Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Eucharist as Sacrifice


If such was the Church's understanding of baptism, the Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice from the closing decade of the first century, if not earlier. Malachi's prediction (I, 10 f.) that the Lord would reject the Jewish sacrifices and instead would have 'a pure offering' made to Him by the Gentiles in every place was early seized upon by Christians as a prophecy of the Eucharist. The Didache indeed actually applies the term θυσια, or sacrifice, to the Eucharist, and the idea is presupposed by Clement in the parallel he discovers between the Church's ministers and the Old Testament priests and Levites, as in his description of the function of the former as the offering of gifts (cf. τονς ... προσενεγκοντας ταγωρα). Ignatius' reference to 'one altar, just as there is one bishop,' reveals that he too thought in sacrificial terms. Justin speaks of 'all the sacrifices in this name which Jesus appointed to be performed, viz. in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are celebrated in every place by Christians'. Not only here but elsewhere too, he identifies 'the bread of the Eucharist, and the cup likewise of the Eucharist', with the sacrifice foretold by Malachi. For Irenaeus, the Eucharist is 'the new oblation of the new covenant', which the Church has received from the apostles and offers to God throughout the whole world.

It was natural for early Christians to think of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The fulfillment of prophecy demanded a solemn Christian offering, and the rite itself was wrapped in the sacrificial atmosphere with which our Lord invested the Last Supper. The words of institution, 'Do this' (τουτο ποιειτε), must have been charged with sacrificial overtones for second century ears; Justin at any rate understood them to mean, 'Offer this'. If we inquire what the sacrifice was supposed to consist in, the Didache for its part provides no clear answer. Justin, however, makes it plain that the bread and the wine themselves were the 'pure offering' foretold by Malachi. Even if he holds that 'prayers and thanksgivings' (ευχαριστιαι) are the only God-pleasing sacrifices, we must remember that he uses the term 'thanksgiving' as technically equivalent to 'the eucharistized bread and wine'. The bread and wine, moreover, are offered 'for a memorial (εις αναμνησιν) of the passion', a phrase which in view of his identification of them with the Lord's body and blood implies much more than an act of purely spiritual recollection. Altogether it would seem that, while his language is not fully explicit, Justin is feeling his way to the conception of the Eucharist as the offering of the Savior's passion. Irenaeus' thought moves along rather different lines and does not link the Eucharist so closely with Christ's atoning death. When the bread and wine are offered to God, he thinks of them primarily as first-fruits of the earth which Christ has instructed us to offer, not because the Father needs them, but that we may not be found unfruitful and ungrateful. This is 'the oblation of the Church', and is well-pleasing to God as the expression of a sincere and faithful disposition. But the idea of the passion pervades this approach too, for Irenaeus identifies the gifts with Christ's body and blood and describes them, in language reminiscent of the Lord's words at the Last Supper, as 'the oblation of the new covenant'.

This leads us to consider the significance attached to the elements themselves in this period. From the Didache we gather that the bread and wine are 'holy'; they are spiritual food and drink communicating immortal life. Ignatius roundly declares that 'the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness raised'. The bread is the flesh of Jesus, the cup His blood. Clearly he intends this realism to be taken strictly, for he makes it the basis of his argument against the Docetists' denial of the reality of Christ's body. Because the Eucharist brings Christians into union with their Lord, it is the great bond between them; and since it mediates communion with Christ, it is a medicine which procures immortality (φαρμακοναθανασιας), an antidote against death which enables us to live in the Lord forever. Justin actually refers to the change. 'We do not receive these', he writes, 'as common bread or common drink. But just as our Savior Jesus Christ was made flesh through the Word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food which has been eucharistized by the word of prayer from Him (that food which by process of assimilation nourishes our flesh and blood) is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.' So Irenaeus teaches that the bread and wine are really the Lord's body and blood. His witness is, indeed, all the more impressive, because he produces it quite incidentally while refuting the Gnostic and Docetic rejection of the Lord's real humanity. Like Justin, too, he seems to postulate a change, for he remarks: 'Just as the bread, which comes from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but Eucharist, being composed of two elements, a terrestrial one and a celestial, so our bodies are no longer commonplace when they receive the Eucharist since they have the hope of resurrection to eternity'.

J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition, pages 196-198,
published by Harper Collins.

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