The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers
New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925
Philadelphia: Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.
The Eucharistic Sacrifice
REV. GRANVILLE MERCER WILLIAMS
Of the Society of St. John the Evangelist
"Who is so foolish as to suppose that the things offered to God" (in sacrifice) "are needed by Him for some uses of His Own? Divine Scripture in many places explodes this idea. We must believe, then, that God has no need, not only of cattle, or any other earthly and material thing, but even of man's righteousness, and that whatever right worship is paid to God profits not Him, but man." [St. Augustine: De Civ. Dei. X. 5.] So writes St. Augustine. All sacrifices derive their efficacy from the merit with which God condescends to endow them. He it is Who has put into men's hearts the instinct to offer sacrifice to Him, and it is He Who of His [75/76] bounty mediates forgiveness and reconciliation through the symbolic rite.
The Jewish people at the time of our Lord were in possession of a developed sacrificial system, all the details of which were believed to be of Divine origin and appointment. In the times before the Exile the offering of the Sacrifices and the external cults of Jehovah had too often become ends in themselves.
Careful observance of external worship and sacrifice had not prevented the growth of injustice and immorality. It was the function of the great Hebrew prophets to bring to Israel the message that Jehovah was a God who required righteousness in conduct, as well as observance of ritual. Indeed, some of the prophetic utterances, in their insistence upon the ethical character of religion, seem to leave no place for sacrifice and burnt offerings. Thus Amos writes, and it is Jehovah Who speaks through Him:—
"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though ye offer me your burnt-offerings and meal offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the voice of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." [Amos 5:21-24.]
The work of the Prophets resulted, however, not in the abandonment of the sacrificial system, but in its reform. The directions given for sacrificial worship in Deuteronomy, a book showing the influence of the [76/77] Prophetic movement, are most careful and detailed, and are designed to protect the outward cultus from abuse which has arisen in the ancient shrines scattered throughout the country. But these directions are combined with a lofty moral and ethical point of view, so that our Lord Himself frequently quotes from Deuteronomy with approval. [As in His replies to Satan in the Temptation narrative, Matt. 4:3-10.]
The combination of the priestly and prophetic point of view is likewise seen in the writings of Ezekiel, who advocates ceremonial observance, while insisting in strongest terms on individual moral responsibility—"the soul that sinneth, it shall die." [Ezekiel 18, 4.]
It is not surprising that the cultus went on. Some form of outward worship, some ritual, some sacrificial act, is essential if religion is to be corporate. Only through outward observances could the Jewish people express to God their common and corporate longing for forgiveness, their homage of praise and thanksgiving, and their joy in fellowship with Jehovah, the latter symbolized by the "sacramental" meal which followed the sacrifice.
We, as Christians, can see yet another reason why the animal sacrifices with their shedding of blood were retained. The unwilling animal victim in the "sin" or "trespass" offerings was slain that his death might work "atonement," that the offerer, guilty of ceremonial or moral offence, might be "forgiven concerning whatsoever he doeth so as to be guilty thereby."
The great prophet of the Exile, whom we call the "Second Isaiah," working with these ideas of sacrifice, presents to our gaze a human victim, [77/78] the Suffering Servant of Jehovah, "despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows." "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way: and Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" [Isaiah 53: 5,6.]. The result of the teaching of this prophet was in the words of a recent writer, "to introduce into religion a conception for which up to that date language had no word, and which apart from the prophetic teaching could never have arisen from ancient ideas of sacrifice—the conception of self-sacrifice . . . The victim became a person, freely offering his life for others, entering of his own will and sympathy into their condition and its consequences, and taking upon himself the blame of their misdeeds. And it is that idea of sacrifice, thus moralized and made spiritual, which later dominated the mind of Christ and His Apostles." [E. G. Selwyn: The Approach to Christianity, p. 168.]
In the view of this prophet, the Suffering Servant by whose vicarious sacrifice many were to be "justified," was probably Israel itself. But Israel was unable to fulfill this high ideal, and it remained for Jesus of Nazareth, "the ideal Israelite, to take up in His person and experience the work which the prophet had conceived as possible for the nation, and to make the idea real." [George A. Barton: The Religion of Israel, p. 131.]
He, and He alone, could offer to God that act of perfect self-oblation, which was symbolized in the sacrifices [78/79] of the Old Law, and spiritualized in the vision of the Suffering Servant.
He and He alone could lead that perfect moral life which Prophets had taught was better than burnt-offerings, for He and He alone was Perfect Man. The entire self-oblation manifested in every act of His human life, from the moment of His Incarnation to His Ascension, and outwardly shown forth in His Passion and Death on the Cross, constituted "the full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world."
The sacrifice of Christ began, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches, at the moment of His Incarnation. "Wherefore, when he comes into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body didst thou prepare for me; in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hadst no pleasure: Then said I, Lo I am come . . . to do thy will, O God." [Hebrews 10:5, 7.]
St. Augustine, in teaching that true sacrifice has its essence in an inward act of self-oblation, points out that nevertheless this inward part is always accompanied by some "outward and visible sign" of the inward offering. "That which in common speech is called sacrifice is only the symbol of the true sacrifice." "A sacrifice, therefore, is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice." [St. Augustine: De. Civ. Dei, X, 5.]
So here, at the first moment of His Incarnation, the perfect surrender of the human will of Christ to the [79/80] Divine Will of His Father is outwardly manifested in His assumption of a human body—"a body didst thou prepare for me"—and the Sacrifice is thus complete, both in its visible and invisible parts.
The sacrifice of Christ thus begun, continued to be manifested in every act of trustful self-surrender in the way of suffering obedience made during His earthly life. But in addition Christ made a more specialized outward act of self-oblation in order that the significance of His life, and particularly of His death on Calvary, might be clear to all those who either then or in future ages were to be members of His Church.
This liturgical act of oblation took place at the Last Supper at the very beginning of the Passion. The Great High Priest takes into His holy hands bread and wine, and having given thanks, He declares them to be His Body and His Blood, and distributes them among His disciples.
Differing accounts may make it impossible for us to be quite sure of the exact words used by Jesus on this occasion, but there ought to be no uncertainty as to the significance of the actions which there took place. The close connection of the meal with the sacrificial Paschal Feast; the acts of blessing and thanksgiving, regarded by Jews as themselves sacrificial; the command to the disciples to feed upon the Holy Gifts; the symbolism of the broken Bread and the poured-out Wine, pointing to His death on the morrow; and the fact that the action at the Supper was the opening scene of the great Drama of the Passion, culminating on Calvary; are all indicative that Jesus wished to point out to the disciples, through this action and symbolism, the sacrificial significance of His Passion and Death.
 Here in the mystical and mysterious identification of the offerings with His Body and Blood we see Jesus making a liturgical oblation of Himself to God. And when we consider the words which the Evangelists and St. Paul report as used on that occasion,—"This is my Body," "This is my Blood," the reference to the New Covenant as contrasted with the Old Law of Sacrifices, the fact that the Body so represented is "given" for the disciples and that the Blood so represented is "poured out for many"; the command to "do this for my remembrance,"—then our impression that the acts at the Last Supper are intended to be truly sacrificial, grows to a certainty.
At the Last Supper, in the institution of the Holy Eucharist, Christ appears preeminently as our Priest, designating Himself by a solemn act of oblation and in a mystical manner as the One True Sacrifice which was to be immolated on Calvary the following day.
On the cross, Christ is preeminently the Saving Victim. There the "Righteous Servant" bears the "sin of many." Of course, He is Priest as well as Victim. That perfect self-oblation which animated all the actions of His life, is still present and active as He hangs upon the Cross; but outwardly the "moment" of oblation in the Sacrifice is overshadowed by the "moment" of immolation. There His Precious Blood is spilled, and He yields Himself to death, that man may ever remember that he is "bought with a price," and that for his sins he deserves eternal death. The Sacrifice, set apart at the Last Supper, has now been offered. All is complete. Consummatum est!
And the Father accepts the Sacrifice. The acceptance is shown in our Lord's glorious Resurrection from the dead, and in His Ascension into heaven, [81/82] bearing with Him the Body of His humiliation and death, a Body now glorious, the outward sign of the completed Sacrifice. In heaven, He remains the Eternal Victim offered once for all on Calvary. As, under the Old Law, the high priest on the Day of Atonement entered into the Holy of Holies bearing the sacrificial blood, to plead there the sacrifice already completed without the veil, so the great High Priest has entered into the heavens. "He, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God," [Hebrews 10:12.] "a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." [Hebrews 6:20.] in heaven, He retains and exercises His Eternal Priesthood, not by an active offering or immolating of Himself in any proper sense, but by remaining forever in God's presence the Eternal Victim, the "Lamb as it had been slain," not actively but passively sacrificial.
The consummation of our Lord's life of self-oblation in His Passion and death is preeminently the Christian Sacrifice. It is so referred to repeatedly in the pages of the New Testament, and has been acknowledged as such, and is still acknowledged as such, by all Christians who are worthy of the name. The Church proclaims it such in the opening words of the Prayer of Consecration: "All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, 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 one oblation of himself [82/83] once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world."
But controversy has obscured the fact that from apostolic times, and with remarkable unanimity of opinion, the Holy Eucharist has also been regarded as sacrificial. Within the New Testament itself we find the Apostle Paul using language which assigns a definitely sacrificial meaning to the Christian rite. In the tenth chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians he warns his readers against idolatry and then continues, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? . . . . Behold Israel after the flesh: have not they that eat the sacrifices communion with the altar? What say I then? that a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I would not that ye should have communion with demons. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons: ye cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons."
The plain implication of St. Paul's words is that just as the sacred meals partaken of in Jewish and heathen rites are parts of a larger sacrificial whole; so the sacramental Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ presupposes an accompanying Christian sacrificial rite. The Holy Eucharist is not only a Sacrament but also a Sacrifice. And St. Paul did not invent this view. He merely grasped more fully than was possible at the time of its institution the sacrificial implications of the actions and words of Christ at the [83/84] Last Supper, which found their explanation and illumination in the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God upon the Altar of the Cross.
The sacrificial character of the Holy Eucharist is clearly taught in the writings of Christian antiquity. "The solemn oblation in the assembly on the Lord's day," writes the great scholar, Dr. Edwin Hatch, "was regarded as a true offering or sacrifice; for in the 'Teaching of the Twelve Apostles'; in Justin Martyr and in Irenaeus, it is designated by each of the terms which are used to designate sacrifices in the Old Testament." [Encyclopaedia Brit. XXIII., 985.]
This view that the Eucharist is in some very real sense the Christian Sacrifice is never seriously brought into question until the Protestant Reformation. "That the Eucharist is a Sacrifice," wrote the late Dr. Mortimer, "is indisputable among those who recognize the consensus of teaching in the Church to be the final authority. In what manner it is a Sacrifice has never been authoritatively decided by the Church, and is, therefore, at most . . . . only a matter of theological opinion." [A. G. Mortimer: The Eucharistic Sacrifice, p. ix.]
It is with much diffidence, therefore, that we proceed to address ourselves to the task of answering the question as to how the Eucharist is a Sacrifice. We undertake it only because there is a disposition nowadays on the part of many men of good will to put aside prejudices and to re-examine their Christian beliefs.
We have shown that the doctrine of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is truly Catholic. If in addition we can [84/85] show that it is possible to hold a doctrine of the Eucharistic Sacrifice which is at once reasonable, and not in conflict with the centrality and finality of the One Oblation once offered by our Lord on the Cross, so plainly taught in Holy Scripture, we may hope to win many to place the Eucharist in that central position which it has always occupied among Christian rites.
Our answer must make plain two facts: first, that the Holy Eucharist is truly and properly a sacrifice, not merely an offering of praise and thanksgiving or a remembrance on our part of our Lord's Sacrifice on the Cross; and, secondly, that notwithstanding this, when "Jesus Christ suffered death upon the Cross for our redemption. 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." Only so can our answer be truly Catholic.
In the animal Sacrifices of the Old Law, and indeed in all sacrificial rites, an important part—in fact, one might say an essential element—consisted in the destruction of the victim, the immolation. But besides this we may well believe that an essential part of the sacrifice consisted in ritual acts or words, by which the victim was set apart as such, and the sacred purpose or significance of its death or destruction proclaimed. This equally necessary part of a sacrifice we may for convenience call the oblation.
In the desire to show that the Eucharist is truly and properly a Sacrifice, many theories have gone astray in the attempt to find in the Eucharistic Rite itself an element of destruction or immolation. Others, including many Anglicans, see in the Eucharistic oblation, [85/86] merely or mainly a pleading on earth of what our Lord does in Heaven, a conception which destroys the real and proper character of the Eucharistic Sacrifice as an act, besides imputing to our Lord's Heavenly Intercession an active sacrificial value which it does not possess.
If, however, we bear in mind the distinction already made between the "moments" of oblation and immolation in a Sacrifice, we may discover a theory which avoids the inconveniences of the "destruction" and "heavenly offering" theories. In the case of the ancient Sacrifices, the oblation and immolation followed one another in temporal sequence. Taken together, they constituted one sacrifice, for the victim in both cases was present and identical, and the accompanying intention of the priest and the other worshippers was that they should be regarded as parts of one and the same sacrificial act.
In such animal sacrifices it was necessary that the oblation should precede the immolation, for the oblation gave the signification of the destruction of the living victim, and after the death involved in the act of immolation, the oblation could not be made. But in the ritual of the Day of Atonement, [Leviticus 16.] after the immolation of the victim, the High Priest entered within the veil bearing the sacrificial blood, indicating the acceptance of the sacrifice by God, and interpreted by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews as foreshadowing the entrance of Christ into the heavens, and His passive pleading there of the One Sacrifice already consummated on Calvary. For Christ alone is the Eternal Victim.
 In the case of His Offering, the Victim did not pass away, death could not hold Him. At the Last Supper our Lord made in a mystical manner the oblation of Himself, and invested His death before God and man with the significance of an expiatory sacrifice. The immolation of the Sacrifice on Calvary followed. Further, according to the New Testament, our Lord at the time of Institution bade us, "Do this" for His Memorial.
Since He remains in heaven the Eternal Victim, and since He is also really present in the Holy Eucharist, and since He Himself through His Mystical Body repeats and re-presents that act of self-oblation which He first performed at the Last Supper—it is thus that the Holy Eucharist is really and properly a Sacrifice. We do what He did and thus we "proclaim the Lord's death till He come." [I Corinthians 11:24-26.]
"On such a view," writes Mr. Will Spens, "the Eucharist is a sacrifice, not only or primarily because we offer thanksgiving, or give money, or hallow bread and wine, or even because Christ is there given to be our food, but because by word and act, by the words of institution, and in the double consecration, His death is proclaimed, before God and man, an expiatory sacrifice, and because this express investing of a sacrificial death with its significance is no mere declaration, adding nothing beyond declaration, but is itself an essential element in such a sacrifice required not by some trick of definition, but in order to supply an overt acknowledgment and declaration of the nature and consequence of sin. Whether we think of the Cross as the one sacrifice or of each [87/88] Eucharist as a sacrifice, whether we speak of Christ as having been once offered upon the Cross or as being offered in every Mass, depends simply on whether we are thinking in terms of one or other of two essential aspects of sacrifice. If we think of sacrifice in terms of the act of destruction, Christ was once offered upon the Cross. If we think of sacrifice in terms of the sacerdotal acts which expressly invest an act of destruction with its significance, then Christ is offered in every Mass. Either view is correct from its own angle: and for either view the death is fundamental. Nor does a choice appear possible or desirable between one or other mode of expression. Both must be used in their proper context if we are not to minimize unduly either the Cross or the Eucharist."
The Eucharistic Sacrifice then, on this view, consists in the fact that we represent and bring before the Father "a perpetual memory" of Christ's "precious death and sacrifice," and that we claim this as our Sacrifice for sin. This we do, first, in that the Victim which we bring is the very same Victim of Calvary, present in flesh and blood upon the Cross; present, both in flesh and blood, and also mystically, through His own Word of power at the Last Supper; present here and now, on our altars, mystically present in His glorified Flesh and Blood, through that selfsame Word of power. The Victim is one.
The earthly priest offers the Sacrifice not in any power of His own, but in the power of Christ operating through him as through that member of the Mystical Body of Christ to whom the power is delegated. It is Christ who offers the Sacrifice at our altars, as it was Christ who offered it at the Last Supper and on Mount Calvary. The Priest is one.
 But we must not look for, nor expect to find in the Eucharistic Oblation, any real immolation or destruction of the Victim, for that Victim, though eternally Victim, is "alive for evermore," and "death hath no more dominion over Him." Just as the first Eucharist found its consummation in Calvary of which it formed the declarative explanation, so our Eucharists find their foundation and justification in Calvary, of which they form the commemoration. The Sacrifice of Calvary is primary, the Eucharistic Sacrifice is derivative and secondary. Without Calvary, which alone supplies the immolation of the Victim, there could be no Eucharist. Yet the Eucharistic Sacrifice, as one with the One Oblation once offered, partakes of all the inestimable value, and mediates all the inestimable graces and benefits won for us in that One Offering. In the Sacrifice of the Mass we have an inexhaustible store of graces and blessings. "Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests." [Revelation 5:9, 10.]
In this Sacrifice, He bids us take our part. Here in the broken Bread and poured-out Wine we see and remember and acknowledge that we are "bought with a price." We know that now He is all-glorious in heaven, as He also is all-glorious beneath the mystic symbolic veils of bread and wine, where for love of us He hides Himself. Yet these symbols speak to us of death—of the Upper Chamber, of Gethsemane, of Calvary. How they fill us with shame and confusion [89/90] for all our shameful deeds, whereby we have crucified our Lord afresh! So with repentant hearts He bids us join in offering with His perfect self-oblation and renunciation, our own wills, "ourselves, our souls and bodies," and God will accept our sacrifice because it is joined to His Sacrifice.
"Look, Father, look on His anointed Face,
And only look on us as found in Him."
Only as we come, week by week, day by day, to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and grow into its awful and wonderful meaning and power—only so, can we begin to enter in any real sense into the Love of Christ which passeth knowledge: for here we acknowledge that "Loving he loved his own that were in the world, he loved them to the uttermost." [John 13:1.]