Preparation of the Altar and Offertory

02-11-2018What We Do as CatholicsRev. Joe Fessenden

After the Universal Prayer, the altar is prepared and the gifts are brought to the altar. Several items are placed on the altar to prepare for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

First, the corporal, named from the Latin corpus meaning body, is placed on the altar cloth. This is the linen square that serves as a sort of placemat, but its purpose is far more important. During the course of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest will hold bread in his hands. The one universal thing about bread is that it has crumbs. Even after the consecration, the host retains the accidents of bread – in other words, it looks and acts like bread. We usually refer to the crumbs at this point as particles as a somewhat more reverent term. Since even the smallest portion of the host contains the full body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, we want to make sure that these particles don’t just get brushed to the ground or tossed about when the altar cloth is removed. So the corporal is placed under the elements we are to consecrate. In the Mass prior to the reforms after the Second Vatican Council, the host was placed directly on the corporal, so its purpose was even more essential.

The chalice is placed on the altar with a purificator, the linen used to wipe and purify the chalice and other sacred vessels, and pall. The pall is the stiffened square of linen (it used to be starched, but now we usually cheat and line it with a cardboard or plastic square to keep its shape) that serves to keep dust (and bugs) out of the chalice, especially once it contains the Blood of Christ rather than ordinary wine.

During this time, the collection is taken, but it is important to remember that that is not where we get the name offertory for this part of the Mass. That title refers to the act of offering our gifts, bread and wine and our very persons and lives to God, as we prepare for the Eucharistic Prayer. When the bread and wine come to the altar, each person attending the Mass should be offering themselves along with those gifts.

As part of that preparation, the deacon or priest adds a little water to the wine on the altar. Usually, this is done while the priest is saying the prayer over the bread, but, interestingly, in a bishop’s Mass, this is done before the bishop even approaches the altar. The water being added is not special (or holy water) at all, but just plain tap water. This action represents a customary diluting of wine that took place in centuries past, but also a theological point expressed in the prayer that is said while the water is added – often, we can find what the Church intends as a meaning of an action by looking at the prayers often associated with the action. This is what the Church means by the traditional phrase Lex orandi, lex credenda, the law of prayer is the law of faith.

While the deacon or priest adds the water, he says the following prayer expressing the desire of all of the Church as the fruit of our faith and the Eucharistic sacrifice: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The wine represents the divinity of Christ and the water his humanity. These were uniquely together in Christ, and we hope to share, in some way, in that divinity when we, God-willing, attain heaven.

Fr. Joe Fessenden

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