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§ 96. The Sacrifice of the Eucharist.


Besides the works already cited on the holy Supper, comp. Höfling: Die Lehre der ältesten Kirche vom Opfer im Leben u. Cultus der Kirche. Erlangen, 1851. The articles: Messe, Messopfer, in Wetzer u. Welte: Kirchenlexicon der kathol. Theologie, vol. vii. (1851), p. 83 ff. G. E. Steitz: Art. Messe u. Messopfer in Herzog’s Protest. Real-Encyklopädie, vol. ix. (1858), pp. 375–408. Phil. Freeman: The Principles of Divine Service. Part ii. Oxf. and Lond. 1862. This last work sets out with a very full consideration of the Mosaic sacrificial cultus, and (in the Pref. p. vi.) unjustly declares all the earlier English and German works of Mede, Outram, Patrick, Magee, Bähr, Hengstenberg, and Kurtz, on this subject, entirely unsatisfactory and defective.


The Catholic church, both Greek and Latin, sees in the Eucharist not only a sacramentum, in which God communicates a grace to believers, but at the same time, and in fact mainly, a sacrificium, in which believers really offer to God that which is represented by the sensible elements. For this view also the church fathers laid the foundation, and it must be conceded they stand in general far more on the Greek and Roman Catholic than on the Protestant side of this question. The importance of the subject demands a preliminary explanation of the idea of sacrifice, and a clear discrimination of its original Christian form from its later perversion by tradition.

The idea of sacrifice is the centre of all ancient religions, both the heathen and the Jewish. In Christianity it is fulfilled. For by His one perfect sacrifice on the cross Christ has entirely blotted out the guilt of man, and reconciled him with the righteous God. On the ground of this sacrifice of the eternal High Priest, believers have access to the throne of grace, and may expect their prayers and intercessions to be heard. With this perfect and eternally availing sacrifice the Eucharist stands in indissoluble connection. It is indeed originally a sacrament and the main thing in it is that which we receive from God, not that which we give to God. The latter is only a consequence of the former; for we can give to God nothing which we have not first received from him. But the Eucharist is the sacramentum of a sacrificium, the thankful celebration of the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, and the believing participation or the renewed appropriation of the fruits of this sacrifice. In other words, it is a feast on a sacrifice. “As oft as ye do eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till He come.”

The Eucharist is moreover, as the name itself implies, on the part of the church a living and reasonable thank-offering, wherein she presents herself anew, in Christ and on the ground of his sacrifice, to God with prayers and intercessions. For only in Christ are our offerings acceptable to God, and only through the continual showing forth and presenting of His merit can we expect our prayers and intercessions to be heard.

In this view certainly, in a deep symbolical and ethical sense, Christ is offered to God the Father in every believing prayer, and above all in the holy Supper; i.e. as the sole ground of our reconciliation and acceptance. This is the deep truth which lies at the bottom of the Catholic mass, and gives it still such power over the religious mind.10351035   Freeman states the result of his investigation of the Biblical sacrificial cultus and of the doctrine of the old Catholic church on the eucharistic sacrifice, as follows, on p. 280: “It is enough for us that the holy Eucharist is all that the ancient types foreshowed that it would be; that in it we present ’memorially,’ yet truly and with prevailing power, by the consecrating Hands of our Great High Priest, the wondrous Sacrifice once for all offered by Him at the Eucharistic Institution, consummated on the Cross, and ever since presented and pleaded by Him, Risen and Ascended, in Heaven; that our material Gifts are identified with that awful Reality, and as such are borne in upon the Incense of His Intercession, and in His Holy Hands, into the True Holiest Place: that we ourselves, therewith, are home in thither likewise, and abide in a deep mystery in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus; that thus we have all manner of acceptance,—sonship, kingship, and priesthood unto God; an our whole life, in all its complex action, being sanctified and purified for such access, and abiding continually in a heavenly sphere of acceptableness and privilege.—Enough for us, again, that on the sacramental side of the mystery, we have been thus privileged to give to God His own Gift of Himself to dwell in us, and we in Him;—-that we thereby possess an evermore renewedly dedicated being—strengthened with all might, and evermore made one with Him. Profoundly reverencing Christ’s peculiar Presence in us and around us in the celebration of such awful mysteries, we nevertheless take as the watchword of our deeply mysterious Eucharistic worship, ’Sursum corda,’ and ’Our life is hid with Christ in God.’ “

But this idea in process of time became adulterated with foreign elements, and transformed into the Graeco-Roman doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass. According to this doctrine the Eucharist is an unbloody repetition of the atoning sacrifice of Christ by the priesthood for the salvation of the living and the dead; so that the body of Christ is truly and literally offered every day and every hour, and upon innumerable altars at the same time. The term mass, which properly denoted the dismissal of the congregation (missio, dismissio) at the close of the general public worship, became, after the end of the fourth century, the name for the worship of the faithful,10361036   The missa fidelium, in distinction from the missa catechumenorum. Comp. 90 above. which consisted in the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice and the communion. The corresponding terms of the Orientals are λειτουργία, θυσία, προσφορά.

In the sacrifice of the mass the whole mysterious fulness and glory of the Catholic worship is concentrated. Here the idea of the priesthood reaches its dizzy summit; and here the devotion and awe of the spectators rises to the highest pitch of adoration. For to the devout Catholic nothing can be greater or more solemn than an act of worship in which the eternal Son of God is veritably offered to God upon the altar by the visible hand of the priest for the sins of the world. But though the Catholic worship here rises far above the vain sacrifices of heathendom and the merely typical sacrifices of Judaism, yet that old sacrificial service, which was interwoven with the whole popular life of the Jewish and Graeco-Roman world, exerted a controlling influence on the Roman Catholic service of the Eucharist, especially after the nominal conversion of the whole Roman heathendom, and obscured the original simplicity and purity of that service almost beyond recognition. The sacramentum became entirely eclipsed by the sacrificium, and the sacrificium became grossly materialized, and was exalted at the expense of the sacrifice on the cross. The endless succession of necessary repetitions detracts from the sacrifice of Christ.

The Biblical support of the sacrifice of the mass is weak, and may be reduced to an unduly literal interpretation or a downright perversion of some such passages as Mal. i. 10 f.; 1 Cor. x. 21; Heb. v. 6; vii. 1 f.; xiii. 10. The Epistle to the Hebrews especially is often misapplied, though it teaches with great emphasis the very opposite, viz., the abolition of the Old Testament sacrificial system by the Christian worship, the eternal validity of the sacrifice of our only High Priest on the right hand of the Father, and the impossibility of a repetition of it (comp. x. 14; vii. 23, 24).

We pass now to the more particular history. The ante-Nicene fathers uniformly conceived the Eucharist as a thank-offering of the church; the congregation offering the consecrated elements of bread and wine, and in them itself, to God.10371037   Comp. vol. i. § 102, p. 389 ff. This view is in itself perfectly innocent, but readily leads to the doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass, as soon as the elements become identified with the body and blood of Christ, and the presence of the body comes to be materialistically taken. The germs of the Roman doctrine appear in Cyprian about the middle of the third century, in connection with his high-churchly doctrine of the clerical priesthood. Sacerdotium and sacrificium are with him correlative ideas, and a Judaizing conception of the former favored a like Judaizing conception of the latter. The priest officiates in the Eucharist in the place of Christ,10381038   “Vice Christi vere fungitur.” and performs an actual sacrifice in the church.10391039   “Sacrificium verum et plenum offert in ecclesia Patri.” Yet Cyprian does not distinctly say that Christ is the subject of the spiritual sacrifice; rather is the mystical body of Christ, the Church, offered to God, and married with Christ.10401040   Epist. 63 ad Caecil.c. 14. Augustine’s view is similar: the church offering herself to God in and with Christ as her Head.

The doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass is much further developed in the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, though amidst many obscurities and rhetorical extravagances, and with much wavering between symbolical and grossly realistic conceptions, until in all essential points it is brought to its settlement by Gregory the Great at the close of the sixth century. These points are the following:

1. The eucharistic sacrifice is the most solemn mystery of the church, and fills the faithful with a holy awe. Hence the predicates θυσία φοβερὰ, φρικτὴ, ἀναίμακτος, sacrificium tremendum, which are frequently applied to it, especially in the Oriental liturgies and homilies. Thus it is said in the liturgy of St. James: “We offer to Thee, O Lord, this awful and unbloody sacrifice.” The more surprising is it that the people should have been indifferent to so solemn an act, and that Chrysostom should lament: “In vain is the daily sacrifice, in vain stand we at the altar; there is no one to take part.”10411041   Hom. iii. in Ep. ad Ephes. (new Par. Bened. ed. tom. xi. p. 26): Εἰκῇ θυσία καθημερινὴ, εἰκῇ παρεστήκαμεν τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ, οὐδεὶς ὁ μετέχων, i.e., Frustra est quotidianum sacrificium, frustra adstamus altari: nemo est qui participet.

2. It is not a new sacrifice added to that of the cross, but a daily, unbloody repetition and perpetual application of that one only sacrifice. Augustine represents it, on the one hand, as a sacramentum memoriae a symbolical commemoration of the sacrificial death of Christ; to which of course there is no objection.10421042   Contr. Faust. Manich. l. xx. 18: “Unde jam Christiani, peracti ejusdem sacrificii memoriam celebrant, sacrosancta oblatione et participatione corporis et sanguinis Christi.“ Comp. l. xx. 21. This agrees with Augustine’s symbolical conception of the consecrated elements as signal imagines, similitudines corporis et sanguinis Christi. Steitz, l.c. p. 379, would make him altogether a symbolist, but does not succeed; comp. the preceding section, and Neander, Dogmengesch. i. p. 432. But, on the other hand, he calls the celebration of the communion verissimum sacrificium of the body of Christ. The church, he says, offers (immolat) to God the sacrifice of thanks in the body of Christ, from the days of the apostles through the sure succession of the bishops down to our time. But the church at the same time offers, with Christ, herself, as the body of Christ, to God. As all are one body, so also all are together the same sacrifice.10431043   De Civit. Dei, x. 20: “Per hoc [homo Jesus Christus] et sacerdos est ipse offerens, ipse et oblatio. Cujus rei sacramentum quotidianum esse voluit ecclesiae sacrificium, quae cum ipsius capitis corpus sit, se ipsam per ipsum offere discit.” And the faithful in heaven form with us one sacrifice, since they with us are one civitas Dei. According to Chrysostom the same Christ, and the whole Christ, is everywhere offered. It is not a different sacrifice from that which the High Priest formerly offered, but we offer always the same sacrifice, or rather, we perform a memorial of this sacrifice.10441044   Hom. xvii. in Ep. ad Hebr. tom. xii. pp. 241 and 242: Τοῦτο γὰρ ποιεῖτε φησὶν, εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν. Οὐκ ἄλλην θυσίαν, καθάπερ ὁ ἀρχιερεὺς τότε, ἀλλὰ τὴν αὐτὴν ἀεὶ ποιοῦμεν; μᾶλλον δὲ ἀνάμνησιν ἐργαζόμεθα θυσίας. This last clause would decidedly favor a symbolical conception, if Chrysostom in other places had not used such strong expressions as this: “When thou seest the Lord slain, and lying there, and the priest standing at the sacrifice,” or: “Christ lies slain upon the altar.”10451045   De sacerd. iii. c. 4 (tom. i. 467): Ὅτανἰδῇς τὸνΚύριοντεθυμένονκαὶκείμενον, καὶτὸνἱερέαἐφεστῶτατῷθύματι, καὶἐπευχόμενον, κ. τ. λ. Homil. xv. ad Popul. Antioch. c. 5 (tom. ii. p. 187): ἜνθαὁΧριστὸς κεῖταιτεθυμένος. Comp. Hom. in tom. ii. p. 394, where it is said of the sacrifice of the Eucharist: Θυσίᾳ προσέρχῃ φρικτῇκαὶἀγιᾴ; ἐσφαγμένος πρόκειταιὁΧριστός.

3. The sacrifice is the anti-type of the Mosaic sacrifice, and is related to it as substance to typical shadows. It is also especially foreshadowed by Melchizedek’s unbloody offering of bread and wine. The sacrifice of Melchizedek is therefore made of great account by Hilary, Jerome, Augustine, Chrysostom, and other church fathers, on the strength of the well-known parallel in the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

4. The subject of the sacrifice is the body of Jesus Christ, which is as truly present on the altar of the church, as it once was on the altar of the cross, and which now offers itself to God through his priest. Hence the frequent language of the liturgies: “Thou art he who offerest, and who art offered, O Christ, our God.” Augustine, however, connects with this, as we have already said, the true and important moral idea of the self-sacrifice of the whole redeemed church to God. The prayers of the liturgies do the same.10461046   Freeman regards this as the main thing in the old liturgies. “In all liturgies,” says he, l.c. p. 190, “the Church has manifestly two distinct though closely connected objects in view. The first is, to offer herself in Christ to God; or rather, in strictness and as the highest conception of her aim, to procure that she may be offered by Christ Himself, and as in Christ, to the Father. And the second object, as the crowning and completing feature of the rite, and woven up with the other in one unbroken chain of service, is to obtain communion through Christ with God; or, more precisely again, that Christ may Himself give her, through Himself, such communion.”

5. The offering of the sacrifice is the exclusive prerogative of the Christian priest. Later Roman divines take the words: “This do (ποιεῖτε) in remembrance of me,” as equivalent to: “This offer,” and limit this command to the apostles and their successors in office, whereas it is evidently an exhortation to all believers to the commemoration of the atoning death, the communio sacramenti, and not to the immolatio sacrificii.

6. The sacrifice is efficacious for the whole body of the church, including its departed members, in procuring the gifts which are implored in the prayers of the service.

All the old liturgies proceed under a conviction of the unbroken communion of saints, and contain commemorations and intercessions for the departed fathers and brethren, who are conceived to be, not in purgatory, but in communion with God and in a condition of progressive holiness and blessedness, looking forward in pious longing to the great day of consummation.

These prayers for an increase of bliss, which appeared afterwards very inappropriate, form the transition from the original simple commemoration of the departed saints, including the patriarchs, prophets and apostles, to intercessions for the suffering souls in purgatory, as used in the Roman church ever since the sixth century.10471047   Neale has collected in an appendix to his English edition of the old liturgies (The Liturgies of S. Mark, S. James, etc., Lond. 1859, p. 216 ff.) the finest liturgical prayers of the ancient church for the departed saints, and deduces from them the positions, ”(1) that prayers for the dead, and more especially the oblation of the blessed Eucharist for them, have been from the beginning the practice of the Universal Church. (2) And this without any idea of a purgatory of pain, or of any state from which the departed soul has to be delivered as from one of misery.” The second point needs qualification. In the liturgy of Chrysostom, still in use in the Greek and Russian church, the commemoration of the departed reads. “And further we offer to thee this reasonable service on behalf of those who have departed in the faith, our ancestors, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins, and every just spirit made perfect in the faith .... Especially the most holy, undefiled, excellently laudable, glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary .... the holy John the Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist, the holy, glorious and all-celebrated Apostles, and all thy Saints, through whose prayers look upon us, O God. And remember all those that are departed in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, and give them rest where the light of Thy countenance shines upon them.”

Cyril of Jerusalem, in his fifth and last mystagogic Catechesis, which is devoted to the consideration of the eucharistic sacrifice and the liturgical service of God, gives the following description of the eucharistic intercessions for the departed: “When the spiritual sacrifice, the unbloody service of God, is performed, we pray to God over this atoning sacrifice for the universal peace of the church, for the welfare of the world, for the emperor, for soldiers and prisoners, for the sick and afflicted, for all the poor and needy. Then we commemorate also those who sleep, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, that God through their prayers and their intercessions may receive our prayer; and in general we pray for all who have gone from us, since we believe that it is of the greatest help to those souls for whom the prayer is offered, while the holy sacrifice, exciting a holy awe, lies before us.”10481048   Τῆς ἁγίας καὶφρικωδεστάτης προκειμένης θυσίας, Catech. xxiii. 8.

This is clearly an approach to the later idea of purgatory in the Latin church. Even St. Augustine, with Tertullian, teaches plainly, as an old tradition, that the eucharistic sacrifice, the intercessions or suffragia and alms, of the living are of benefit to the departed believers, so that the Lord deals more mercifully with them than their sins deserve.10491049   Serm. 172, 2 (Opp. tom. v. 1196): “Orationibus sanctae ecclesiae, et sacrificio salutari, et eleemosynis, quae pro eorum spiritibus erogantur, non est dubitandum mortuos adjuvari, ut cum eis misericordius agatur a Domino.” He expressly limits this effect, however, to those who have departed in the faith. His noble mother, Monica, when dying, told him he might bury her body where he pleased, and should give himself no concern for it, only she begged of him that he would remember her soul at the altar of the Lord.10501050   Confess. l. ix. 27: “Tantum illud vos rogo, ut ad Domini altare memineritis mei, ubi fueritis.” Tertullianconsiders it the duty of a devout widow to pray for the soul of her husband, and to offer a sacrifice on the anniversary of his death; De monogam. c. 10. Comp. De corona, c. 2: “Oblationes pro defunctis pro natalitiis annua die facimus.”

With this is connected the idea of a repentance and purification in the intermediate state between death and resurrection, which likewise Augustine derives from Matt. xii. 32, and 1 Cor. iii. 15, yet mainly as a mere opinion.10511051   De Civit. Dei, xxi. 24, and elsewhere. The passages of Augustineand the other fathers in favor of the doctrine of purgatory are collected in the much-cited work of Berington and Kirk: The Faith of Catholics, etc., vol. iii. pp. 140-207. From these and similar passages, and under the influence of previous Jewish and heathen ideas and customs, arose, after Gregory the Great, the Roman doctrine of the purgatorial fire for imperfect believers who still need to be purified from the dross of their sins before they are fit for heaven, and the institution of special masses for the dead, in which the perversion of the thankful remembrance of the one eternally availing sacrifice of Christ reaches its height, and the idea of the communion utterly disappears.10521052   There are silent masses, missae solitariae, at which usually no one is present but the priest, with the attendant boys, who offers to God at a certain tariff the magically produced body of Christ for the deliverance of a soul from purgatory. This institution has also a heathen precedent in the old Roman custom of offering sacrifices to the Manes of beloved dead. On Gregory’s doctrine of the mass, which belongs in the next period, comp. the monograph of Lau, p. 484f. The horrible abuse of these masses for the dead, and their close connection with superstitious impostures of purgatory and of indulgence, explain the moral anger of the Reformers at the mass, and the strong declarations against it in several symbolical books, especially in the Smalcald Articles by Luther (ii. 2, where the mass is called draconis cauda), and in the Heidelberg Catechism (the 80th question, which, by the way, is wanting entirely in the first edition of 1563, and was first inserted in the second edition by express command of the Elector Friedrich III., and in the third edition was enriched with the epithet “damnable idolatry”).

In general, in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper the sacrament continually retired behind the sacrifice. In the Roman churches in all countries one may see and hear splendid masses at the high altar, where the congregation of the faithful, instead of taking part in the communion, are mere spectators of the sacrificial act of the priest. The communion is frequently despatched at a side altar at an early hour in the morning.



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