AT THE LAST SUPPER Jesus took the bread and the cup. This "taking" is the origin of what is still commonly called the Offertory, although the present missal calls it "the preparing of the gifts," thereby reminding us of the real nature of the act. For that is precisely what it is.
At the Last Supper there was only the "taking", the table was already prepared, and the "taking" was followed at once by the "giving thanks" — the Eucharistic Prayer.
This simple sequence of acts survived for several hundred years, but from an early date there are signs that the "taking" came to be preceded by something else.
As early as the year 96, Clement of Rome, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, refers to the proper "liturgies" or "ministries" of the bishop, the presbyters, the deacons, and the laity, in a clearly eucharistic context. What is he talking about?
Justin, in the middle of the second century, writes of the bread and wine being "brought" to the president (the bishop). Hippolytus, at the beginning of the third century. specifies that it is the deacons who bring them, and that the presbyters join the bishop in "laying hands on" them — taking them.
Hippolytus also speaks of candidates for baptism bringing an offering for the Eucharist with them; and there are other references, notably in Tertullian (c160-225), and Cyprian (c210-258), to the laity bringing offerings.
Putting these and similar references together, it seems clear that from an eaarly date it was the custom for the faithful to bring offerings of bread and wine for the Eucharist.
This custom was undoubtedly given a strong impetus by the battle which had to be fought against anti-materialist, and therefore antiincarnationalist, heresies in the second century. However, there is no evidence in these early writings for an "offertory procession" of the people: rather the contrary.
It was the function of the deacons to bring the offerings to the bishop at what we call the Offertory; and it is most likely that the laity delivered their offerings to the deacons before the service, as has ever since remained the custom in the East.
The first evidence for the laity actually presenting their offerings at the Offertory is to be found, in passing, in the writings of Augustine (354-430) in North Africa; the first detailed evidence is in the First Roman Ordo of the late seventh (?) century. And even this evidence is rather of an "offertory collection" than an "offertory procession".
Collection or procession, the offering of the eucharistic elements by the people died out with the dying out of frequent communion in the early Middle Ages. But meanwhile the beginnings of another development had taken place.
Mention has already been made of the function of the "collect" form of prayer as a liturgical "punctuation mark", concluding each section of the service. In the West in the fifth century one such prayer was inserted at the close of the Offertory, the prayer known as the "prayer over the offerings" (the title revived in the present Roman Missal) or the "secret" (which means the prayer over the things "set apart").
Many of these prayers embody theological material of value. But their insertion could tend to make the Offertory an act in its own right, rather than what it originally was, the necessary preliminary to the Eucharistic Prayer: the clear sequence from "taking" to "giving thanks" could be obscured.
This would not have mattered had it not been for the later development of prayers accompanying every stage of the "preparing of the gifts". These prayers probably originated as private prayers used by the clergy and the literate faithful at the presentation of their own gifts; but as general lay offering and Communion died out they tended more and more to become formal prayers of the celebrant, the only surviving "offerer".
Their origin accounts for the "I" form in which many of them were couched. Ultimately therewere hundreds of sets of these prayers; almost every diocese and religious order in the Middle Ages had its own variants. The late medieval Roman set was retained in the missal of 1570, and so survived unchanged for the ensuing four centuries.
One other, and comparatively early, development must be noted. At the same time as the entrance chant was introduced, two other chants were introduced as well, one at the Offertory and one at the Communion, both psalms sung in the same manner as the entrance chant.
Ultimately, in the later Middle Ages, these chants were reduced to one verse of the psalm or the antiphon: the lengthy action they were designed to accompany having to all Intents and purposes disappeared, the bulk of the chant disappeared as well.