He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?

Romans 8:32

The Direction of the Eucharist: Up or Down?

Before the Reformation, it was standard practice for a Mass to be “offered” for some benefit. Like in the Sarum Missal, the liturgical text in use in England before the Reformation, there is a Mass to “turn away pestilence”, and even today, the Roman Catholics have Masses which are “offered” with the intention for say, school exams, or any other causes.

On the surface, the idea of the Lord’s Supper being “offered” for a prayer intention seems very strange. The direction of prayer offerings is upwards, from us to God, while the direction of the work of the sacrament isdownwards, it is God working on us and giving us his Son’s Body and Blood. Since they go in opposite directions, how can a sacrament be an offering at the same time? Or to use the polemical language of the Reformation, how can a sacrament be a sacrifice or offering?

The distinction between a sacrament and sacrifice was sharply drawn during the Reformation which can be captured in this paragraph by Philip Melanchthon,

A Sacrament is a ceremony or work in which God presents to us that which the promise annexed to the ceremony offers; as, Baptism is a work, not which we offer to God, but in which God baptizes us, i.e., a minister in the place of God; and God here offers and presents the remission of sins, etc., according to the promise, Mark 16:16: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. A sacrifice, on the contrary, is a ceremony or work which we render God in order to afford Him honor.

So if prayer is a work which we do to honour God, and a sacrament is a work which God does for our benefit, then how can a sacrament be a sacrifice or prayer offering? Of course the gap between sacrament and prayer offering can be bridged by pointing to the doctrine that the Lord’s Supper is a commemoration of the work of Christ upon the cross, and that the priest “makes present” the Cross to the congregation who pleads it benefits for various prayer intentions. While certainly a very catholic answer, but it is not really a meaningful answer. It would seem to imply that somehow when we privately offer our prayers to God, it is possible for us to notoffer our prayers on the basis of the work of the Cross. And also it would also raise all kinds of awkward issues like prayers “near” or in proximity of a Eucharistic presentation of the Cross or during a Mass is somehow “more special” than prayers offered elsewhere, or in other times, etc.

Such was Luther’s own argument in his, A Treatise on the New Testament that is the Holy Mass, where he argues that prayers, thanksgivings and praise can be offered and should be offered at all times and anywhere, not just at a Mass. However, despite insisting that prayers, thanksgiving and praise (which we shall lump together as “spiritual sacrifices”) should be utterly distinguished from sacrament and that we should “keep the two as far apart as heaven and earth”, but Luther does offer in the same treatise an intriguing idea for reconciling the two.

Sacrament as a Token and Pledge of Prayer Received

Luther first explains that all our spiritual sacrifices, our prayers, praise, thanksgiving and most importantly ourselves and our very own lives, “we are not to present before God in our own person, but we are to lay it on Christ and let Him present it”, “because He intercedes for us in heaven, receives our prayer and sacrifice, and through Himself, as a godly priest, makes them pleasing to God”. Then he goes on to say that we

do not offer Christ as a sacrifice, but that Christ offers us. And in this way it is permissable, yea, profitable, to call the mass a sacrifice, not on its own account, but because we offer ourselves as a sacrifice along with Christ; that is, we lay ourselves on Christ by a firm faith in His testament, and appear before God with our prayer, praise and sacrifice only through Him and through His mediation; and we do not doubt that He is our priest and minister in heaven before God.  Such faith, forsooth, brings it to pass that Christ takes up our cause, presents us, our prayer and praise, and also offers Himself for us in heaven. If the mass were so understood and therefore called a sacrifice, it would be well.

So far nothing has been said which relates spiritual sacrifices to the sacrament, all this is true even of private prayers and individual spiritual sacrifices offered outside of the context of the mass. But then he goes on to explain how to relate this to the sacrament.

…we receive the testament and at the same time admonish ourselves and be minded to strengthen our faith and not doubt that Christ is our priest in heaven, who offers Himself for us without ceasing and presents us and our prayer and praise, and makes them acceptable; just as though I were to offer the human priest as a sacrifice in the mass and appoint him to present my need and my praise of God, and he were to give me a token that he would do it. In this case I would be offering the priest as a sacrifice; and it is in this wise that I offer Christ, in that I desire and believe that He accepts me and my prayer and praise, and presents it to God in His own person, and to strengthen this faith, gives me a token that He will do it. This token is the sacrament of bread and wine.

(italics mine)

I find this to be an interesting idea. We present unto Christ all our spiritual sacrifices, and then Christ makes them acceptable by his own person and intercessions unto the Father. And then God gives us the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ as a “token” or pledge that our prayer is in fact heard and accepted and received by him. This point can strengthened further by the verse quoted at the start of this note, that if God did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, will he also not give all things with him? It is as when God gives us the sacrament of his Son’s body and blood, he is saying to us, “be assured that I have received your prayers and will act for your benefit and answer it for your good, for here is my Son’s body, which if I did not spare but gave up for you and to you, will I also not give all goods things which you have prayed for?”

Thus in this understanding, the relationship between prayer and sacrament is that of token and pledge. We offer up our prayers and spiritual sacrifices during the Mass, and God confirms that he has received it by giving us the sacrament of his Son’s body and blood as a token and pledge to assure us that our prayers have been received and accepted.

Yet when I explained this idea to a friend, he said that it makes the sacrament sound like a sort of “receipt” which God gives to signifiy that he has received our prayers. It is this slightly commericial and mechanical aspect to this interpretation of the relationship between prayer and sacrament which puzzled me and which I kept turning over in my mind today during the sermon at today’s Eucharist (trust me, a much more profitable use of my time!) when it dawned upon me that a much better way of relating them have in fact been developed by Archbishop Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer, which was the first Prayer Book of the Church of England composed when he was still under the influence of Lutheranism during his visit to Germany at that time have not yet shifted towards the puritan reformed evisceration of the faith.

Uniting our Hearts with Christ

In order to understand the first Prayer Book’s way of relating prayer to sacrament, we have to understand a little bit about the structure of the liturgy. Every Western liturgy before the Reformation would normally consists first of the “Eucharistic dialogue” which goes (taking from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer),

Celebrant: The Lord be with you

Congregation: And with thy Spirit

Celebrant: Lift up your hearts

Congregation: We lift them up unto the Lord

Celebrant: Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God

Congregation: It is meet and right so to do

Thus the celebrant would first exhort the congregation to “lift up your hearts” to God, and then he will proceed to chant the eucharistic prayer which gives the reason for offering the Eucharist, the reason normally being located in the liturgical season which occasioned the celebration of the Eucharist. And then finally the Eucharistic prayer ends with the sanctus

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Hosanna, in the highest. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Glory to thee, O Lord in the highest.

Then right after the sanctus begins what is known as the “Canon of the Mass”. In the pre-reformation liturgy, the “Canon of the Mass” begins with a prayer to God to accept their sacrifice (the bread and the wine) for whose benefit the sacrifice is being offered,

Therefore, O most merciful Father, we humbly pray thee, through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, and entreat thee to accept and bless these gifts, these presents, these holy, unspotted sacrifices which we offer to thee, in the first place, on behalf of thy holy Catholic  Church, which do thou vouchsafe to keep in peace, to guard, to unite, and

to govern, throughout the whole world…

Thus we can see here the joining together of the idea of sacrament and prayer offering, the benefit for whom the sacrifice is offered begins first with the Catholic Church, then going on to the Pope and bishop, to all the faithful and finally to those present at the Mass,

whose faith is approved, and whose devotion is known to thee ; on behalf of whom we offer unto thee, or who offer unto thee this sacrifice of praise, for themselves and for all pertaining to them, for the redemption of their souls, for  the hope of their own salvation and security…

As a side note, when the Lutherans insisted that the Mass does not benefit its hearers “ex opere operato”, by virtue of being mechanically performed by the priest, but only through faith, they were merely adhering to the actual Catholic liturgical texts and practice where the Mass is offered for the benefit of those “whose faith is approved and whose devotion is known” to God. 

Now what Cranmer did in the 1549 BCP was to maintain the structure but to change the text to make the distinction between prayer and sacrament clearer. Thus, the Canon of the 1549 BCP begins, not with a prayer to ask God to accept the sacrifice for the benefits of certain groups and people, but instead,

ALMIGHTY and everliving GOD, who by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers and supplications, and to give thanks for all men: We humbly beseech thee most mercifully to receive these our prayers, which we offer unto thy divine Majesty, beseeching thee to inspire continually the universal church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord…

(italics mine)

Thus, instead of the language of “sacrifice which we offer to thee… on behalf of thy holy Catholic Church”, Cranmer changes it to “make prayers and supplications” and asking God to “receive these prayers, which we offer unto thy divine majesty”, and then going on to make it by asking God to inspire the universal or Catholic Church with the “spirit of truth, unity and concord…”, then the priest would go on to pray for the King, for bishops, for all Christians, and the present congregation, the prayer items following quite closely the order of items of the pre-reformation liturgy for which the sacrifice is offered, even ending with a commendation and prayer for the dead.  Thus, for Cranmer, he rewrote the starting part of the Canon so as to distinguish between prayer offerings and the sacrament, but pretty much retained all the different prayer needs for which the Sacrifice of the Mass originally intended to benefit.

Anyway to continue, in the pre-reformation liturgy, when the priest is done listing for whom and for whose benefit the sacrifice is being offered, he then prays that God would “bless, approve, ratify and make reasonable and acceptable” the sacrifice of bread and wine that it may “become to us the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved Son our Lord Jesus Christ.”  And then begins the narrative of the Lord’s Supper or the Words of the Institution, “On the night on which he was betrayed…” This structure is also retained by Cranmer except that before asking God to consecrate the elements into the Body and Blood of Christ, he inserts a narrative and description of the perfection and sufficiency of Christ’s death and sacrifice in these words,

O God heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesu Christ tosuffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there, by his one oblation once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world, and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us, to celebrate a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again…

Then he goes on to ask God to “bless and sanctify” with the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine that it may be the Body and Blood of Christ, before going on to the narrative of the Lord’s Supper. After the Words of the Institution, the pre-reformation liiturgy will go on to the memorial offering whereby the priest asks God to accept the sacrifice, which has now become the Body and Blood of Christ by virtue of the Words of the Institution, as they remember the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Cranmer would actually retain this structure but with a couple of additions and modifications which would prove interesting for our discussion, as the Anglican scholar C.D. Heath explains concerning the memorial prayer of Cranmer, 

Although extremely long, it is grammatically straightforward, with four participial phrases dependent on the main clause (we . . . make . . . the memorial):

“Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of thy dearly beloved Son our Saviour Jesu Christ, we thy humble servants do celebrate and make here before thy Divine Majesty, with these thy holy gifts, the memorial which thy Son hath willed us to make;

(1) having in remembrance his blessed passion, mighty resurrection and glorious ascension;

(2) rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same;

(3) entirely desiring thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving;

(4) most humbly beseeching thee to grant that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his Blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins and all other benefits

of his passion”

This use of participles, rather than a series of ands, is the most important characteristic of this section of the 1549 Canon. They make the whole sentence the expression of a single, integrated act in which having in remembrance, rendering thanks, desiring God to accept our sacrifice and beseeching him to grant the grace requested are part and parcel of the making of the memorial and not to be distinguished from it as additional acts supplementary to it…

Thus, the the celebration of the memorial is of integrated and undivided act, remembering Christ’s works, giving thanks for the benefits of those works to us, and asking God to accept “this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (which by the way, does refer to the sacrament, as the Roman Canon as quoted earlier does also describe the sacrifice of the sacrament as a “sacrifice of praise), but here comes the interesting part, Cranmer then prays that “through faith in his Blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins and all other benefits of his passion“. This prayer isobviously missing the the pre-reformation canon, but which is evidently a Protestant emphasis that the Eucharist or Mass does not benefit its hearers mechanically by virtue of being performed by the priest, but only through faith. Notice the other parts which I italics, namely, that the prayer is not only for the remissions of sins, but also for all other benefits, namely the reception and answer of the prayers offered at the start of the Canon by God.

But how does this benefit of the Cross comes to us? The answer can be seen in the very interesting change which Cranmer made in the next part of the memorial offering. Now in the pre-reformation canon, after the priest have made the memorial offering of the Body and Blood to Christ, he goes on to pray,

We humbly beseech thee, almighty God, command these [gifts] to be borne by the hands of thy holy angel to thy altar on high, in the presence of thy divine majesty, that as many of us as shall by partaking at this Altar receive the most sacred body and blood of thy Son, may be fulfilled with all heavenly benediction and grace, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now Cranmer would modify this prayer by first dropping the prayer to God to command the sacrament to be brought to God’s altar in heaven by his angels, since the priest had already before prayed to God to accept the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, besides having a desire to de-emphasize the mechanical process of the memorial sacrifice, then he would make some very interesting additions, which we can read here,

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls, and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee, humbly beseeching thee that whosoever shall be partakers of this holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious body and blood of thy son Jesus Christ: and be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with thy son Jesus Christ that he may dwell in them, and they in him.

Thus, we see the influence of Luther here in the offering of “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee”, the idea that we offer ourselves unto Christ who presents us as acceptable unto the Father. But notice the structure of this prayer: First we offer ourselves to the Lord, so that we may become worthy partakers of the holy communion (“worthily receive the most precious body…), to the end that we may be filled with his grace and made one body with thy son Jesus Christ.

Now this “made one body with thy Son Jesus Christ” is the key to understanding the unity of prayer offering and sacrament better. Let us recap, before the Canon of the Mass, we lift up our hearts, then we offer up verbal praise and thanks, then at the start of the Canon of the Mass, we offer up our prayers and supplications, then we celebrate the Lord’s Supper itself, and invoke the memory of Christ’s deeds, plead for its benefits through faith, and then finally here, which is coming towards the end of the Canon, we offer ourselves to God, that by partaking of the sacrament, we may be united to Christ and made one body to him.

Thus my understanding is that by the union which is effected by partaking of the body and blood of Christ, all ourselves will be united to Christ’s body, our desires, our concerns and our “felt needs”, will become Christ’s. Thus, it is not merely that the body and blood of Christ is given to us as a “token” or “receipt”, but also that our entire selves become united with Christ in this most mysterious and wondrous union, so that all of the great blessings of Christ’s risen life, health, salvation, and the blood which washes us from sins, “dwells in us”, and all our fears, concerns, desires which we have prayed for, “dwells in him”, as surely as by the holy communion, Christ dwells in us, and we in him. Thus, concerning the prayers of our desires and concerns, the sacrament gurantees that they will be received by God through Christ, and they will be answered by God, because those desires and concerns now have become a part of Christ’s body, and as our hearts are united to that of Christ, so are our concerns and desires likewise becomes Christ. It is as if Christ assures us, “I know your desires, your concerns and needs, for in this holy communion, you dwell in me and I in you, and I feel and experience them as surely as you do, and I will have a great compassion on these your hearts concerns, and will intercede and work for your benefit and your good, as surely as they are my own interests, according to my power and wisdom.”

I think this is a very probably interpretation of Cranmer’s revisions as after this offering of ourselves, comes the “Final Doxology” or the end of the Canon which Cranmer rewrote as,

and athough we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any Sacrifice: Yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, andcommand these: our prayers and supplications, by the Ministry of thy holy Angels, to be brought up into thy holy Tabernacle before the sight of thy divine majesty; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Christ our Lord, by whom, and with whom, and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty world without end, Amen.

(italics mine)

Thus, the Canon begins with “make prayers and supplications”, and likewise ends with a prayer to God to command that our “prayers and supplications” be brought before God “by the Ministry of thy holy Angels”.

Eucharist as Prayer Offering

This seems to me to be the most plausible way to understand the relation between prayer offering and sacrament. The sacrament offers Christ’s body and blood to us. The eating of Christ’s body benefits us by uniting us to his Body and to himself, uniting our entire being, ourselves, our souls and bodies, our hearts and desires. Therefore before partaking of the sacrament, we pray and bring to mind our heart’s desires and needs before God, and reflect on our lives which need God’s healing and help, so that these concerns which dwells in our hearts might also dwell in Christ and touch his own heart, that he might with sympathy and compassion on our hearts resolve and answer them, according to his power and wisdom.

And so to end off with the words of the Prayer of Humble Access (a truly wonderful original masterpiece of Cranmer),

WE do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies: we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table: but thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood in these holy Mysteries, that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood. Amen.

One thought on “Eucharist as Prayer Offering; Sunday Reflections”
  1. […] How then should we understand the ascension of Christ? Why was it necessary for him to take his place at God’s right hand and serve as our high priest there instead of continuing his life on earth? This final step is necessary that our trust in God maybe complete, that whenever we turn our countenance to God, no longer would we see the darkness of a God hidden in silence, but we would see instead Christ at God’s right hand, his human smile and his arms held out to us, encouraging us to speak, to raise our petitions and prayers to God, for in his name shall they be heard, by his grace they shall be received, and by this knowledge of Christ’s enthronement at God’s right hand, we have full assurance of God’s love for us. (For a more in-depth exposition about how in the Eucharist we offer our prayers to Christ who offers them to God and gives us the tokens of his Body and Blood as assurance that they are heard, see this old post of mine.) […]

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