The joint Lutheran-Catholic reflection on the Reformation, From Conflict to Communion, acknowledges that medieval Catholicism was muddled on Eucharistic sacrifice. As a result of a “loss of an integrative concept of commemoration, Catholics were faced with the difficulty of the lack of adequate categories with which to express the sacrificial character of the eucharist. Committed to a tradition going back to patristic times, Catholics did not want to abandon the identification of the eucharist as a real sacrifice even while they struggled to affirm the identity of this eucharistic sacrifice with the unique sacrifice of Christ.” The Catholics and Lutherans who produced the document agree: Luther and other Reformers rightly rejected this bastardized notion of Eucharistic sacrifice.
This story has a happyish outcome, however. The liturgical movement of the twentieth century developed a sounder, and more patristically rooted understanding of anamnesis: “the Catholic–Lutheran dialogue stated as a basic principle: ‘Catholic and Lutheran Christians together recognize that in the Lord’s Supper Jesus Christ is present as the Crucified who died for our sins and who rose again for our justification, as the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world.’ This sacrifice can be neither continued, nor repeated, nor replaced, nor complemented; but rather it can and should become ever effective anew in the midst of the congregation.”
Thus, the “concept of anamnesis has helped to resolve the controversial question of how one sets the once-for-all sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ in right relationship to the Lord’s Supper: ‘Through the remembrance in worship of God’s saving acts, these acts themselves become present in the power of the Spirit, and the celebrating congregation is linked with the men and women who earlier experienced the saving acts themselves. This is the sense in which Christ’s command at the Lord’s Supper is meant: in the proclamation, in his own words, of his saving death, and in the repetition of his own acts at the Supper, the remembrance comes into being in which Jesus’ word and saving work themselves become present.’”
I don’t think this is a perfect statement. It is not clear to me how past events or acts can become present, or why one needs to say that they do. Isn’t it enough that the tokens of Christ’s death (bread and wine) are presented to the Father, that He remembers His promise, and that Christ gives Himself with all His gifts? Isn’t it enough that the once-crucified but now reigning Lord Jesus is present with us? Still, this is a definite improvement on some older views of anamnesis, and one that nudges Catholics and Protestants toward consensus.
And there’s a crucial larger point here: It often thought that in Catholic-Protestant debates, one side must win and the other side lose; or, that the current lines of division are permanent and quasi-eternal. The discussion of Eucharistic sacrifice shows that this is not the case. On this issue, both sides had to modify their positions; fresh reflection and study opened up new possibilities for common confession of the faith.
If it happened with Eucharistic sacrifice, can it not happen elsewhere?