By Frank Wessling
The boy with the offertory basket began extending his arm toward the young man at the end of the next pew down the aisle. The man shook his head slightly, continued to look straight ahead, and the boy went on with his basket to the next pew.
It’s not so unusual that someone would let the offertory basket go by without putting something in. American Catholics are not, on average, a generous bunch compared with other Christians. But a shake of the head could indicate something else: a basic ignorance about the Mass.
How is that?
If someone on the street passing out leaflets extends one toward pedestrians, a quick shake of the head says “No, thanks, not interested, don’t bother me.” The offered leaflet is optional, so passing by is a way of saying we don’t want to be diverted from some other stream of interest.
The offertory in Mass, however, is not optional. There is no Mass without it.
A sacrifice requires something offered. There is no bread and wine, no body and blood, no Christ and no Communion without it. We might forget that. The Catholic liturgy of the Mass is a deep and complex ritual, but its surface elements can become so familiar through habit that we easily run through it without really participating.
Children aren’t likely to shake their heads when an offering basket comes by, but they will say the Mass is “boring.” For those who are there as spectators, it would very often be boring in comparison with most entertainments. Along with the head-shakers, the bored are not engaged in the deeper action. They are not offering themselves.
Christ is the offering who makes the Mass possible, but this is not a Christ of the dim past working without our involvement. The offering made at the altar is Christ living today in the church, which is all of us. And this means that the Mass is our primary summons to be Christ for today; to live, as St. Paul says, “now not I but Christ in me.”
Going to Mass is then anything but a free entertainment. It becomes a gathering of ourselves in order to focus all energy on being, not a collection of individuals who hold back some personal riches, but something radically different: a body unified by all parts going all in, offering all our chips as Jesus did.
Don’t empty the bank account to do this. That isn’t what the offertory in Mass calls for. The collection of money is for church maintenance and charity, so there is a financial sacrifice involved. But the money isn’t the primary offering. That must come from the mind and will of each person intentionally placing her- and himself on the altar as a life offered to God.
We are each free in the way we express such a life at home, work, school and in our neighborhoods. But we aren’t free of the call to do it. The Mass is not magic nor is it a spectator show. Something of us must go into it. The priest isn’t there to substitute for all of us. He’s there to lead us in all doing the same thing.
So take the offertory basket as a symbolic way of touching the offering made by Jesus — the one that has dying in it but when entered into fully is a rising to new life. It may feel like a little death to part with a dollar on some days, but let it go willingly, like a gift, and the experience changes us. A readiness for the new, the better, the higher, the richer, the brighter, the sacred and eternal rises up.
That’s why the offering is not optional. Nothing happens without it. We remain stuck as we are.