Eucharistic Sacrifice

Eucharistic Sacrifice January 31, 2017

Daniel Waterland’s 1737 A Review of the Doctrine of the Eucharist includes a lengthy section on Eucharistic sacrifice that begins from the premise that Eucharistic sacrifice is a belief shared by the entire catholic church: “That the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in whole or in part, in a sense proper or improper, is a sacrifice of the Christian Church, is a point agreed upon among all knowing and sober divines, Popish, Lutheran, or Reformed.”

The question is not whether it is a sacrifice, but how; the issue is what sort of sacrifice it is: “the Romanists have so often and so grievously abused the once innocent names of oblation, sacrifice, propitiation, &c., perverting them to an ill sense, and grafting false doctrine and false worship upon them, that the Protestants have been justly jealous of admitting those names, or scrupulously wary and reserved in the use of them.” Protestants, Lutheran and Reformed, rejected “any proper propitiation, or proper sacrifice in the Eucharist; admitting however of some kind of propitiation in a qualified sense, and of sacrifice also, but of a spiritual kind, and therefore styled improper, or metaphorical” (338). There have, however, been some Protestants who claimed that “the Eucharist was a sacrifice in a proper sense, a fulfillment of the Old Testament minchat or ‘grain offering.’”

Taking his cues from Augustine’s definition of sacrifice as any act done for the sake of union with God, Waterland describes a variety of sacrificial acts within the church, all of which meet Augustine’s definition of “true and proper” sacrifices. By the Augustinian definition, the Eucharist “is both a true and a proper sacrifice . . . and the noblest that we are capable of offering.” Other acts of the church are sacrificial: “The sacrifice of alms to the poor, and oblations to the Church . . . The sacrifice of prayer, from a pure heart, is evangelical incense . . . The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God the Father, through Christ Jesus our Lord, is another Gospel sacrifice. . . . The sacrifice of a penitent and contrite heart, even under the Law, (and now much more under the Gospel, when explicitly offered through Christ,) was a sacrifice of the new covenant. . . . The offering up the mystical body of Christ, that is, his Church, is another Gospel sacrifice” (344–5). These “all so many true sacrifices, and may all meet together in the one great complicated sacrifice of the Eucharist” (345).

Eucharistic sacrifice properly understood is fully consistent with the notion that the Eucharist is an act of covenant renewal and commitment: “if it be really a spiritual sacrifice, in or by which every faithful communicant devotes himself entirely to God; and if the sacerdotal offering up our Lord’s mystical body be (as St. Austin explains this matter) a sacerdotal devoting all the faithful joining it, to God’s service, and to God’s glory: then may we again justly conclude, that the sacramental service is a federal, as well as a sacrificial solemnity: because, in this case, the administrator’s devoting the communicants, and their devoting themselves to God, is tantamount to a solemn renewing former engagements or covenants made with him, under such symbols as God has appointed, and promised to ratify on his part” (386).

In this sense, ministers are genuine new covenant priests; the faithful are also all priests, consecrated as such by baptism: “as Christians at large were considered as priests, on account of their offering spiritual sacrifices, so their consecration to such their priesthood was supposed to be performed in or by Baptism : or, in other words, their baptism was their consecration” (387)_

For all this, Waterland does not believe, that the church or the minister offers Christ to the Father in any fashion in the Eucharist, even symbolically: “no one has any authority or right to offer Christ as a sacrifice (whether really or symbolically) but Christ himself. Such a sacrifice is his sacrifice, not ours; offered for us, and not by us, to God the Father.” The only thing we can be said to sacrifice symbolically is “the bread and wine as symbols of the united body of the Church. We may so symbolically offer up, or sacrifice ourselves, and that is all.”

Waterland gives several reasons for rejecting the notion that we offer Christ symbolically at the Eucharist: “If the thing symbolically offered in the Eucharist were Christ himself, then the offerer or offerers must stand in the place of Christ, and be as truly the symbols of Christ in their offering capacity, as the elements are supposed to be in their sacrificial capacity. Then not only the Priests, but the whole Church, celebrating the Eucharist, must symbolically represent the person of Christ, and stand in his stead.” This may be true, but it doesn’t count as an objection; after all, the church is the body of Christ, one Spirit with the head. Waterland agrees that we “sacrifice ourselves” but that cannot mean that we sacrifice ourselves “outside” of Christ. And if the church offers herself in Christ and by the Spirit, then the Eucharistic offering is a form of Christ’s own self-offering.

Waterland also argues that the notion that the church offers Christ to the Father under symbols arises from “want of distinguishing the sacrificial part of the Eucharist from the sacramental one, as before noted: we do not offer Christ to God in the Eucharist, but God offers Christ to us, in return for our offering ourselves. We commemorate the grand sacrifice, but do not reiterate it; no not so much as under symbols” (373–4). That assumes that “offering symbolically” is equivalent to “reiterating.” But there’s no need to make that equation.

Here twentieth-century developments in the theology of the anamnesis advance beyond Waterland. “Commemoration” is a symbolic memorial of Christ’s sacrifice before the Father, the bread and wine a “rainbow” that reminds the Father of His covenant and calls on Him to keep it. This closes the gap between old and new covenant sacrifices, both of which function as memorials, with the only difference being a “tense” change—from a memorial of a future sacrifice to a memorial of an accomplished sacrifice. And, as I’ve noted before, this theology of anamnesis also holds ecumenical promise.

(Thanks to Peter Escalante for pointing me to Waterland’s work.)

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