February 28, 2018, Wednesday
“The first Christian altar was the Cross.” —Pope Francis, in his catechesis on the liturgy during his Wednesday General Audience today in Rome
“Thus, the lives of the faithful, their suffering, their prayer, their work, are united to those of Christ and to his total offering, and in this way they take on a new value.” —Pope Francis, Ibid.
The Christian life is “Christo-centric,” and that “Christ-centeredness” is expressed by the Church’s central act of prayer, the liturgy of the Mass, which developed in the first decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The liturgy is and always has been centered on an altar which commemorates the first altar, Pope Francis taught today in his General Audience, where for several weeks he has been teaching on the liturgy.
What was that first altar?
The cross, the Pope said.
The cross is the first Christian altar because it was on the cross that Christ made his own offering — his offering of himself.
And i this offering, he sealed the “New Covenant” between God and mankind, which is definitive and valid forever.
During the liturgy, the Pope said, the Church uses various signs to “continually make present the sacrifice of the new covenant sealed by Jesus on the cross.”
“When we draw close to the altar during Mass, our memory goes to the altar of the cross where the first sacrifice was made,” he said.
The Pope explained that the priest at Mass imitates several gestures that Jesus made during the Last Supper: The presentation of the gifts, the Eucharistic Prayer, the breaking of the bread and Communion.
During the presentation of the gifts, Francis said members of the congregation should bring the bread and wine to the priest, “because they signify the spiritual offering of the Church gathered there for the Eucharist.”
While our own offering is small, he continued, “Christ needs this little bit — like what happened in the multiplication of the bread — to transform it into the Eucharistic gift which nourishes and unites everyone in his body which is the Church.”
A concrete image of the prayer and offerings made during Mass is the use of incense, he said.
“By incensing the offerings, the cross, the altar, the priest and the people, the priest visibly manifests the offertory bond that unites all these realities to the sacrifice of Christ,” he said.
After placing the bread and wine on the altar, the celebrant asks God to accept the gifts that the Church has offered, which signifies “the wonderful exchange between our poverty and his wealth,” Francis said.
“In the bread and wine we present him with the offering of our lives, so that it is transformed by the Holy Spirit in the sacrifice of Christ and becomes with Him one offering pleasing to the Father,” he said.
The pontiff closed by urging faithful not to forget the altar in Mass always refers to “the first altar of the cross. And to the altar we bring the little we have in our gifts, the bread and wine, which then becomes the abundance that Jesus gives us.”
Below is the complete text of today’s catechesis. Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, suggested to the Pope last summer that he present a series of teachings on the meaning of the liturgy, and has helped to prepare these teachings…
This morning’s General Audience, initially planned for St. Peter’s Square, was held at 9:40 in Paul VI Hall due to the snow in the piazza, which fell Monday.
Those who couldn’t find a place in Paul VI Hall listened from inside the Basilica, where the Pope went at the end of the Audience.
Continuing his catechesis on the Mass, the Pope reflected on the Eucharistic Liturgy: I. Presentation of the gifts.
The General Audience ended with the singing of the Pater Noster and the Apostolic Blessing.
The Holy Father’s Catechesis
Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning!
Continuing with the catechesis on the Holy Mass, the Liturgy of the Word — on which I reflected in the past catechesis — is followed by the other constitutive part of the Mass, which is the Eucharistic Liturgy. In it, through the holy signs, the Church renders continually present the Sacrifice of the new Covenant sealed by Jesus on the altar of the Cross (Cf. Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, 47).
The first Christian altar was the Cross, and when we come to the altar to celebrate Mass, our memory goes back to the altar of the Cross, where the first sacrifice was made. The priest, who represents Christ in the Mass, carries out what the Lord Himself did and entrusted to the disciples in the Last Supper: He took the bread and the chalice, rendered thanks, and gave them to the disciples, saying: “Take, eat… drink: this is my Body… this is the chalice of my Blood. Do this in memory of Me.”
Obedient to Jesus’ command, the Church ordered the Eucharistic Liturgy in moments that correspond to the words and gestures done by Him, on the vigil of his Passion. Thus, in the preparation of the gifts, the bread and wine are taken to the altar, namely, the elements that Jesus took in His hands. In the Eucharistic Prayer we give thanks to God for the work of Redemption and the offerings become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It’s followed by the breaking of the Bread and Communion, through which we relive the experience of the Apostles, who received the Eucharistic gifts from the hands of Christ Himself (Cf. Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano (OGMR), 72).
The preparation of the gifts corresponds, then, to Jesus’ first gesture: “He took the bread and the chalice of wine.”
It’s the first part of the Eucharistic Liturgy. It’s good that it’s the faithful that present the bread and wine to the priest, because they signify the spiritual offering of the Church, gathered there for the Eucharist. It’s beautiful that it’s in fact the faithful that bring the bread and wine to the altar.
Although today “the faithful no longer bring, as before, their own bread and wine destined to the Liturgy, yet the rite of the presentation of these gifts keeps its value and spiritual meaning” (Ibid., 73).
And in this connection, it’s significant that, in ordaining a new presbyter, the Bishop, when he gives him the bread and wine, says: “Receive the offerings of the holy people for the Eucharistic sacrifice” (Roman Pontifical – Ordination of Bishops, of presbyters and of deacons).
It’s the people of God that brings the offering, the bread and wine, the great offering for the Mass!
Therefore, in the signs of the bread and wine the faithful people put their own offering in the priest’s hands, who places it on the altar or table of the Lord, “which is the center of all the Eucharistic Liturgy” (OGMR, 73). That is, the center of the Mass is the altar, and the altar is Christ. It’s always necessary to look at the altar, which is the center of the Mass. Offered, therefore, in the “fruit of the earth and the work of man,” is the commitment of the faithful to make of themselves, obedient to the divine Word, a “pleasing sacrifice to Almighty God the Father,” “for the good of all His Holy Church.”
Thus “the life of the faithful, their suffering, their prayer, their work, are united to those of Christ and to His total offering, and in this way they acquire a new value” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1368).
Our offering is certainly a small thing, but Christ is in need of this small thing.
The Lord asks little of us, and He gives us so much.
He asks little of us.
He asks us for good will in ordinary life; He asks us for an open heart; He asks us for the will to be better to receive him who offers Himself to us in the Eucharist.
He asks us for these symbolic offerings, which will then become His Body and His Blood.
An image of this self-giving movement of prayer is represented by incense that, consumed in the fire, gives off a perfumed smoke that goes up on high: to incense the offerings, as is done on feast days, to incense the cross, the altar, the priest and the priestly people manifest visibly the offertory bond that unites all these realities to Christ’s sacrifice (Cf. OGMR, 75).
And don’t forget: it’s the altar that is Christ, but always in reference to the first altar, which is the Cross, and on the altar, which is Christ, we bring our little gifts, the bread and wine, which then will become so much: Jesus Himself who gives Himself to us.
And all this is what the prayer over the offerings expresses.
In it the priest asks God to accept the gifts that the Church offers Him, invoking the fruit of the wonderful exchange between our poverty and His richness. In the bread and wine, we present our life to Him, so that it’s transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ’s sacrifice and becomes, with Him, one spiritual offering pleasing to the Father.
While the preparation of the gifts is thus concluded, it disposes us to the Eucharistic Prayer (Cf. Ibid, 77).
May the spirituality of the gift of self, which this moment of the Mass teaches, be able to illumine our days, our relations with others, the things we do, the sufferings we meet, helping us to build the earthly city in the light of the Gospel.