- Vested Interest
The church I attended as a child celebrated the Holy Eucharist with Rite I, which uses lovely, complex, slightly archaic language. Every week I turned the same words over in my mind, savoring their complexity and the pleasing roll of the syllables. Occasionally a new word or idea would emerge from the mass and surprise me. After reading The Golden Compass (Book 1 of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, a masterpiece for all ages) at age twelve or so, I began to notice a particular new word: “oblation.” In the world of the book I’d just finished, the General Oblation Board is grim and terrifying and named with an Orwellian irony. An “oblation,” as the character Lyra learns, is an offering, something dedicated to God. But the “offering” in the world of the novel is not a free gift but stolen children, snatched away only to be horribly mutilated. This was not an auspicious introduction to a theological term.
The meaning of “oblation” within the context of the Eucharistic Prayer we read each week at church was not easy to reconcile with my new knowledge. All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again. As in the novel, it was difficult to fit the idea of a free gift with the darkness of Jesus’ death on the cross, or the staggering evil I imagined when I contemplated what “the sins of the whole world” might be. It didn’t help that the larger theological concept gestured at—the idea that Jesus’ death functions to atone for the sins of humanity, satisfy God’s need for justice, and make our redemption possible—was one I would struggle with for years and ultimately reject. But somehow in this prayer, I came to understand, the idea of gift was present: Jesus is the gift God gives to us; and Jesus also gave himself as a gift to God, from us. I think this is true, somehow, even though I don’t believe the violent death of the crucifixion could be a necessary piece of this. But the idea of gift—of being given God, and given to God—seems to me an important part of what being in relationship with God looks like. An oblation, then, is a gift; a gift to God, which is always also a gift from God.
I found my thoughts returning last Sunday evening to the idea of oblations, gifts to God and from God. Sitting in the apse during Compline, gazing up at the arched ceiling and breathing in the exquisite harmonies of the choral anthem, I began to realize that I wasn’t simply listening to the choir in the way I usually listen to music. The choir was putting voice to something inside myself that I couldn’t name. The strains of sorrow, and of peace, and of joy, were the things I wanted to say to God but didn’t know how to say. The heart-wrenching beauty of the whole experience embodied my own longing for the beauty of the divine; and at the same time, it satisfied that longing. In reaching to God through the strains of music, I found myself engulfed in the divine presence reaching back to me through the beauty of the physical world. For a few moments I became convinced that the sounds of voices in harmony, and the incense rising deliberately upward, and my own desires and intentions, were all one—one offering to God, returning to nourish me for the week ahead.
I don’t think it’s an accident that we use the word “Oblation” to name the portion of the Eucharistic prayer in which the priest, on our behalf, offers the bread and wine back to God. And have you noticed that the monetary gifts received during the Offertory are placed on the altar for the Eucharistic prayer? We are offering God everything we have, which God has first given us. Like the bread and the wine, the money we offer—a potent symbol of our work and our very being—will be divided and used to satisfy the needs of our community and of the world. As I said every week as a child, awed by the audacity of it, And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee. We too will find that whatever of ourselves we give is given back to us in some way.
At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!