Spiritual Sacrifices United to Bread and Wine
← Part I: The Function of the Baptismal Priesthood at Mass
An external act that represents an internal reality is an empty show unless that internal reality is truly present. Imagine a man giving his wife a bouquet of roses, a gesture that is generally recognized as a display of love, without actually caring about her at all. The roses are real, the wife's reaction is real, but there is something missing: the intention. This analogy is apropos for the Offertory of the Mass, when bread and wine are brought to the priest. This external act, often carried out by members of the congregation, is not a mere functional procedure; it is representative of so much more.
The bread and wine were once, in the earlier days of the Church, the product of the community. They were presented along with other donations and material offerings. With the passage of time, the bread and wine were "regularized," and the offerings tended more and more towards monetary donations. Our monetary support finances the bread and wine, so they are still the "product of the community." But these physical offerings are not the only thing the faithful present to the priest at this time. Now, as then, the bread and wine also represent all that we have to offer to God. This is how Pope John Paul II explained the significance of this rite in his 1980 letter to Bishops on the Eucharist, Dominicae Cenae:
Although all those who participate in the Eucharist do not confect the sacrifice as [the priest] does, they offer with him, by virtue of the common priesthood, their own spiritual sacrifices represented by the bread and wine from the moment of their presentation at the altar. For this liturgical action, which takes a solemn form in almost all liturgies, has a "spiritual value and meaning." The bread and wine become in a sense a symbol of all that the eucharistic assembly brings, on its own part, as an offering to God and offers spiritually.The only sacrifice that is truly acceptable to God the Father is the Eucharist, which is the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But God looks on what we offer with fatherly affection. The bread and wine presented to Him by the priest is deemed acceptable as the means by which He will give us the Eucharist; the bread and wine are gifts from God to begin with. Because the bread and wine represent our spiritual sacrifices, these too are regarded with a similar love: God knows what He will make of the bread and wine, and He knows what He will make of our meager sacrifices.
The bread and wine are blessed during the Offertory prayers; they are set aside to be consecrated in the Eucharistic Prayer, when they will be transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. But in that brief time between the Offertory and Consecration, the bread and wine are sacramentals because of the prayer of the priest over them. A sacramental, such as the bread or wine to be used in the Eucharistic Prayer, or a paten or chalice, is dedicated for a particular use when blessed. This is not the same as the change that takes place in a sacrament (such as the Eucharist), where bread and wine change ontologically (that is, in their substance, their reality). A sacrament involves a change of being, while a sacramental involves a change of purpose.
By uniting our spiritual sacrifices to the bread and wine in the Offertory, we "appropriate" those sacramentals, much in the same way we "appropriate" Holy Water (another sacramental) by being blessed with it, or we "appropriate" a blessing over a meal by praying it. We join our spiritual sacrifices to the bread and wine (which represent, physically, those very sacrifices), imbuing them with a greater spiritual significance for each of us and for the Church as a whole.
In presenting the bread and wine (with our spiritual intentions) to God, we are like the good stewards in the parable of the talents: "Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more." (Matt. 25:20) The first five talents are the "good works ... prepared [by God] beforehand" for which we were "created in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:10; cf. 2 Cor. 9:8), whereas the second five talents are the "fruit[s] in every good work" that we carry out. (Col. 1:10; cf. John 15:1-8; Rom. 7:4) As the Offertory prayers state (in the Latin and the accurate English translation), "through [God's] goodness we have received the bread we offer [Him]." The bread and wine we offer to God are the "five talents more", the fruit of investing the "five talents" which God gave us (seed and water and sunlight).
When we join our devotion to the bread and wine, we should be mindful of what will happen to the bread and wine: it will be changed in substance to become the Eucharist. The significance of our spiritual sacrifices bound up with the bread and wine will be made clear in the next two parts of this essay.