A Perfect Offering
I suppose my favorite Eucharistic prayer is number three, or III, as it’s titled in the sacramentary. (Not that I have much chance to discuss this in the checkout line at the grocery store or during our annual neighborhood cookie exchange. We seem to be stuck on gluten—and all its lies and all its empty promises—just now. I keep waiting for a new translation of Genesis to be released, the one in which the serpent urges Eve to eat a baguette.)
We are not at a distance, but flesh to flesh, like a mother and her baby.
But when I am with kindred spirits (you know, the kind of gathering where people wear big buttons that read, “Carpet is for bedrooms, not churches”) we sometimes share our best-loved passages. This one caught me long ago and holds me fast:
From age to age you gather a people to yourself,
So that from east to west
A perfect offering may be made
To the glory of your name.
I’m drawn to the patient immensity: God choosing, again and again, “from age to age,” to gather a people, gather them in close. “From east to west,” we are gathered, out of every race and nation, so that “a perfect offering may be made” to God’s holy name.
I like to think about perfect offerings: the sound of an all-day Sacred Harp singing, the voices raised in “David’s Lamentation,” or, “268 in the red book,” as it would be called out. I taste my mother’s fried chicken and see Val struggling to learn again to stand and walk. I hear Erma tell me that she is ready to go. Perfect offerings, the work of human hands.
I wonder how the work of human hands can be considered perfect offerings. Then I remember that we call God father and mother. I think of John Ciardi’s poem, “Boy,” where a father is speaking of his son, “in his room sulked shut.” Every parent knows the tears, the mucus, the whining, the angry words spat out from behind the closed door.
But the father in the poem describes his “sulked shut” son with these words, “his tears/as close to holy water as I recall/ any first font shining.”
And that’s the way of parents. They accept the strangled and hard won “I’m sorry,” as perfect contrition. They accept they glue-encrusted card with the lopsided heart as a perfect sentiment. They accept the naked dinosaur dance — “watch me twirl!” — as the perfect delight. All the smudges and cross-outs and chips and cracks and misspellings and tumbles and tears only make the gifts dearer.
Perhaps it’s because, like a father, like a mother, God, as we proclaim, “gathers a people to yourself.” We are not at a distance, the proper perspective for critiques, but flesh to flesh, like a mother and her baby.
Researchers tell us that a newborn’s sight is sharpest at the approximate distance from a mother’s breast to her face. Nowhere does a newborn see more clearly than at his mother’s breast, receiving the milk that gives him life.
That’s the image I see when I hear those words: All of us gathered in to the full and welcoming breast of God. And if the image seems crowded and a little uncomfortable, like hamsters scrambling for a place at the mother’s teats and being shoved off, I go farther into the prayer, where we pray,
Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood,
May be filled with his Holy Spirit,
And become one body, one spirit in Christ.
“One body, one spirit,” plenty of room.
But last Sunday I found myself rejoicing again in the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer I. Usually the phrase, “You know how firmly we believe in you,” worries me. I fear God does know how firmly we believe, and the image that conjures up is me stepping out onto an ice-covered lake in mid-March. It looks frozen all right, but experience tells me the ice is thin and unstable, liable to collapse under my weight.
But I was kneeling beside my granddaughter, Lucy Cecilia, who is a sober and curious four. She likes this prayer because she hears both her names spoken aloud by the priest. I catch Lucy’s expectation, her happy waiting.
For ourselves, too, we ask
Some share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs,
With John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas,
Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter,
Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy,
Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia
And all the saints.
We smile at one another when we get, finally, to “Lucy” and, then, “Cecilia.” Then I feel Lucy tugging on my hand. I lean down and she whispers, excited, “Ma-Maw, did you hear him say ‘Agatha’? She’s the patron of firefighters. My mama told me.”
I did not know that. I was glad to learn. Glad, most of all, to be given the word by sweet Lucy. A perfect offering.
– Melissa Musick