DURING the conflict in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a friend and colleague was parish priest there. At the time there were numerous funerals, some of whom were of actual terrorists who had planted bombs or killed people.
It was not easy for him to explain to the parishioners that funeral Masses are not badges of honour, but “cries of mercy to God for mercy”, for everyone is called to the happiness of heaven. This is the only right attitude we should have during such Eucharists.
It has become customary in our churches to focus solely on the “wonderful” things the deceased has accomplished. Even if we know there was another side of the person, or we know they seldom attended church, we still pay tribute to what was good in them. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this, except that the Eucharist itself is a participation in the death of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus offers his life as a sacrifice for us sinners.
What a privilege we have that we can pray for the forgiveness of sins even for those who have died and who are considered the worst of sinners. The Lord desires that all attain happiness. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they …. live.” (Ezekiel 18:23) The Eucharistic celebration is the way by which we enter and participate in the mercy and love of God’s plan.
The Eucharist begins with the liturgy of the Word, that is, the proclamation of the Good News. It is then followed by the liturgy of the Eucharist with the Offertory and the Eucharistic prayer.
Let us see what happens at the Offertory. The priest accepts gifts from the congregation in the form of bread and wine, both of which are symbols of “the work of human hands”. The bread represents all that is exterior, the physical work, while the wine represents the interior life. Bread and wine, therefore, are a true expression of our life, with body, soul and spirit.
There is a beautiful story of St Jerome who, after having translated the Bible in Latin, met Jesus at Christmas, who asked him “What have you to offer me?”. Jerome, of course, thought of his work of Bible translation, the articles and homilies he wrote and all the other good things he had done. But the Lord did not seem pleased with those. So Jerome in despair said, “But what else can I offer you?”, to which the Lord replied, “Why do you withhold from me what I consider most precious – your sins? It is for these I “became flesh”, for “I have not come to call the righteous but sinner to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)
This story expresses so well what my priest friend tried to explain to his parishioners in Belfast. At every Mass, the offertory with the presentation of gifts is not just a token of gratitude – like we give someone on his birthday or anniversary a present. It is not optional, but an important part of the Eucharist celebration: a presentation of ourselves, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Thus the practice in many countries of priestless services, where people have the liturgy of the word and receive the host, should be discouraged because they lack this essential element expressed in the offering of gifts.
Following the Offertory is the Eucharistic prayer where, at the moment of consecration, Jesus in the priest takes our gifts of bread and wine and makes them into “the bread of life and spiritual drink”, the sacrifice of himself. Just as at his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus becomes one with us and fully immerses himself into our humanity, so now at the Eucharistic prayer He absorbs us fully. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him, he it is, that bears much fruit” (John 15:5).
It is this transformation from bread and wine into his body and blood that makes us fruitful. Jesus says “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Without me, you can only produce bread and wine that perishes, but with me, you work for the everlasting food which produces happiness. (John 6:27)
Having a true awareness of our sinfulness is thus very important. Again, becoming aware of our sinfulness is not meant to make us feel bad about ourselves. It makes us appreciate more fully God’s tremendous love and mercy, for “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).