Project Canterbury

Six Altars: Studies in Sacrifice

By George Craig Stewart

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, 1930.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

"AT THE Last Supper our Lord performed acts and spoke words which made His death to be a sacrifice for sin, expressly investing it with this significance. Knowing, as St. John says, that His hour was come, and having loved His own that were in the world, He loved them unto the end. Death being plainly set before Him, He took it upon Himself as the price of the world's pardon; offered Himself to bear the burden of the world's guilt and to expiate it in death; gave His own Body and Blood to His disciples in token that His self-offering to the Father was then and forever inseparable from the utterness of self-giving to man, thereby setting God and man at one."

"THROUGH an avenue of many altars, with their tragic and sometimes barbarous rites, our Priest-Victim came. In Him on Cross and Corporal, all those broken rays of sacrificial ritual meet in light. From crude conceptions of the reanimation of mortal gods we pass at length to the offering of the Perfect Life laid down in voluntary self-surrender.

BLESSED Lord, who in this wonderful Sacrament hast left us a memorial of Thy Passion; Grant us, we beseech Thee, so to venerate the sacred Mysteries of Thy Body and Blood, that we may ever feel within ourselves, and manifest in our lives, the fruits of Thy Redemption, who livest and reignest with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



"Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament,
which is shed for many for the remission of sins."
—ST. MATTHEW xxvi: 27, 28.

WE ARE trying to get beneath surfaces to discover why the altar is central in all forms of public worship—in a word, to find out just what an altar means. We have considered the principles of sacrifice in the constitution of nature itself, in the structure of the physical and moral universe; and up from that to the ceremonial worship of the Old Testament with its lamb burning day and night upon the altar; and up from that to the sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary—the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world, the great High Priest taking His own broken body and poured-out blood into the heavenly Holy Place.

At Calvary, then that greatest altar of [41/42] the world, we take our stand for a moment, bending our burning devotion upon that great and tragic event which has given us the sign of the cross, which is stamped so deep upon the Gospels, upon our theology, upon our sacraments, upon our hymns and devotions, and upon our very lives. The cruciality of the cross is evident. The centrality of the cross is inescapable. Whatever else Christians may be, they are surely disciples of the Crucified. "He suffered, was dead, and buried." "He died for our sins." "Christ our sacrifice is offered for us." And we know what that word "sacrifice" implies. It implies self-oblation, self-offering for sin. It implies a precious offering upon which the sinner confesses his sin, and with which the sinner identifies himself. It implies suffering offered to God for redemptive and creative ends, offered in the wistful hope that not only the offerer but the whole world of created things may be somehow helped and blessed.

A century ago the island of Formosa, a colony of the Chinese Empire, was governed by the Chinese. The natives, who were and who are a very primitive people, suffered grievously from their rule, which was harsh and brutal. But there were exceptions. One Chinese, [42/43] named Goho, was so successful in governing the natives that he was made governor of the island. When he entered upon his task the natives had been accustomed from time immemorial to offer once a year a human sacrifice; previous governors had approved their custom by providing some condemned criminal as a victim. Goho could not tolerate the custom, and persuaded them to accept a pig or goat instead. Year after year for forty years the device succeeded, but they became increasingly restless. At last they rose in revolt. They must have a human victim. Goho did his best to stem the tide, but it was overwhelming. Finally, seeing they would not be put off, he said, "Go to the forest tomorrow at nine o'clock. There you will find a man tied up in a red robe, and a scarlet cloth tied over the face. Strike! He is your victim!" They did so. The man was there. The blood lust came upon them. They struck. In a few minutes it was all over. The scarlet cloth fell aside. It was Goho. And thus Goho prevailed. That was the end of human sacrifice. And every year the natives gather with solemn thanksgiving to celebrate his death.

Jesus died, and within a generation the sacrifice of the Temple came to an end. The Temple of the old covenant came crashing down, [43/44] but the Temple of His mystical Body the Church rose; the high priest with the twelve stones in his breastplate disappeared, but Jesus with His twelve apostles took his place. The Holy of Holies was no more on Mount Zion, but the sanctuary of the Christian Church came up out of the catacombs to fulfill it; the smoking altar with a lamb slain was broken down, but the altar of the new covenant took its place. Calvary itself was buried under the mounded dust of centuries, but Calvary rose ever before the Christian worshipper in the sacrifice of the Mass, as the centuries waxed and waned.

Anyone coming into a Catholic church, whether Anglican or Roman, today, must see in the Eucharistic service, as Marius the Epicurean saw in Walter Pater's exquisite story, that "a sacrifice is going forward here, a rite not so much new matter as a new spirit, moulding, informing, with a new intention, many observances not witnessed for the first time in the Christian fellowship . . . a veritable consecration, hopeful and animating, of earth's gifts of old dead and dark matter itself, now in some way redeemed at last of all we can touch and see, in the midst of a jaded world that has lost the true sense of such things."

[45] Nature's altar, the Jewish altar, Calvary—all are recapitulated, gathered up, transcended, in this Christian rite. The mystic bread, sprung from the soil in golden beauty, ground and broken and signed with the sign of the cross: the grape of the hillside, purple with dawn and sunset, bitter-sweet with the taste of the earth, and of the sun and the rain, trodden in the wine vat and now red as the love and wrath of God —these are solemnly brought to the altar for the oblation, as nature's offering. The seven golden candlesticks of the Jewish Temple, and the white-robed Levites singing, and the priest in mystical vestments, and the Holy of Holies, and the people confessing their sins—these are echoes of the old Jewish altar. Then comes Jesus, summing up the Law: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and thy neighbor as thyself"; and bringing us to our feet with His Gospel words; and calling us to "lift up our hearts"; and finally leading us up and up till we are at Calvary again, only now it is Calvary in the heavenly places. We are in the presence of the great High Priest and Victim as He pleads before the Eternal "His one oblation of Himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world"! Again and again like a [45/46] chiming bell the great tremendous words occur:

"Precious death and sacrifice,"
"Accept this our sacrifice,"
"We are unworthy to offer any sacrifice."

There it is, then, the Christian altar, not something different from Calvary, but the same. It is all we have to offer, the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, and with that death and sacrifice we identify ourselves, offering "ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice to God."

Now let us turn to the Upper Room where our Master made this clear to us. If He had not done what He did there, if He had not said what He said there, we might indeed have had some sacred rite, we might have had some precious words of His, but we would not have had an altar.

It is the night in which He was betrayed. It is the night of the Jewish Passover. All over the city lambs are being slain. He meets with the twelve, the successors of the twelve tribes of Israel. He takes bread and breaks it and blesses it—"This is my Body"; He takes the cup and blesses it—"This is my Blood of the new testament which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. This do in remembrance of me." If you would know what [46/47] that meant to the apostles, turn to St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (A.D. 55) written twenty-five years later:

"I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord."

Then turn to that amazing book, the Revelation of St. John, written forty years later, belonging to the end of the century (A.D. 95) and there in the picture of Revelation v to vii what have you? Why, you have a picture of the early Christian Church. The semi-circular sanctuary with the bishop's throne in an elevated place; the seats of the four and twenty elders or assistant priests on either side; in the center before the throne, the altar; and there in the [47/48] midst, the Lamb slain. Incense is offered in golden bowls, and the prayers of the saints ascend, and seven lamps of fire are burning, and the souls of martyrs beneath the altar (where their bones or ashes have been reverently placed) cry out, "How long, O Lord, how long?"—and "they hunger no more and thirst no more because the Lamb in the midst feeds them and leads them unto fountains of living waters of God, and wipes away all tears from their eyes."

This is indeed a picture of heaven, but it is in terms of primitive Christian worship. The Church and the Eucharist on earth are mystically one with the scene in heavenly places.

This great service of the altar, this unbloody sacramental sacrifice, is in the New Testament precisely what it is today, the central act of Christian worship—heaven on earth, the most appealing and moving expression of all that we mean when we speak of Christian sacrifice.

And now we must remember that one of the elements of that great and meaningful ceremonial of the Jewish sacrifice is still very near and dear to us. I mean the participation in the sacrifice itself by feeding upon it.

There is a chapter in St. John's Gospel which is so clearly Eucharistic that one wonders how [48/49] the meaning could possibly be missed—"I am the bread of life," said Jesus. "The Jews murmured because he said, 'I am the bread which came down from heaven.' . . . 'Is not this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" to which Jesus solemnly replies, "I am the bread of life. If any man eat of this bread he shall live for ever. And the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world!" Naturally they were startled. Naturally they cried out, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Then Jesus said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him." Do you wonder that many of His disciples said, "This is an hard saying; who can hear it?" But in the Upper Room He clarified it: "This is my Body—this is my Blood!"

Hoc est corpus meum—how that blessed and mystical phrase has stood at the very center of bitter theological controversy! The Protestant says, "We do reject it for the very good reason [49/50] that we believe it to savor of superstition and to be an unwarranted and harmful accretion to primitive Christian faith and practice. Belief in an objective divine presence on the altar in the consecrated elements is to us impossible, and we maintain that the mode by which that presence is said by sacerdotalists to be guaranteed, namely, by the utterance of a certain fixed form of words and performance of certain manual acts, is pure magic, and therefore degrades a sacred ordinance into something utterly different from what it was originally intended to be." In answer to this, listen to what the Rev. R. J. Campbell has to say in his A Spiritual Pilgrimage. Dr. Campbell entered the Anglican communion a few years ago, coming from a rich and fruitful ministry as the brilliant pastor of the City Temple in London. He happens to be speaking directly to this point, and with understanding, as one who once held the Protestant position.

"It is no part of my purpose," he says, "in the present connection to argue against this Protestant view, so strongly and conscientiously held by millions of my fellow-Christians. I know—we all know—most that can be said for and against it, and it can only be a wearisome iteration of words to go over all that ground [50/51] again, besides being stale, flat, and unprofitable. Do not let us refight our ancient battles; we are out to make peace; and we cannot make peace until we learn to understand each other and to be willing to extend charitable allowance to its utmost limits. And it is not charitable to call that magic which is of the very essence of the Christian life of millions of God's people, not in the Anglican communion only, but in the great Catholic communions of East and West, and their associates throughout the world. There are more Christians who attach reverent significance to this supposed magic than there are of those who will have nothing to do with it. It has nourished the spiritual life of untold numbers of the sweetest and most heroic saints that the Christian centuries have produced. Would it not be well, therefore, to pause and ask whether there may be more in this magic than Protestants generally have been willing to concede?Magic is not an admissible name for it. That cannot be magic which has a moral meaning as the sacrament of the altar undoubtedly has. It is a covenanted spiritual act, no wonder-working incantation, no abracadabra mumbled by a wizard as a spell to summon, like Glendower in Henry IV, 'Spirits from the vasty deep.' It is no more any of these [51/52] things or their like than a child's kiss on a mother's lips belongs to the same category. Is the love between two hearts any less real for being dependent in a measure for its expression upon a simple yet conventional physical medium? And let me once more remind Protestant readers, it is dangerous to discriminate too sharply between what is physical and what is spiritual, between outward and inward. The efficacy of the covenanted act depends upon what the Church has always understood by it, and not upon this or that specific ritual deed or word. Once again I would appeal to facts, and it is a fact beyond dispute that the results in life and character of a belief in the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament have been and are so abundantly good and beautiful as to constitute in themselves a demonstration of its truth and a justification of Catholic observance in regard to it."

"Hoc est corpus meum" ("This is my body"). Catholics believe it to be actually so, really so, not carnally but spiritually, and therefore the more really and actually so.

"He was the word who spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that word doth make it,
That I believe, and take it."

[53] So did St. Paul. So did St. John. So did St. Ignatius, in the first decade of the second century. He describes the Eucharist as "the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered on behalf of our sins which the Father in His goodness raised." So did St. Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century, saying that Christians of his time regarded the Eucharistic food as "both the flesh and the blood of the Jesus who was made flesh." So did Ireneus and St. Clement of Alexandria and St. Cyril of Jerusalem and all the fathers of the Church, East and West, without exception. I do not say their philosophy of it was ours. I do not think it had to be, but I know that Christianity East and West, from first to last, believes in Jesus' Presence, real and objective and substantial, in the Blessed Sacrament. And if anyone stops me to say Roman Catholics believe something different, something incredibly contrary to the reason—then I reply that Roman Catholics formally teach just what all Catholics do, just what Anglicans teach, and I shall give myself the pleasure of quoting from an approved statement of their own that—

"Our Lord's body in the Eucharist is spiritually present in the Blessed Sacrament whereas it was corporally present on earth," that—
[54] "There is no sensible change in the elements," that—
"The phenomena of bread remain after the consecration."

By substance they mean what we mean, what anyone means who uses scholastic terms intelligently, the spiritual essence of a thing. The spiritual essence of the Blessed Sacrament, "the inward and spiritual grace" as our catechism says, is "the Body and Blood of Jesus." Upon my desk is a beautiful copy of Ecclesiastical Polity, by Richard Hooker, the great Anglican divine of the seventeenth century. Let his words be ours:

"What these elements are it skilleth not—it is enough that to me which take them they are the Body and Blood of Christ!"

 So we who come to our communion do but complete a great sacrifice which we have joined in offering. Even when we make no communion ourselves we assist in offering the great sacrifice for our own sins and the sins of the whole world. The altar is the most sacred place on earth to us because it is at once the earthly throne of our Redeemer, the Holy of Holies of His earthly temple, the place of His mystical and special and sacramental Presence who is at [54/55] the center of the universe, the rendezvous where we meet Him whom our soul loveth.

"Therefore we before Him bending
This great sacrament revere.
Types and shadows have their ending,
For the newer rite is here.
Faith our outward sense befriending
Makes our inward vision clear."

"And although we are unworthy to offer unto Thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech Thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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