Our Thursday journey through the Mass has taken us to the remainder of the offertory rite. Once we have given thanks for the bread and wine and expressed our firm faith that the Lord will make it into the bread of life and spiritual drink, there comes a whole series of prayers that introduce a new element into our worship.
Some of these prayers are prayed by the priest in a low voice (‘secret’ prayers), others out loud and one by the whole congregation. But all of them, one way or another, communicate the same basic idea.
The priest prays quietly ‘with humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you…’ and then washes his hands with ‘wash me O Lord, from my iniquity…’, then bids the people out loud to ‘pray… that my sacrifice and yours be acceptable…’ and the people respond ‘may the Lord accept this sacrifice…’
All of this is very significant. When we come into the celebration of the sacraments, we have to keep two things in mind. The first is that God is absolutely faithful and that his action in the sacraments is utterly assured. So when we are celebrating a sacrament, we can know without a shadow of a doubt that God is present, and is doing what He said He would do in that sacrament.
Second, though, is that we have to know that we are utterly unworthy of that action. That it comes to us as a sheer grace, a gift of mercy and love from on high, and not from any merits on our part. And furthermore, that while the sacrament itself is utterly assured, our own fruitful union with that sacrament is anything but assured. We need his mercy and grace there, too, so that not only is the perfect worship of the Son made a living and present reality in the Eucharist, his perfect offering to the Father for the life of the world made available to us in His Body and Blood, but so that we truly enter in and have a share in that worship and offering.
These prayers that come at this juncture of the Mass serve to remind us of all this, that we do not deserve to be there, but are only there because God is gracious and good. There is no ‘entitlement’ to the Eucharist or to the grace of God—it is sheer gift, given in mercy.
Well, as I keep saying, the Mass is the pattern of Christian life, and every bit of the Mass is meant to be applied and lived out in our daily experience of things. So this little bit of the Mass, which is short, mostly prayed inaudibly, and perhaps not the ‘main event’ we focus on, has great implications for our life.
Simply, we are never to think that we ‘deserve’ anything from God. That God is good to us, that He helps us, that His love comes to us in a myriad of ways and that He surrounds our lives with blessings (if only we had eyes to see them)—all of this is very true, very assured. But we deserve none of it.
And isn’t that much better, really? If we deserved it, then it would all be contingent on our not messing up, our not doing something that would make us no longer deserve it. But since we are such wretched sinners, such bumbling fools, and he still helps us, still blesses us, then we are kind of bulletproof, grace-wise, wouldn’t you say? What exactly could we do that would make God stop loving us?
It seems that all we need to do is turn to Him with sincere and heartfelt contrition and humility, and He is right there for us, always. Such has been my experience of life in Christ, anyhow. But then this prayer of the Mass tells us not to be presumptuous, either. We do have to acknowledge our sinfulness and our unworthiness: ‘with humble spirit and contrite heart.’ We can’t just waltz up to Jesus with arrogant expectation that He will come through for us, just because He always does. No, we approach Him on our knees, and it is for Him to raise us up onto our feet again.
There is a whole way of life, a whole attitude of spirit that is captured in these prayers of the Mass. A complete unity of expectant trusting faith in God’s love, and at the same time a deep knowledge of how little we deserve it, how poor we really are in all regards. And out of that, a deep peace, joy, gratitude.
The other attitude we can adopt—entitlement, complacency, arrogance, self-righteousness—is anything but joyful, peaceful, grateful. In fact, it is a recipe for ceaseless misery for ourselves and others. No, let us be content to be beggars before the Lord with nothing to give Him but our total neediness, knowing that is only from that place, the lowest place of utter wretchedness and absolute nothingness, that He is able to enrich us beyond our wildest dreams and give us the whole treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is His own self.