For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:26

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, having in remembrance his blessed passion, mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension, rendering unto thee most hearty thanks, for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same, entirely desire thy fatherly goodness, mercifully to accept this our Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving…

Book of Common Prayer 1549, Holy Communion

The word “Eucharist” is simply the Greek for “giving thanks” and has been used to describe the event of the Lord’s Supper whereby Christ himself gave thanks over the elements. (Luke 22:19) But even from the earliest times of the Church, it has been usual to call the Eucharist a “sacrifice” which the Church offers unto God. But the key question is, what exactly is this “sacrifice” which the Church is supposed to offer at the Lord’s Supper? Let us first look into the early Church Father’s discussion and explanation of this concept and practice.

Eucharist in the Church Fathers: Justin Martyr and the Sacrifice of Prayer and Thanksgiving

We have to address the first question, which is what was being offered at the Lord’s Supper? And here we have Justin Martyr in his dialogue with Tryphro the Jew,

“And the offering of fine flour, sirs,” I said, “which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will. Hence God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve [prophets], as I said before, about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: ‘I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord: but ye profane it.’ [So] He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify His name, and that you profane [it]…

Chapter XLI.—The oblation of fine flour was a figure of the Eucharist

So it seems that in this passage Justin Martyr refers specifically to the “bread of the Eucharist” and the “cup of the Eucharist” as what is offered in sacrifice to God. It could be said that Justin is essentially conflating two things together, (1) the thanksgiving and (2) the bread and the wine. But evidently to the Fathers they were both one and the same, the Church gave its thanks to God with the bread and the wine. The closest analogy to our own culture is a toast. We raise our glasses and toast to someone’s good health or whatever. But in the case of the Eucharist, we offer up the bread and wine to toast to God or more precisely, to thank him for what he has done for us.

This should be made even clearer in this next passage from Justin in the very same work,

“Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him. But He utterly rejects those presented by you and by those priests of yours, saying, ‘And I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands; for from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles (He says); but ye profane it.’ Yet even now, in your love of contention, you assert that God does not accept the sacrifices of those who dwelt then in Jerusalem, and were called Israelites; but says that He is pleased with the prayers of the individuals of that nation then dispersed, and calls their prayers sacrifices. Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind, whose name the high priests of your nation and your teachers have caused to be profaned and blasphemed over all the earth…

Chapter CXVII.—Malachi’s prophecy concerning the sacrifices of the Christians. It cannot be taken as referring to the prayers of Jews of the dispersion.

Thus, it seems that at the heart of the “Eucharistic Sacrifice” of the Lord’s Supper is the “prayer and giving of thanks”, which “are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifice to God” and that these “alone Christians have undertaken to offer”. Thus, in so far that the Lord’s Supper is a “sacrifice” unto God, it is a “sacrifice” in that it is a prayer and giving of thanks. And we have to remember that Justin Martyr “admits” to this in the context of agreeing with his Jewish conversation partner concerning the pleasure which God takes with the prayers of individuals and with agreeing that it is also a “sacrifice”. Furthermore it seems evident that the “solid and liquid food” are “sacrifices” or “offerings” only in relation to them being the “remembrance effected” by them.

Eucharist in the Church Fathers: Irenaeus and Spiritual Sacrifices of Prayer, Praise and Service and Bread and Wine

Irenaeus would also emphasize the sacrifices of prayer, praise, service, thanks, but with the additional explication that these are spiritual sacrifices, according to the Spirit. There is still mention of the sacrifice of the bread and wine, the “oblation to God of the bread and the cup of blessing”.

Those who have become acquainted with the secondary (i.e., under Christ) constitutions of the apostles, are aware that the Lord instituted a new oblation in the new covenant, according to [the declaration of] Malachi the prophet. For, “from the rising of the sun even to the setting my name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice;” as John also declares in the Apocalypse: “The incense is the prayers of the saints.” Then again, Paul exhorts us “to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” And again, “Let us offer the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of the lips.” Now those oblations are not according to the law, the handwriting of which the Lord took away from the midst by cancelling it; but they are according to the Spirit, for we must worship God “in spirit and in truth.” And therefore the oblation of the Eucharist is not a carnal one, but a spiritual; and in this respect it is pure. For we make an oblation to God of the bread and the cup of blessing, giving Him thanks in that He has commanded the earth to bring forth these fruits for our nourishment. And then, when we have perfected the oblation, we invoke the Holy Spirit, that He may exhibit this sacrifice, both the bread the body of Christ, and the cup the blood of Christ, in order that the receivers of these antitypes may obtain remission of sins and life eternal. Those persons, then, who perform these oblations in remembrance of the Lord, do not fall in with Jewish views, but, performing the service after a spiritual manner, they shall be called sons of wisdom.

Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, XXXVII

It is important to note that while an “oblation to God” is made of “the bread and the cup of blessing”, only after the oblation is “perfected”, then the Holy Spirit is invoked to “exhibit this sacrifice”, the bread as the body of Christ and the cup as the blood of Christ, not to God instead “in order that the receivers” of the elements may obtain forgiveness of sins, etc. Thus the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ to the receivers and not to God, contra some later idea that under the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ is “immolated” to God.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus would place more emphasis on the offering of the bread and wine, but this was in opposition to the gnostic heretics who were claiming that the Creator of the earth is a different God from the Father of Jesus Christ and that the earth was corrupt, etc. Thus he had to re-emphasize the offering of created bread in the Eucharist which is then united to the “spiritual” part of the Eucharist, the prayer, praise, thanksgiving, collected under the label of “invocation of God.”

Inasmuch, then, as the Church offers with single-mindedness, her gift is justly reckoned a pure sacrifice with God. As Paul also says to the Philippians, “I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things that were sent from you, the odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, pleasing to God.” For it behoves us to make an oblation to God, and in all things to be found grateful to God our Maker, in a pure mind, and in faith without hypocrisy, in well-grounded hope, in fervent love, offering the first-fruits of His own created things. And the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, [the things taken] from His creation. But the Jews do not offer thus: for their hands are full of blood; for they have not received the Word,  through whom it is offered to God. Nor, again, do any of the conventicles (synagogæ) of the heretics [offer this]. For some, by maintaining that the Father is different from the Creator, do, when they offer to Him what belongs to this creation of ours, set Him forth as being covetous of another’s property, and desirous of what is not His own… how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

“Against Heresies”, Book IV, Chapter XVIII.—Concerning sacrifices and oblations, and those who truly offer them.

What is significant in these passages is that Irenaeus once more maintains that the “purity” of the sacrifice to God is a function, not of some sacerdotal power of the priest which can effect it ex opere operato, but on the internal condition and righteousness of the person offering it, e.g. “single-mindedness”, “pure mind, and in faith without hypocrisy, etc”.  This is further confirmed in the next passage from the same work where he disclaims the need of God for our offerings and sacrifices, but instead, that what God requires is good works and services and that therefore the offering of the Eucharist trains the people of God in service and good works, for our benefit and not his.

6. Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created. For even as God does not need our possessions, so do we need to offer something to God; as Solomon says: “He that hath pity upon the poor, lendeth unto the Lord.” For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things, as our Lord says: “Come, ye blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was an hungered, and ye gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in: naked, and ye clothed Me; sick, and ye visited Me; in prison, and ye came to Me.” As, therefore, He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God: thus is it, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission. The altar, then, is in heaven (for towards that place are our prayers and oblations directed); the temple likewise [is there], as John says in the Apocalypse, “And the temple of God was opened: ”the tabernacle also: “For, behold,” He says, “the tabernacle of God, in which He will dwell with men.”

The Sacrifice of the Mass: Propitiatory or Eucharistic Sacrifice?

During the Reformation, the Protestant’s battle cry of ad fontes or back to the sources did not merely apply to going back to the Scriptures but also to going back to the Church Fathers or in the phrase of Anglican theologians, the primitive fathers. Thus Philip Melanchthon in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession in his defence of the Lutheran Mass, against the accusations of the Roman Church that they had abandoned the practice of the Church Catholic, had to define clearly what they mean by “sacrifice” and why the Roman idea of the “Sacrifice of the Mass”, whereby the priest re-presents the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary and offers that sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead, is both unscriptural and against the Church Fathers.

Philip Melanchthon would distinguish two types of sacrifices,

One is the propitiatory sacrifice, i.e., a work which makes satisfaction for guilt and punishment, i.e., one that reconciles God, or appeases God’s wrath, or which merits the remission of sins for others. The other species is the eucharistic sacrifice, which does not merit the remission of sins or reconciliation, but is rendered by those who have been reconciled, in order that we may give thanks or return gratitude for the remission of sins that has been received, or for other benefits received.

Melanchthon would proceed to argue there has only ever been one propitiatory sacrifice and that is the death of Christ. Only his death atones for sins and was offered by himself for the sins of the world. There is no other propitiatory sacrifice. On the other hand, there are many acts which maybe considered to be “eucharistic sacrifices”, as Melanchthon explains,

Now the rest are eucharistic sacrifices, which are called sacrifices of praise, Lev. 3:1f.; 7:11f.; Ps. 56:12f., namely, the preaching of the Gospel, faith, prayer, thanksgiving, confession, the afflictions of saints, yea, all good works of saints.

He would go on to call these types of sacrifices as “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Peter 2:5), made by those who are already reconciled to God and through faith in Christ, etc. He then points out that the Church Fathers do speak of the Lord’s Supper as a “sacrifice”, but clearly they meant “Eucharistic Sacrifices”, prayer, praise, thanksgiving, even service and good works, as I’ve shown from the writings of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and Melanchthon does go on to note that in the beginning of the Church they did bring forth the bread and wine in the service, etc.

Therefore throughout the Apology, Melanchthon insists that nowhere within the Fathers or the Scriptures is there an understanding of the offering of the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary for the remission of sins for both the living and the dead, and that whenever they do speak of sacrifice it is definitely in the sense of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, not a propitiatory sacrifice, the sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, prayer and service and good works, as Irenaeus himself explicitly points out in his writings that the purpose of the Eucharistic offerings unto God is not for his benefit but for ours, to train us in service. And also, it is not the Body and Blood of Christ which is offered up to God, but the bread and the wine which is.

The Development of the Teaching of the Sacrifice of the Mass

It is easy to see how these various elements of the Lord’s Supper and Eucharistic Sacrifice started to fuse together over time and developed into a “Sacrifice of the Mass”.

(1) The Eucharist involves prayer, therefore there is the element of praying for the benefit of others, both the living and the dead. Melanchthon himself explicitly does not object to prayers for the dead.

(2) The Eucharist involves thanksgiving and praise for the Sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross in remembrance; this idea is intimately related to the idea of giving thanks in memory of that great event.

(3) The Eucharistic offers up the bread and the wine with the spiritual parts of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, e.g. the prayers, praise, etc. And the spiritual parts of the Eucharistic Sacrifices or the “invocation of God”, consecrates the bread and the wine to be the Body and Blood of Christ. Even a rather late liturgy, the Eucharist of Hippolytus, composed towards the end of the fourth century, and which have been incorporated into the Roman Mass as Eucharist II, offers, not the Body and Blood of Christ, but “the bread and the chalice”.

So, imagine mixing all these elements together. You can speak of “offering sacrifices for the living and the dead”, which technically isn’t wrong. We do offer up prayers to God for the benefit of other people, and if prayers are sacrifices which we offer to God, then we do offer the sacrifice of prayer for the benefit of other people. You can also speak of “offering the sacrifice of the Cross”, which is actually a little misleading, but again, not technically wrong, as long as we mean, offering the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the Cross. And then imagine speaking of offering the bread and wine, which is to be the body and blood of Christ for us.

So the first stage of the evolution of the Roman doctrine is that the “Sacrifice of the Mass” is something offered for benefit of the living and the dead from (1), then came the idea that we are actually offering the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, not just thanks for that event in memory of it, but that event itself which is “re-presented” to God, this is from (2). Finally, we offer up, not just the bread and the wine, but the Body and Blood of Christ itself, or in other words, we offer up Christ itself, this is from (3). Thus put all these in the mix, and you can easily see where the idea that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary by offering Christ’s body and blood itself, made for benefit of the living and the dead, came about.

In many of the early Eastern liturgy, the language of (1) could already be seen, where there is much talk of offering the “bloodless sacrifice for the people”, although no mention of offering the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary or the Body and Blood of Christ, a fact noted by Melanchthon in his discussion of the Greek canon. But even this language is still consistent with the understanding that his sacrifice is spiritual, a bloodless sacrifice of prayer for others. From the early medieval period came the development of (2), as we can see from the 12th century scholastic Peter Lombard who says,

…that which is offered and consecrated by the priest is called a Sacrifice and oblation, because it is a memory and representation of the true Sacrifice and holy oblation made on the altar of the cross. Also CHRIST died once on the cross, and there was He offered Himself, but He is offered daily in a sacrament, because in the sacrament there is a remembrance of that which was done once.

Now this is still not quite the same as saying that they offered up the Sacrifice of Calvary, but there is a growing identification of the Eucharistic Sacrifice with the “memory and representation of the true Sacrifice… made on the altar of the Cross”, which is actually not quite wrong as I shall explain later, but then there begins an ambiguous confusion when Lombard speaks of Christ being “offered daily in a sacrament”. Yes, in a sense that is correct, but Christ is being offered, not to God, but to the people, to be received and eaten. But from here we can see how the development of (2) worked hand in hand with the development of (3), soon enough, in later medieval liturgies, there soon came the idea that the offering of Christ is not an offer to the people but an offer to God for the people, as can be seen in this Sarum Missal whereby the priest offer to God “a pure offering, a holy offering, a spotless offering”. And finally today the Roman Canon officially translates the “offering” as “victim”, that there might be no questions as to what is being offered.

Before the Council of Trent, there were many various theories as to what was happening in the Sacrifice of the Mass. A famous scholastic doctor, John Duns Scotus in the 13th century actually could be interpreted as arguing for a different and distinct sacrifice of Christ at each Mass, but the question was only finally settled and formalised at the Council of Trent itself and it is from there were we get the contemporary doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass as a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ at calvary via the offering of the Body and Blood of Christ for the benefit of the living and the dead.

Therefore it is clear that the early Protestant Reformers were right to reject this doctrine as a very late innovation which can’t possibly be found in the early Fathers and which development into it’s present confusion can be traced through various fusion (and conflation!) of various aspects of the Eucharist. But yet even as I say this, I did point out that there is a truth to the idea of the Eucharistic Sacrifice as representing or even “making present” the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, and which is actually quite a biblical idea even. To this we now turn.

“Making” the Sacrifice of Christ Present

Given the fact that in the Eucharist, we do not offer the Body and Blood of Christ to God, but only the bread and the wine (which when consecrated to be the Body and Blood of Christ, is offered to the people, not God), and that therefore there is no “re-enactment” as it were, by the priest of the sacrifice of Christ by the offering of Christ to God, how is the Sacrifice of the Cross therefore made present?

If we remember that Melanchthon includes as part of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the preaching of the Gospel, so then the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary is made “present” to us via preaching or it’s proclamation. As 1 Corinthians 11:26 says which I quoted at the start, whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. Because the KJV translates this as “shew”, I went to check up the Greek and in the majority of it’s use, it does indeed refer to it’s use as proclamation of a message. Let’s not forget that Irenaeus was quite clear that the sacrifice was exhibited, not to God, but to the people.

Thus, in part of the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Lord’s Supper, is included the preaching or proclamation of Christ’s death to the people, although it is a service for the people, but it is rendered ultimately in obedience and service unto God, a sacrifice of good works, a proper Eucharistic Sacrifice.

I guess in a sense, it could be said that there might be an analogous sort of Calvinistic “spiritual” presence of the Sacrifice of the Cross, as opposed to the Catholic’s “real presence” of the Sacrifice of the Cross, in that the proclamation of Christ’s death is made present to the congregation’s subjective faith; it is not objectively “present” at the time of the celebration of the Eucharist, but it is merely made present to the ears and into the minds of the hearers and which causes them to recall or remember Christ’s death, inspire faith and prepares them to receive the benefits of the Body and Blood of Christ and his New Testament when they remember that the testator for that Testament has died that the Testament might go into effect for their benefit. And it is also for this reason whereby the later Lutheran confessional formulas insist that the Words of the Institution be said aloud for the congregation’s benefit, as a proclamation to them that “This is my body which is given for you”, to inspire faith and to consecrate the elements.


Since this “proclamation” of Christ’s death until he returns has a biblical mandate, therefore this sort of “making present” Christ’s death through proclamation or preaching during the Eucharist is entirely right and proper, and ought to be offered in sacrifice to God. And therefore to conclude with the Book of Common Prayer’s Eucharistic “proclamation” of the Cross for Holy Communion,

O God heavenly father, which of thy tender mercy didst give thine only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his 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 continue, to celebrate a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again: Hear us (0 merciful father) we beseech thee; and with thy holy spirit and word, vouchsafe to bless and sanctify these thy gifts, and creatures of bread and wine, that they may be unto us the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved son Jesus Christ. Who in the same night that he was betrayed: took bread, and when he had blessed, and given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me.

Likewise after supper he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying: drink ye all of this, for this is my blood of the new Testament, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins: do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.

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