Br. Mark Brown offered this homily on the prayer of oblation at the Monastery as part of the Teach Us to Pray series, January 19, 2010.
This evening we continue our series entitled “Teach Us to Pray”. In October we heard sermons on the Prayer of Praise, the Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Prayer of Intercession, and the Prayer of Adoration.
This evening: the Prayer of Oblation, that is, the prayer of offering, of self-offering. Next week the Prayer of Penitence, the following week, the Prayer of Petition. Each week we invite you for soup and conversation with the preacher following the service downstairs in the undercroft.
The Prayer of Oblation. Let’s begin with baptism. In our baptism we are baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are baptized into his light, immersed in his light. We are baptized in his Spirit, baptized into his love, inundated by his love, engulfed by his love, permeated by his love. In our baptismal vows, we promise to respond as best we can to our immersion in his light, his life, and his love.
We are also baptized into the prayer of Jesus, immersed in the prayer of Jesus. Our Rule of Life puts it this way:
“A ceaseless interchange of mutual love unites the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our prayer is not merely communication with God, it is coming to know God by participation in this divine life. In prayer we experience what it is to be made “participants in the divine nature”; we are caught up in the communion of the divine persons as they flow to one another in self-giving love and reciprocal joy.” [SSJE Rule of Life, Chap. 22]
We are caught up in the prayer of Jesus. Immersed in the prayer of Jesus. Inundated by the prayer of Jesus. Baptized into the eternal prayer of Jesus. His life is our life, his light is our light, his love is our love. His prayer is our prayer and our prayer is his prayer.
When we offer our selves in a prayer of oblation, we participate in Christ’s offering of himself. When we pray “into your hands I commend my spirit”, we join Christ in those same words. We are, in a sense, taken up into, baptized into, Christ’s own self-offering, Christ’s own oblation of himself.
The Holy Eucharist is about many things. One thing the Eucharist is about is Christ’s self offering, his oblation. In the Eucharist we participate in Christ’s self offering. We express this in a sacred theater of ceremony, symbol and sacrament. When our gifts of money are placed on the altar, they represent the offering of our selves. When the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward to the altar, they, too, represent the offering of our selves. In solemn celebrations the gifts on the altar are censed. Then the censer, the thurible, is taken through the congregation to signify that it is actually we ourselves that are the real substance of the gifts on that altar.
The Eucharistic prayer we’ll use this evening [BCP p. 333; Rite I] makes this most explicit: “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….” Drawing on words of Paul in Romans 12:1
The gesture of self-offering is present in other Eucharistic prayers, but in a less pronounced way. It’s in the opening dialog: “Lift up your hearts; We lift them to the Lord.” This could be taken to mean be of good cheer, everyone be happy. But I think its more. I think it means lift our hearts to God—in whatever state they are in. And in saying “our hearts”, we mean our very selves, our souls and bodies. We lift our hearts to God in whatever state they are in. If our hearts are happy, we lift them to the Lord. If our hearts are broken or heavy with grief, we lift them to the Lord. If our hearts are anxious or afraid, we lift them to the Lord. The Eucharist is a “come as you are” party.
We “come as we are” to this place. And yet we expect, we hope for some transformation to occur. We expect the bread and wine to be transformed in some mysterious, sacramental way. Whatever is placed on this altar we expect to be transformed in some mysterious way. And, so, we our selves expect to be transformed. Just as the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, in a sacramental way, we are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
To be more precise, we could say that this transformation, which happened in our baptism, is renewed. We renew our self offering, our oblation each time we celebrate the Eucharist. We renew, we rehearse our own transformation into the body and blood of Christ.
The life of oblation isn’t necessarily an easy one. Being on an altar of sacrifice can expose us to fire. In Matthew’s Gospel [3:11] John the Baptist tells us that Christ will baptise us in holy wind and fire. We will be immersed in holy wind and fire. (I’m translating literally.) Being immersed in holy wind and fire can be an ordeal.
In our Rule of Life, in the chapter on the Novitiate, we note that “many stages of genuine transformation are marked by experiences of confusion and loss.” [Chap. 37] And we realize that this doesn’t pertain only to novices, but to all of us. We don’t offer our selves to God in order to have a life of ease, but a life of meaning.
“Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies…” Now here is where the dance becomes more intricate. We offer the gift of our selves to the Lord. And God says back to us—Oh, thank you so much, but I don’t want it—please have it back and enjoy.
We offer ourselves to God, God returns us to ourselves, as it were, but transformed. In the Eucharist we offer the bread and wine as emblems of our selves. But God does not keep them—they are returned to us, transformed.
The transformation is in the reciprocal giving. God gives us our lives, our selves. In gratitude we offer our selves as an oblation to God. In gratitude God returns our selves to us, transformed. The engine of transformation is the current of mutual gratitude and mutual self-giving that flows from creator to creature, from creature back to creator, from creator back to creature—over and over again, day by day, year by year. To eternity. We are baptized into this current, this circulating energy of mutual self-giving love.
So, although it is right and good to offer our very selves to God, we don’t become robots with no will of our own. We don’t become sock puppets for God. We don’t “channel’ God, we don’t become avatars of God—not in the Hindu sense, not in the on-line virtual sense, and not in the cinematic sense. We can embody the love of God, but we do this as frail human beings made in the image of God. And, as God is sovereign, so we are created with a kind of personal sovereignty of our own that even God does not violate.
To be baptized into Christ’s prayer of self offering is not about domination or control. It is not about possession. It is about relationship. It is about mutual joy and delight expressed in reciprocal self-giving. To be baptized into Christ’s prayer is the Song of Songs. It is the song of the song of all songs.
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