Threats from within The loss of the offertory

Internally, the political form of the church was eclipsed as the multifold ministry that had characterized the Christian assembly during the first four centuries was increasingly absorbed by the rise of the monarchical episcopate. This was modeled on secular hierarchical authority and gradually took over most of the hitherto indispensable liturgy of the people, such as the offertory or the prayers of intercession. As the distinction between clergy and laity emerged, based on the differentiation between the active ("saying mass") and passive ("attending mass"), the political form of the church underwent a serious eclipse.

This unfortunate tendency was expressed and accelerated by the withering of the offertory - a liturgical event in which the political nature of the congregation was especially visible, as it comprised a subtle interaction of the whole body with a particular stress on the participation of the laity. Dix summarizes its theological significance:

Each communicant from the bishop to the newly confirmed gave himself under the forms of bread and wine to God, as God gives Himself to them under the same forms. In the united oblations of all her members the Body of Christ, the church, gave herself to become the Body of Christ, the sacrament, in order that receiving again the symbol of herself now transformed and hallowed, she might be truly that which by nature she is, the Body of Christ, and each of her members members of Christ. In this self-giving the order of laity no less than that of the deacons or the high-priestly celebrant had its own indispensable function in the vital act of the Body. The layman brought the sacrifice of himself, of which he is the priest. The deacon, the "servant" of the whole body "presented" all together in the Person of Christ . . . The high-priest, the bishop "offered" all together, for he alone can speak for the whole Body. In Christ, as His Body, the church is "accepted" by God "in the Beloved". Its sacrifice of itself is taken up into His sacrifice of Himself. (Dix 1945: 117)

The political point of the offertory lies in the strange way in which emphases on individual contribution and communal offering interlock. On the one hand, it was all-important that every individual believer would bring forward his or her own oblation (offering). This implied a certain eucharistic "egalitarianism" which was not only the result of the equality of reception (all share in the same gift) but was already indicated by a particular equality of action: so, for example, the have-nots of the papal school of orphans in Rome were not hidden away but brought the water that was to be mingled with the wine, while the bishop would not only offer all oblations on behalf of the whole body but also had to bring his own personal offering.

All these oblations were seen as representing the lives of the believers in their material complexity, presented to God in order to be taken up by him, to be connected to Christ's sacrifice and transformed into the new life of his body. "There you are on the altar," says St. Augustine in his Sermons on the Eucharist, "there you are in the chalice" (Sermon 229). This "you" was meant to represent the congregation both individually and communally. Everyone needed to be literally present in the elements though his or her own participation in the "offering" of the very goods on the altar. This emphasis on individual presence and participation is particularly obvious in such rites as the "naming" of all communicants between the bringing of the oblations and the offertory prayer, as it was held in the Spanish church, or in the prayer "post nomina" (Dix 1945: 496f.).

It was precisely this stress on individual representation which was to be drawn into the dramatic experience of the offertory and transformed. When the offerings were consecrated, the elements were no longer a series of individual contributions but had been mingled to become an indissoluble corpus permixtum. The small portions of wine that the individuals had brought forward would be poured together in the big silver pots whence the eucharistic element was taken to the chalice. Thus the eucharistic elements, consisting of an irreducible composite of expensive and cheap wine (and bread), given by poor and wealthy parishioners, represented the congregation as a whole. The purity of taste is sacrificed for the sake of the theological point of a communal representation of the congregation, with all its members and all aspects of their lives: success and failure, conflict and reconciliation, exclusion and inclusion, and so on. "To the Eucharist we bring not raw materials, nor even the cultivated wheat and grape, but bread and wine, manufactures, bearing upon them all the processes, and the sin, of commercial production" (Robinson 1963: 35).

These pointers may suffice to indicate the nature of the loss when, in the course of most liturgical developments, in both East and West, beginning in the fourth century, the practice of the offertory either faded away or shrunk down to a pale gesture, thereby not only impoverishing the rich eucharistic practice of the ancient church but also eclipsing the implicit political theology inherent in it.

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