WWhat gift do you give to the God who has everything?
“God does not need your works, but your neighbor does,” said Martin Luther. There is no point trying to impress God. He needs nothing that you have. He lacks nothing. According to Luther, the only reason to do good in the world is for the benefit of other people, not for our benefit before God.
There is some truth to what Luther says. If we are trying to buy off God, we will surely fail. Yet we cannot help but want to give something of value to God. Woven deep into us is the need to worship. We are made to give ourselves away.
In the old Book of Common Prayer marriage rite, the man would say to his bride, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” The man sees in his bride something more beautiful and wonderful than he has in himself. He naturally desires to honor her with all that he has, to exhaust himself for the sake of glorifying her.
This same impulse exists within all of us in relating to God. When we encounter God’s beauty, goodness, and truth, we cannot help but want to honor and glorify him. Our calling as creatures made in the image of God is to become prisms through which the light of God can shine into the world. We want to glorify God by giving him everything we have. But he made us, so everything we have is already his by right. What could we possibly give him that would amplify in any way the radiance that he already possesses?
In the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, used in Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches only a handful of times throughout the year, the priest offers most of the eucharistic prayer quietly, but he raises his voice when he says the words, “Thine own of thine own, we offer unto thee, on behalf of all and for all.” Reflecting on this, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “Our human vocation, briefly expressed, is to be priest of creation. As logical animals, possessing self-awareness and free choice—and at the same time as eucharistic animals who are being deified—it is our supreme privilege, consciously and gratefully, to offer the created world back to God the creator.”
Metropolitan Kallistos acknowledges that all we are doing is giving back to God what was his in the first place. Even our creative addition of turning the wheat into bread and the grapes into wine is merely the action of creatures whose existence is dependent on God’s constant gift. Moreover, “[Christ] alone is the true celebrant; we are no more than concelebrants with him.” Nevertheless, in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, God is glorified by our act of self-giving, not because we offer him anything that he lacks but because we are united with Jesus as one humanity. Our self-offering is perfected by his self-offering.
This is what Luther and the other reformers miss. Luther, unlike most of the reformers who came after him, continued to believe in Christ’s real presence in the elements, but he was extremely critical of the teaching that the Mass is a sacrifice. In the Smalcald Articles, he wrote, “Since the Mass is nothing else and can be nothing else (as the Canon and all books declare), than a work of men (even of wicked scoundrels), by which one attempts to reconcile himself and others to God, and to obtain and merit the remission of sins and grace (for thus the Mass is observed when it is observed at the very best; otherwise what purpose would it serve?), for this very reason it must and should [certainly] be condemned and rejected.”
Luther saw the Mass offered by a priest as something very different from what he called “the Lord’s Supper” or the “Sacrament of the Altar.” The idea that a sacrifice could be offered by an ordinary man for the sake of men flew in the face of the gospel proclamation that we are saved only through the grace of Jesus Christ. The misunderstanding for Luther then seems to be that the Mass is simply performative, as if Jesus is merely a commodity with which the sinful human priest buys off God from exercising his wrath.
On the contrary, Jesus is himself the one true priest of the Mass. The ministerial priesthood and indeed the priesthood shared by all Christians is always and everywhere rooted in the priesthood of Christ. Because we share in Christ and his priesthood, we also share in the offering to God of the sacrifice of ourselves, not as additions to Christ’s sacrifice but as reflections of it.
The Incarnation is not only about God’s condescension to participate in humanity. It is also about men and women being raised to the level of participants in divinity. The Eucharist is the apex of where that happens for us. It is in the whole celebration of the Mass, not only in the reception of the elements, that the words of the Prayer of Humble Access are fulfilled in which we pray that “we may dwell in him, and he in us.”
Luther envisioned the Eucharist as an entirely passive exercise in the reception of grace. Christ gives himself to us, and we receive him. Any notion that we might be giving something to God at the same time was viewed as an unacceptable attempt to co-opt God through bribery. Yet we do offer something to God in the Mass. We offer him simultaneously the sacrifice of his Son and the sacrifice of our hearts. We are able to do this because, through the grace of Baptism, we have been united with Christ and made one with him. Because Jesus is the Son of God, he is able to offer God the one and only thing that will glorify God, his own self. But because Jesus is also man, we who have been grafted onto him are able to offer our gift as well. It is not simply me I offer to God in the Mass but Christ in me. When I offer the gift of myself during the Mass, it is ultimately Jesus who is doing the offering, yet I am not erased or robbed of my agency by the experience. That is the mystery.
In the Mass, God has made it possible not only for Jesus to offer us forgiveness and reconciliation. He has also given us a way to fulfill our natural desire to worship and to give ourselves away to that which is most beautiful and holy. He has given us the priceless gift of being able to give a gift to him.