Reflections on Offering - St. Bernard's

Reflections on Offering

Jul 13, 2021

Matthew Pietropaoli, PhD

One common phrase familiar to many Catholics is “offer it up.” When faced with a challenge or a difficulty, we are asked to perform the activity gratefully while offering to God the stress and discomfort associated with it. Like many such phrases taught in childhood, it is only now in adulthood that I’ve begun to see its merits.

Let's consider in more detail the phenomenon of offering. We offer gifts to others including money, our ability, and even our very selves. But an offering is also and more precisely a sacrifice - a letting go of something we hold dear given over for some higher purpose or deeper meaning. Thus, the paradigm of offering is the offering of Christ Himself on the Cross for the sake of our redemption and salvation. He gives up His life in the most horrendous way possible so that the gates of eternal life are opened to us.

Yet consider for a moment what happened with Cain and Abel. Both of them were asked to give God the best which each had respectively; God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and then rejects Cain’s. It is not entirely clear why God rejects Cain’s sacrifice, but God does say that “if he [Cain] does well” he will be accepted. God, in other words, is inviting Cain to reject his sullenness over this rejected sacrifice - to get over his hurt ego - and try again to offer a more fitting sacrifice. He is being invited to relinquish his pride and thus be ready to relinquish, at the proper time, the finest fruits of his labor. Yet Cain opts for the opposite: he lingers in his rage, unwilling to surrender. Next, he attacks and kills his brother, hides his body, and then states, “am I my brother’s keeper?” in response to God’s question about Abel’s whereabouts. The sequence is well worth noting: Cain is not willing to give back to God the best of what he has, which leads, in the end, to the worst part of Cain giving in to an act of fratricide and a declaration of solipsism.

I want to focus on something perhaps overlooked in this story concerning offering. I think that Cain’s unwillingness to offer God the best that he has—and his similar unwillingness to abandon his ego and sense of how things should proceed—is paradigmatic of our own such unwillingness. The fruits of his labor could, I think, represent numerous things: possessions, talents, abilities, money, degrees, jobs, houses, social status, etc., which likewise remain un-offered and thus ensconced within our everyday egoic engagement with the world.

Recall that the failure to give back what is best is tied intimately to the expression of what is worst. Once something becomes fully our own, it by definition belongs to no one else. Thus, properly speaking, it is not offered, but more so loaned out or given access to a temporary and provisional sharing rather than a comprehensive and total gift. Still hung up on the structures of our own egos, these potential offerings tend to whither, decay or become corrupted. They lose their energy, their power, and the capacity to affect real and lasting good. The "Mona Lisa" hoarded in an attic, protected by cases and wrapped under cloth sheets, is really no longer the "Mona Lisa," but a dead artifact, lost to the world.

Pride and egoic possession take over, and the opportunity for expressing a pure gift is lost. In its place comes acrimony, regret, and an abiding fear of loss, all of which serve to harden our hearts, ossify our spirits, and more deeply entrench us within the confines of our own little selves and worlds. But with such hardening and fear may come easily the anger and violence of Cain, since we become jealous and spiteful towards those who, in our eyes, stand in God’s favor and blessing. The hardened heart may easily become the enraged heart capable of fratricide - if not physically then emotionally and spiritually. How can I be my brother’s keeper, when his favor with God seems to threaten what I have and even what I believe myself to be?

The starkest and harshest awareness that arises from this situation, however, is that the self-possessed talent, treasure, or even life has become so dusty and so warped as to be incapable of serving as a genuine gift. Hence, the prior solipsism of Cain now begets an even more painful and devastating solipsism of middle age: the undeniable cognition that by hoarding our abilities, our jobs, our money, and our lives we have greatly damaged our capacity to genuinely help or serve those around us, even those we love. The un-offered gift has withered and decayed. The "Mona Lisa" sits in our proverbial attic, but that attic is too dusty, dirty, and dingy to invite guests in.

And yet, perhaps this is not the inevitable climax to this Shakespearean tragedy. Earlier I mentioned that the paradigm of offering was Christ, He who gave everything He had back to the Father for our sake. St. Paul beautifully expresses and expands upon this in his Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 1:

Such was [God’s] purpose and good pleasure, to the praise of the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins . . . And it is in him that we have received our heritage . . . chosen to be, for the praise of his glory, the people who would put their hopes in Christ before he came. Now you too . . . have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance, for the freedom of the people whom God has taken for his own, for the praise of his glory.

St. Paul, in effect, is saying that Christ, by the spilling of “His blood” on the Cross, has reconciled all things back to God. In virtue of this eternal reconciliation, we are now afforded the opportunity to participate in the outpouring of God’s grace upon the world. In this participation, we are and act “for the praise of his glory” (a phrase Paul repeats several times). What was once stained indelibly with the mark of Cain is now washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. We who were dead in our sinfulness (i.e., our hardened hearts and ensconcing egos) are now brought into new life in God. One word for this is, of course, redemption. Something redeemed is not destroyed and then replaced. Rather what was broken, decayed, or dysfunctional is now renewed, as from within, such that it can exist and act in a life-giving and life-fulfilling manner.

The offering done on the Cross bridges us into God and He into us; it leads to the resurrection and reconciliation with the Father. Christ’s supreme offering made on Calvary, brought to fulfillment in His Resurrection, now serves to unite us more deeply and more really into the all-embracing love of God, our Abba Father. As Romans 8 says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Christ’s offering to the Father brings us along for the journey to our Source—I in all my brokenness, failure, and sinfulness am brought by and with Christ to God my Father. And Christ’s offering likewise brings God the Father to us—to me in all my brokenness, failure, and sinfulness.

Having squandered my gifts, like the prodigal son, I have, of course, nothing to offer now to God. But perhaps I am now finally ready to allow God to live and move within me. I am now perhaps ready to become an offering, precisely because there is nothing of the old self left to preclude that offering. Having brought to fulfillment, i.e., destruction, the way of Cain, I am perhaps ready to embrace, at last, the way of Abel. The finest fruits of labor now can be given full and unreservedly to God and His purposes.

To close, I offer the following from 1 Peter, chapter 2. It encapsulates and best expresses what I have been fumbling to say throughout this essay:

Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, insincerity, envy, and all slander; like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Matthew Pietropaoli received his BA from St. Anselm College and his MA and PhD from the Catholic University of America. His dissertation concerned the thought of German-American philosopher, Hans Jonas. Matthew has taught extensively at the undergraduate level, including courses on ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics. He was fortunate enough to grow up near the Adirondacks, which instilled a life-long love of the natural world.