N UNCOMMON link unites today’s celebration of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite. On most Sundays, there is not a direct correspondence between the orations (i.e., the collect, super oblata, and post-communion) used in the two forms of the Roman Rite. Today, however, exactly the same prayer is used both as the secret for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (EF) and the prayer over the offerings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (OF). Not only is this correspondence out of the ordinary, but the text of the prayer, itself, is rather unusual.
Here is the text, along with the present English translation (ICEL, 2010):
Deus, qui legalium differentiam hostiarum
unius sacrificii perfectione sanxisti,
accipe sacrificium a devotis tibi famulis,
et pari benedictione, sicut munera Abel, sanctifica,
ut, quod singuli obtulerunt ad maiestatis tuae honorem,
cunctis proficiat ad salutem.
O God, who in the one perfect sacrifice
brought to completion varied offerings of the law,
accept, we pray, this sacrifice from your faithful servants
and make it holy, as you blessed the gifts of Abel,
so that what each has offered to the honor of your majesty
may benefit the salvation of all.
Particularly unusual for a super oblata is the mention of the Old Testament character Abel and the gifts he offered. A very similar allusion finds expression in the Roman Canon, which asks God to look upon the offerings of the Church “with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once [He was] pleased to accept the gifts of [His] servant Abel the just.”
For many Catholics, this mention of Abel and the gifts he offered is a somewhat obscure reference. Today, therefore, is a fine opportunity to draw out the significance of Abel, allowing him to stand in the light of the Scriptures and the sacred liturgy.
BEL WAS the younger brother of Cain, and both brothers were sons of Adam and Eve. Ultimately, in a fit of jealously, Cain killed Abel—the first, but not nearly the last, example of murder in the Bible. The cause of this fratricide is explained in the Book of Genesis, chapter 4: “In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” (Gen 4:3-5, RSV). This is why Cain killed Abel.
The story does not explicitly say why Abel’s offering found acceptance before the Lord, nor does it explicitly say why Cain’s offering did not. Nevertheless, two reasons suggest themselves and find support in the New Testament.
First, there is the external matter of what was physically offered. Abel was a herdsman, and he offered the firstlings of his flock—that is to say, the best he had to offer. Cain was a tiller of the ground, but for his offering, he failed to choose the first fruits of his produce. Cain offered not what was best, but simply what he had at hand. Sacrifice is always better, more pure, more complete when we offer the best of ourselves.
A second reason why Abel’s sacrifice was more excellent than Cain’s concerns the interior matter of the disposition with which these offerings were made. Again, Genesis does not speak directly to this, but the Letter to the Hebrews does. There it says: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous” (Heb 11:4, RSV). The superiority of Abel’s gift stems from the fact that it was offered with faith and in righteousness. Those are the interior dispositions of a just man—dispositions which Cain evidently did not have. If Cain had been faithful and righteous, he would not have been provoked to murder his brother, since, as the Gospels remind us, we are known by our fruits (Matt 7:16 and 20). Abel’s offering was made from the heart, whereas Cain’s was perfunctory.
All of this helps us to make sense of our liturgical references to Abel. What is prayed in the super oblata today is really no different from what is prayed in the Roman Canon. In both cases, we ask God to look upon our offering and to regard it with the same favor with which He once regarded Abel’s sacrifice of old.
E SHOULD ask ourselves to what extent the personal sacrifice we make at the altar resembles the sacrifice of Abel. Insofar as the sacrifice offered at the altar is the sacrifice of Christ, it is perfect and lacking in nothing, wholly and eternally pleasing to God the Father. Insofar as it is also our sacrifice, all this remains an open question. 1 This is clear from the words of the priest, when he enjoins the faithful: “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”
We make a pleasing and acceptable sacrifice to God 1) by offering what is truly best of ourselves and 2) by offering with faith and in righteousness—deeply, interiorly, with love and fervor and devotion.
Each time we approach the altar, may the Lord look upon our worship just as favorably as He looked upon the gifts of Abel the just!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 On this point, I am indebted to Milton Walsh, In Memory of Me: A Meditation on the Roman Canon (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 129.