Nothing perks up the itching ears of Romophobic Protestants faster than the specter of Eucharistic sacrifice. Calling what happens in Holy Communion a sacrifice is the surest and fastest way to get yourself tarred as a crypto-papist. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest repeatedly refer to the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass as an abomination. It represented to them everything that was wrong with the medieval Roman Catholic Church – the abuse of power, the selling of salvation, and especially the removal of Christ and His cross from the center of the Christian faith.
Anglicanism is alone amongst the Reformation traditions in retaining the historic Christian teaching that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. Our prayer book is bold in its proclamation of this truth. Nevertheless, the way in which we understand what this means is very different from the understanding of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. While the Roman understanding lead away from the cross and towards the power of the priest, the Anglican teaching is centered entirely on Christ’s work of atonement and our reception of His saving grace. As John Bramhall wrote against a Roman interlocutor while in exile in 1653, “You say we have renounced your Sacrifice of the Mass. If the Sacrifice of the Mass be the same with the Sacrifice of the Cross, we attribute more unto it than yourselves; we place our whole hope of salvation in it.”
Eucharistic Sacrifice in the Prayer Book
The Book of Common Prayer makes use of three images of sacrifice in the celebration of the Eucharist. The first and most important is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross through which He “made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” Through our celebration of the Eucharist, we keep “a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.” In this sense, the Eucharistic sacrifice does nothing new. It is a memorial that calls to mind what Jesus has already done and finished. But it does more than simply call it to mind. It also allows us to receive the merits of Christ’s sacrifice as we ask the Father to grant that “we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.” As Jeremy Taylor put it, “As it is a Commemoration and Representation of Christ’s death, so it is a Commemorative Sacrifice. As we receive the symbols and the mystery, so it is a Sacrament. In both capacities, the benefit is next to infinite.”
Our Sacrifice Comes From His
While the central act of sacrifice in the Eucharist is the once for all sacrifice of Christ that we receive, the second and third kinds of sacrifice in the Eucharist are about us and what we offer to God. The postcommunion prayer, which made its way into the body of the actual Eucharistic prayer in the Scottish and American prayer books, pleads for God to “accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” In fulfilling the Lord’s command that we celebrate His Supper, we offer Him our praises and our thanksgiving for all that He’s done for us, which is in fact how the Supper becomes truly eucharistic since Eucharist means thanksgiving. Furthermore, we offer God not only our praise and thanks, but also “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto [Him].” It is particularly significant that at this point in the service we refer to our souls and bodies as “holy.” In this prayer’s original placement, this makes sense for us to say since we have just received Christ’s Body and Blood which have made our sinful bodies “clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood.”
These other modes of sacrifice are important in that they spring forth from our reception of the primary sacrifice, that of Christ Himself. Our sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving, or even of our souls and bodies, are not meant in any way to be propitiatory. We do not offer these things in the hopes that God will save us more than He already has. We count His finished work on the Cross to be perfectly sufficient to save our souls. Nevertheless, because He has redeemed us, we are filled with His grace and love, which makes us want to praise Him and give ourselves completely to Him. We make our sacrifice without hoping to incur favor with Him, but simply out of love for Him, a love which would not be possible for us to have were it not for the Holy Spirit opening us to receive it.
Where Rome Went Wrong
The title of this post is meant to be taken mostly tongue-in-cheek. It is not actually all that important whether we call the service Holy Communion, Holy Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy, or the Mass. The titles are roughly equivalent. The word Mass itself comes from the Latin Missa est which is simply a dismissal prayer said at the end of the old Latin rite. The problem with the medieval Roman understanding of the Mass was not its name but the theological implications with which that particular designation for the Supper came to be associated. The third canon of the twenty second session of the Council of Trent states explicitly, “If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice… let him be anathema.” Each Mass is an “unbloody sacrifice” in which Christ Himself is sacrificed anew by the priest on the altar for the sake of “appeasing” the Lord that He might grant us mercy. All of this classical Anglicanism explicitly rejects because it cheapens Christ’s work on the cross and expresses a surprising lack of faith in the actual sacrificial power of the Holy Eucharist, not as a new sacrifice but as a participation in the old one.
Why We Need a Doctrine of Eucharistic Sacrifice
All of this may seem like wordplay, but in fact it is essential that we understand the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, because if we do not, we will eventually fail to see the Eucharist as important at all. There are twin errors at work in the way that most of western Christianity has approached the notion of Eucharistic sacrifice for the past five hundred years. For Rome, the error has been to make the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ into a repeatable event, thereby asserting that the sacrifice that He made on the cross was insufficient for the forgiveness of all sins for all time. For Protestants, however, the error has been to see in the Supper no sacrifice at all and to lose track thereby of the fact that it is in our receiving of the Supper that we truly receive Christ, not just His Body and Blood in some sort of crude sense, but also the healing grace that comes through that Blood. As Bramhall said, the Eucharist is an “applicative sacrifice, an application of His Merits unto our souls.” Failure to see this reality, even amongst the Lutherans who generally uphold the doctrine of the Real Presence, leads inevitably to a sense that the Supper does not really matter. Sure, we receive Christ in the Eucharist, but it’s not like we’re saved by it. Except, we are saved by it. That is the whole point. The blood that spilled on Calvary is the only sacrifice that we need, the only one that saves us, but without stepping into the moment of that sacrifice, we have no way of receiving its grace. The commemorative sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist places us at the foot of the cross. Quite simply, it is what makes the wafer placed in our hands at the Altar Rail not just Christ’s Body but the Bread of Life.