The offertory is the name given to that part of the worship service liturgy when the congregational offerings are brought forward to the altar. That seems simple enough, but as so often is the case, there’s a whole lot more going on here than may be first apparent. In fact, this is a beautiful example of how our liturgy is loaded with rich meaning for those who are prepared to dig in a little.
The routine goes something like this (specific details will vary): following the sermon, the Creed, the prayers, and the “passing of the peace” the ushers pass the collection plates through the seated congregation. When this is accomplished, everyone stands to sing a brief ‘offertory hymn’ while the ushers come forward: one carrying the laden offering plates and the other the bread and wine for the celebration of the Communion which will shortly follow. The acolyte receives the offering plate and places it to one side of the altar and the lay assistant receives the bread and wine which is then handed to the presiding minister who places them at the center of the altar. The Lay Assistant leads the congregation in a brief prayer and then all are seated as the presiding minister begins the actual Communion rite.
To some, this may seem to be an instance of unnecessary embellishment of what is actually a simple task: collecting the offering. Though most recognize the practical necessity of taking a collection to fund the church, why is it necessary to sing about it and carry it to the altar with such ceremony? And why make a deal out of bringing forward the bread and wine (which could just as easily have been placed at the altar to begin with)? Since this whole ritual is conducted with displays of reverence (such as bowing to the altar) and attention to small details (such as how the ushers turn before returning to their seats) it is easy to assume that: (a) the ritual is intended to somehow appease or win favor with God; or (b) that it’s nothing but ‘theatre’ to impress everyone with our piety. But both of those impressions miss the point of what we are actually trying to do.
The first thing to note is that the Offertory is tucked between the Service of the Word (i.e., the readings from scripture and their exposition in the sermon) and the Eucharist (an ancient Greek word referring to the celebration of the Sacrament of Communion.) Thus, it represents a transition between hearing the Word, and the miraculous feeding of the Sacrament that nourishes us to be sent out into the world. Perhaps the best way of illustrating the significance of this transition is by analogy to what was arguably Jesus’ most significant miracle: the Feeding of the Five Thousand (His only miracle described in all four gospels). If you recall the story, Jesus had been preaching to this large gathering, and recognized their need for food. Rather than “zapping” a five-course meal, He instead accepted the meagre resources provided from the crowd and multiplied them into an abundance for everyone (Mark 6:30-44). With the Offertory, we are enacting our own role in this same narrative as we bring forward our own modest gifts to be blessed and multiplied by our Lord, so that His kingdom may come and all may be nourished.
When we bring our gifts of bread and wine to the Lord’s Table, it is only ordinary food, but blessed with the promises of our Lord, it returns to us as a divine feast in which His very body and blood are present. To what effect are we doing this? The answer is suggested by one of the most common offertory tunes we sing, using words taken directly from Psalm 51:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with your free spirit.”
In these words, sung as our gifts are presented to God, we are asking that our humble and grateful response to His words of promise may be blessed by an outpouring of the Spirit so that we might be living testaments to His salvation. It is not that we are bringing gifts that will impress the Almighty, but rather, that by our words and actions, we are offering our very selves as empty vessels to be filled at His table.