go on for a long time and I could make an entire series out of it, but in the interest of time and charity, I will stop here. My point, I hope you understand, is not to go on a rant or to criticize churches that do any of these things, but to show that even the most practical acts can have tremendous symbolic importance, and if we are not careful to understand why we are doing what we do, the entire Mass may sink into one giant practical act. When people claim that they are bored at Mass or that their liturgy is unengaging, this is generally why: shortcuts are made for practical reasons, keeping only what it necessary and losing what is beautiful. Brevity is wonderful, but when something is meaningless, no matter how short, it will always be more of a chore than something that is lengthy but full of beauty and significance.
Thank you for your candid insights into an important part of the Mass.