Why we ‘take up the gifts’

Many have walked through the doors of church and immediately been asked if they’d be willing to “take up the gifts” during Mass. The laity carrying the bread and wine to the altar — the bread and wine that will become the body and blood of Christ — is a familiar scene Sunday mornings. Known as the preparation of the gifts, this ritual happens quickly, and its significance easily can be overlooked.

History of the practice

St. Justin Martyr (d.c. 165), describing the second-century Mass, wrote the following: “When our prayer is ended, bread and wine with water are brought forth, and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability.” The Mass at that time often was held covertly in someone’s home for fear of the Romans, and the bread and wine for communion simply were placed on a table used for an altar. This action eventually would lead to people individually bringing gifts to the altar during Mass. Their gifts included not only bread and wine but food stuffs for the clergy and the poor. Later, donations of money were collected during Mass to assist the poor and the Church, rather than food and other items.

“From the very beginning Christians have brought, along with the bread and wine for the Eucharist, gifts to share with those in need. This custom of the collection, ever appropriate, is inspired by the example of Christ who became poor to make us rich”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1351).

In the Middle Ages when receiving the Eucharist among the laity declined, the procession of the gifts by members of the congregation stopped. The clergy was responsible for making the bread and wine available during Mass. The procession was not reinstated into the Mass until after the Second Vatican Council.

Preparing for Eucharist

The preparation of the gifts is the transitional point in the liturgy, following the prayers of the faithful and before the Eucharistic prayers. We have been focused on the Liturgy of the Word; now our attention shifts to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, from the ambo to the altar, where the priest and servers prepare for the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The great mystery of our faith unfolds.

This is not a time to be distracted or mindlessly present; rather, we are devoutly attentive to and participate in all the solemn actions and drama leading to the Eucharistic sacrifice and holy Communion. The preparation of the gifts, which includes readying the altar, presenting, receiving and preparing the bread and wine, incensing (if done) and collecting our monetary offering is brief. Care must be taken not to lose that “spiritual significance” mentioned in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM): “The offerings are then brought forward. It is praiseworthy for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted by the priest or the deacon and carried to the altar. Even though the faithful no longer bring from their own possessions the bread and wine intended for the liturgy as in the past, nevertheless the rite of carrying up the offerings still retains its force and spiritual significance” (No. 73).

The gifts we bring become the body and blood of Jesus, and we relive his sacrifice on the cross. During this sacred time we not only submit our offerings of bread and wine but we humbly present ourselves as living sacrifices who are ready and willing to follow Jesus and carry on his Gospel message. There, at the altar with the heavenly angels, the Bethlehem shepherds, the priest and ministers, the community joins together to offer up to God both our external material gifts and our uncompromising internal devotion.

Christ’s holy sacrifice

“The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered, and prepared the Passover” (Mt 26:19).

Pope Benedict XVI on the Presentation of the Gifts
Pope Benedict XVI consecrates the Eucharist during a 2011 Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. CNS photo
“The Synod Fathers also drew attention to the presentation of the gifts. This is not to be viewed simply as a kind of ‘interval’ between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. To do so would tend to weaken, at the least, the sense of a single rite made up of two interrelated parts. This humble and simple gesture is actually very significant: in the bread and wine that we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father. In this way we also bring to the altar all the pain and suffering of the world, in the certainty that everything has value in God’s eyes. The authentic meaning of this gesture can be clearly expressed without the need for undue emphasis or complexity. It enables us to appreciate how God invites man to participate in bringing to fulfilment his handiwork, and in so doing, gives human labor its authentic meaning, since, through the celebration of the Eucharist, it is united to the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.”

During every Mass, the actions of the disciples sent to arrange for the Passover meal, the Last Supper, are recollected as we, too, prepare for the Eucharistic banquet. Not only is it a time of remembrance and reverence, but a time of great anticipation, because we know Communion with Our Lord will soon follow. These are sacred activities, and it is proper that we present ourselves in a similar way, in a manner pleasing to God. The actions of the servers, the deacon and the priest as they prepare the altar are carried out with great care and solemnity. Our demeanor and the demeanor — even the attire — of those carrying the gifts to the altar likewise should be worthy of God. Nothing here should divert attention from the sacrifice.

The entire congregation is represented by those selected to carry the bread and wine to the priest. “The congregation’s identification with the gifts is best expressed if the procession passes right through their midst” (Introduction to the Order of Mass, No. 105). In our hearts, we walk with them toward the sacrificial table; in spirit we are there when they stop before the throne of God. Here is the Lord of all, the One who created the heavens and the earth, who raises the dead, who split the sea in two, who knows every hair on our head. Our position is that of the disobedient servant seeking clemency in his master’s court.

We are a sinful, imperfect people, and our master has no need of us, and yet he is a merciful God. So as mankind has done throughout the ages, we humbly join together and with contrite, hopeful hearts, we turn to Jesus. It is our faith that through the Son we can be united, drawn closer to, become acceptable to the Father. With hearts and minds engulfed by the merits and grace of Jesus, we submit our gifts to the priest, who acts in persona Christi. What happened in the Upper Room happens here.

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The priest prepares the bread and wine and, reciting the appropriate prayers, offers them individually to God. He then invites us to participate with him, saying those so familiar words: “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” We respond: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” This is our earnest petition, our devout supplication. God, through his ordained minister, changes our gifts into his body and blood as we seek to join our lives with the perfect sacrifice of Christ to the Father.

“The Church’s intention ... is that the faithful not only offer this spotless Victim but also learn to offer themselves” (GIRM, No. 79). Because of the holiness of these events, our fervor and homage can never be excessive. By uniting with Our Lord Jesus, the simple gifts of creation, brought by sinful people, become acceptable to almighty God. Then our merciful Father gives this ultimate gift back to us during holy Communion.

The Eucharistic celebration is the holiest part of the Mass, and it begins when we “take up the gifts.”

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.