A little more than two years ago, I was molded by a life-changing experience. “Brother pain” as St. Francis would say, came knocking at my door. I had recently undergone a routine surgery, that seemed to have gone well, but in reality my body was struggling to recover. During the post-surgery recovery, I received a rare email from a dear friend of mine from our college days. She shared with me about the very difficult time she was going through. Sarah had always been an example of solid faith and hope, and she is famous for her joy and sense of humor in every situation. Knowing this, I quickly understood the seriousness of her interior state when she wrote me and a few other friends asking us to pray for her. She shared how her faith risked crumbling in the midst of a break-up in the relationship that she had hoped would become fulfillment of her vocation to marriage. I immediately started praying intentionally for her, feeling her pain, and asking Jesus to console her heart and strengthen her faith. That same night, I began to have terrible pain in my abdomen, worse than I had ever experienced, along with vomiting and a fever. My sisters brought me to the ER where I had to wait for twenty hours before the doctors finally discovered the cause of my illness. Overwhelmed by the physical pain, I was also confused and angry with God, asking, “How is this possible? Why all this pain?” In every part of the hospital where I was moved, a crucifix always stared at me from the wall, in my direct line of vision. I resisted looking back at Him because I was angry, not seeing any meaning in my situation. The only lucid thought that I had during all of those excruciating hours was that I shouldn’t waste the pain: I had to offer it up for Sarah. This offering was the only thing that gave some light and meaning to what I was enduring. I didn’t know why I was suffering, but I trusted that if I united it to the suffering of Jesus, some good could come from it, and I prayed that it would come especially for my friend. When I thought that I couldn’t bear another minute, finally the doctors diagnosed an intestinal blockage and operated on me immediately. From then on, the pain gradually diminished and I returned to full health.
While praying, I felt prompted to share this story because it reflects what happens in a real way during the offertory of the Mass. When the priest offers bread and wine, we are invited to offer ourselves with all that we are living: our suffering, worries, anxiety, confusion, hopes and desires. We offer ourselves with all our humanity in order to be transformed into the divinity of Christ, just like the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ. Living the offertory with this attention to our own personal offering is a great way to exercise our common priesthood. As baptized members of the Church, even we who are not ordained ministers are call to participate in Christ’s priesthood.
The priest, in Judaism as in other religions, always had the role of offering sacrifices. It was simply the job description of the priest: the priest is he who offers, while the sacrifice is what is offered. The huge innovation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ is that He is both priest and sacrifice. He is not a passive victim, like the animal in the ancient rites, but rather He chooses freely to give His life. The Letter to the Hebrews describes the difference of Christian priesthood:
“For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,’ as it is written of me in the roll of the book.” (Heb 10:4-7)
Participating in Christ’s priesthood means that we can and should offer ourselves and others in order to be transformed by the extraordinary power of Christ the Priest. It is He who changes death into Resurrection, human into divine, confusion into meaning, pain into joy.
Pope Saint John Paul II, who suffered much, wrote a very profound letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, Salvifici Doloris. He writes, “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (SD, 19). Throughout the letter, the Pope’s aim is not to explain the reason of suffering (which may be physical, psychological or spiritual), but rather to reveal its hidden meaning and its enormous potential for fruitfulness. He affirms, “Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption, and can share this treasure with others” (SD, 27).
Now, I don’t presume that it was only the offering of my suffering that obtained for Sarah the implored transformation, but in reality, it did occur, and for me it was a confirmation of the real power of offertory and intercessory prayer. For reasons mysterious to us, God allowed the breakup and apparent death of that relationship so important to Sarah in order to prove that “all things work to the good of those who love God” (Rom 8:28). I believe that we are able to see just a few of the fruits; some we may glimpse in the future, others only in heaven when everything will be made clear. An important fruit for me was the meaning and motivation that the offering gave to my suffering. Without this intention so dear to my heart, I could have easily plummeted into anger and despair. There has also been an incredible transformation in Sarah’s situation. In a phone conversation that we had two months after my ER experience, when everything was still dark and incomprehensible in her life, I remember she told me with great faith, “This is the year of the phoenix! We will see what new life the Lord has in store!” Besides being an ancient mythological bird, the phoenix is also a Christian symbol of the resurrection. The Lord really did want to rise from the ashes in Sarah’s life because after another six months she and that man got back together, both transformed from the experience. It was as if the Lord said: “No need to remember past events, no need to think about what was done before. Look, I am doing something new, now it emerges; can you not see it? Yes, I am making a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Is 43:18-19). Renewed in their love for one another and strengthened in their trust in the Lord, they proceeded quickly along the road the Lord was showing them. A few months ago, I had the immense joy of witnessing the fulfillment of my dear Sarah’s vocation to marriage. After the ceremony, we celebrated with food and drink, music and dancing, and we were really able to say with the Psalmist, “You have changed my mourning into dancing, you have stripped off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy!” (Ps 30:12).
The next time I participate at Mass, I will pay extra attention to the moment of the offertory of bread and wine. What can I offer to the Lord? What weighs on my heart, what takes away my peace, what can I no longer bear? Exercising my common priesthood, I will offer this and all of myself on the altar, with the faith that I will be transformed by His divine power.