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Eucharistic Sacrifice: The Roots of a Metaphor by Rowan Williams

December 13, 2014

ESTROAMI was taught that the mass was a propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead but Cranmer’s rite emphasised that Calvary was ‘once and for all’ though the memory was perpetual. If the celebrant paused and pointed to the consecrated elements while saying ‘this our sacrifice….(our) thanks and praise’ it was capable of a catholic interpretation.

But who pleads the sacrifice in Hebrews? Christ alone in heaven or us in union with him?

And what is the role of the priest. Williams worries that: agency of Christ is transferred to the church and the church exercises this agency at the hands of the clergy, the way is open for the development of radically sub-Christian or anti-Christian understanding of ministry. The ordained Christian is seen as exercising a ‘priesthood’ different in kind from hat of the whole company of the baptized, a ‘priesthood’ deriving from Christ through the apostles, somehow mirroring in more direct fashion the mediatorial and transforming and interpretative role of Christ.- Thus the language of eucharistic sacrifice provides the ideological grounding fora strongly hierarchical understanding of the relation of ministers and laity. The priest as custodian of holy things, equipped with supernatural power and privileged access to the resources of the invisible world, is in a position to enforce sanctions of ultimate weight—as in mediaeval Christendom. Sacramental power guarantees the right to determine unilaterally the limits of the Christian community.

The notion of sacrifice didn’t take off in the second century because: One of the salient facts about early Christianity which we easily overlook was its external irreligiousness. The popular Roman charge of ‘atheism’ is part of a general sense in late antiquity that. Christians had no tangible public forms of piety. They operate in secrecy, so that, notoriously, their ritual behaviour is more like the oaths of secret societies than the corporate cultus of rational civic human beings living openly in the polls) And because sacrifice was something so entirely fundamental to religious practice in the ancient world, the Christians’ non-participation in sacrifice is a mark of their alienation from ordinary human piety, their rejection of custom—both Jewish and Gentile tradition…. Not sacrificing, then, is part of a whole complex of ideas and attitudes perceived as hostile by the intelligent pagan…. Part of the agenda for an apologist will be to show both that Christianity accepts the sophisticated Greek attitude to sacrifice (it is not a blood- – offering to buy off an angry deity) and the propriety of sacrificial language and practice; and also that the Christian cult is not invention or innovation. If we have these goals in mind, it may be easier to understand the very (fluid language of second-century writers about Christian sacrifice.

But there is the reference in Malachi 1:11 to a ‘pure offering’ and Trypho sees the Eucharist prefigured in the cleansed leper’s meal offering so Williams suggests that: here is a recognizable cultic act, in which bread and wine are offered ritually as a memorial and a thanks­giving: while it is true that prayer and thanksgiving are the only real sacrifices, the ritual form of this for Christians is the ‘sacrifice’ of food and drink so as to remember the passion of Jesus….There is no doubt for Justin that the eucharist is ‘structurally’ a sacrifice—as indeed it would have looked to the uninitiated observer. His point is a fairly simple one, in fact: Christianity conceives of itself as a normal and acceptable and traditional form of piety, i.e. as sacrificial; and although it has no mythological fantasies about propitiatory sacrifice and its necessity, although it accepts the Jewish and Greek convention of seeing ‘true’ sacrifice as interior and spiritual…The eucharist says something, then, about the priestly character of the church and, obliquely, something about its relation to the world and the world’s welfare. Mention of it as sacrificial serves the apologetic purpose of legitimizing Christianity as non-magical, non-atheistic, as concerned with the harmony and continuity of things… To see sacrifice as propitiatory is to fall into the trap of supposing that God needs things from us: like all ordinances, sacrifice is meant to keep God’s people from idolatry and to guarantee their grateful remembrance of him. But it will only be itself, therefore, in the context of that compre­hensive justice and compassion which is true mindfulness of God. All sacrifice is thus expressive rather than functional; and the same is true of the offering commanded by Christ. Christians are given an offering to make, so that they may not be ‘unfruitful or ungrateful’: as with Justin, we are constituted a sacrificing priesthood because of Christ’s gift…. Irenaeus implies that our sacrifice is pure (Malachi again) because offered through Jesus Christ; and this is paralleled in 18.4, when we are told that the Jews can make no pure offering ‘because they have not accepted the Word through whom it [the pure sacrifice] is offered to God… The association of the eucharist with Christ’s death is not made—perhaps not surprisingly, given lrenaeus’ general lack of interest in the imagery of propitiation by bloodshed (there are some isolated passages in, the Latin – which appear to speak in these terms, but their status and meaning is unclear). Harvey is right in his note on Irenaeus’ eucharistic teaching to say that if the eucharist is a sacrifice for lrenaeus it is a thank-offering, not a sin-offering. The ‘paschal’ aspect of the sacrament is muted, and the notion of a covenant in Christ’s blood is in no way developed… There are no clear distinctions between the offering (by us) of bread and wine, the offering (by us in Christ) of his deified humanity, and the offering (to us by Christ) of risen life through the ‘nourishment’ of the first fruits of new creation….Once we grasp his fundamental principle that sacrifice is only a ‘necessity’ as a natural ritual expression of grateful love, it is possible to see taking shape a link between the earthly offering of praise and the (eternal ‘liturgy’ of the Trinity… We do not work our salvation in offering the eucharistic oblation; we witness to the share we have been given in the glorified life of Christ, manifest in the rest of our lives as charity, humility, and pity. And the purity of our offering depends upon our commitment to the Christ through whom it is offered.

What about scripture?: The ‘altar from:which those who serve the tent have no right to eat’ in Heb. 13.14 is presumably Jesus; and it is possible that the hilasterion of Rom. 3.25 is to be identified with the mercy-seat in the Holy of Holies. In short, temple and cult lan­guage is not uncommon in the New Testament in the context of speaking about the Messiah and his community. The Qumran texts have underlined the pre-Christian provenance of this kind of imagery. A famous passage in the Manual of Discipline speaks of the community not only as temple but as sacrifice: the lay community, it appears, is the Holy Place, the priestly body is the Holy of Holies, and the atoning sacrifice is the whole life of the community in its observance of the Law and its sufferings for the sake of righteousness. The same text from Isaiah (28.16) is referred to here as is quoted in 1 Peter 2.6, and there can be no doubt that a common background must be assumed….It may indeed be that one of the aims of the writer to the Hebrews is not only to direct a polemic against orthodox temple cultus but also to insist that the atoning offering, while it is an offering of total obedience and the consequent martyrdom, can only be made by one whose priesthood is intrinsic to his very being, who makes atonement not for himself but for his people, whose obedience is total—only by God’s unique Son, not by any ‘new temple’ community. If Christ as high priest has an atoning sacrifice (le rason le khapper in the Qumran phrase), it is himself, the achievement of his obedience and the blood of his martyrdom; but as priest he offers not only an atonement sacrifice but a thank-offering, a sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13.15). ‘He offers’—in the sense that we are only able to offer thanks and praise through him, because of what he has done; our praise and thanksgiving is the incense he offers perpetually in the heavenly shrine. This’ is, I think, a defensible unpacking of Heb. 13, especially in the light of the widespread image in Jewish apocalyptic of the heavenly intercessor offering the prayers— and sometimes the souls—of the righteous, an image echoed in 8.3.1 Thus, if the church is conceived as itself a sacrifice, it is in this sense: its worship, its petition, and, probably, its self-sacrificial devotion (the souls of the martyrs) all constitute the heavenly tamid, offered by Jesus, the Great Angel or angel of peace, who is mediator and intercessor. In this context—as Charles and others have suggested—the exalted Christ takes on some of the characteristics of the archangel Michael… So far from the sacrifice of Calvary excluding the possibility of any other sacrifice, it is the cross and its ‘reception’ as an offering- by the Father in the glorification of the crucified Son which constitutes those who are won through the cross a priestly people, a ‘temple community’. Like the Qumran sectaries, they are both shrine and sacrifice; but unlike them they are not so in virtue of their own faithfulness, but because of the faithfulness usque- ad mortem of the sole authentic priest, the one who cannot- be anything other than priest, whose priestly life and death constitute the ground of all subsequent offering…. both the tamid sacrifice and the Passover celebration are ‘memorials’ of a foundational event without which subsequent offerings would not occur and would not be effective. The Aqedah institutes a sacrificial tradition, a ritual of offering which has no independent force, but whose ‘goal and function is to petition God to be faithful to the covenant he has already honoured by ransoming Isaac; the Passover proclaims, with another kind of memorial sacrifice, God’s fidelity to what he has done…. Jeremias’ familiar point that we should take Jesus’ alleged words, ‘Do this for my memorial’ (1 Cor. 11.24-25, Luke 22.19) as meaning, ‘Do this so that God may remember me’6 would make far better sense in relation to the Aqedah. God is besought to show himself once again the God he has shown himself to be in giving Jesus as a ransom for the children of promise: the ‘sacrifice’ of bread and cup is in no way an expiation or propitiation of sin, but a prayer that we may see and grasp God as he is, a God who mercifully sends a sacrificial redeemer to us: a God whose property it is to provide himself a lamb for sacrifice.

Indeed, Paul writes of us ‘making up for what is lacking’ in Christ’s sacrifice in Colossians 1:24.

Both Peter and Paul use the image of Christians being the temple’s ‘living stones’. As such, they are close to the altar and to Christ. Ignatius of Antioch regards that not in communion with their bishop to be cut off from this relationship. Furthermore: Ignatius himself evidently thought of his death as a sacrifice (Rom. 2.4), when a sacrifice on behalf of the churches (Ephes. 21, Smyrn. 10, Pot. 2, in all of which occurs the word antipsychon. which normally means a vicarious sacrifice). The passage in Rom. 4 which speaks of the martyr being ground into ‘pure bread’ by the teeth of the wild beasts suggests an analogy with the offering of pure loaves at Pentecost3—i.e., not with blood-sacrifice or atoning sacrifice; and although other passages go a good deal further, it is doubtful whether Ignatius meant the language of vicarious death to be taken in an absolutely strict sense.

In Ephrem of Syria’s sermon on the presentation: ‘But Simeon the priest when he had received Christ in his arms so that he might present [offer] him to God, understood when he beheld him that he was not offering Christ but was himself being offered. For the Son is not to be offered to his Father by a servant; rather the servant is offered to his Lord by the Son. It is impossible that the one through whom every oblation [qurban] is offered would himself be offered by anyone else. The oblation does not offer the one who offers it but is offered by the offerer to God. And so the one who receives offerings gave himself to be offered by another, so that those who offered him might themselves be offered. Just as he gave his body to be eaten so that he might give life to the eaters while he was being eaten, so he surrendered himself to be an offering so as to sanctify by his cross the hands of those who offered him . . (Williams comments): This densely-packed text makes clear not only the eucharistic ‘resonance’ of the story of Christ’s presentation in the temple but the connection between the eucharistic oblation, and the cross, In the presentation, in-the-eucharist, and in the crucifixion, the agency appears to be human; but in fact all that human beings are doing in each of these instances is involving themselves in the divine action which presents them to the Father…. In the Syrian idea of Mary as type of the church, the crucial point is that Mary is filled with the Spirit so that she may bear the Christ who in fact (see above) ‘bears’ hor. The church as a whole is—in Aphrahat, for examples—the temple of the Spirit, the place where sin is taken away. The Spirit is given in baptism to purify the of our prayers, and part of the baptismal rite itself is the receiving of Christ’s sacrificed body and blood. The eucharist and baptism are both inseparably the receiving of Holy Spirit, constituting believers the dwelling place of the Spirit, a temple in which pure offering may be made.

Williams continues: In this light, it is of course rather unhelpful to search in primitive liturgies for ‘moments’ of offering or of consecration. Certainly it is artificial to schematize, as Dix does, the ‘two oblations’, the church’s and Christ’s, and to suppose a clear distinction between the anaphora of the one and the prosphora of the other. Bouyer sees the development of formulae of oblation as an attempt to make explicit what is involved in ‘memorializing’ the cross; ‘This oblation is nothing but the re-presentation to God of the pledge of salvation that he has given to his people in the “memorial”…. Dr. Kenneth Stevenson has argued at some length3 that the different ‘families’ of Eastern liturgies have quite widely differing views of what is offered in the eucharist and when. The Egyptian type appears to conceive the only offering involved as the placing of the elements upon the altar, whereas the Antiochene has generally an elaborate structure of commem­oration and ‘pleading’ of Christ’s sacrifice (the ‘oblation’) followed by a consecratory epiclesis—the whole of this being in various linguistic ways distinguished from the offering of worship…. But it is also true that none of them speaks of an active offering by us of Christ’s body and blood. That would be possible only if the institution narrative were regarded as strictly consecratory—so that any ‘offering’ language afterwards would refer to the body and blood, and there really would be a ‘sacrifice of Christ’. Dr. Tom Talley points outs that contempor­ary liturgical revisions in both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic, churches have—inadvertently?—gone some considerable way towards such a view. The widespread reaction against an over-emphasized or over-dramatized offertory seems to have bred the idea that only consecra­tion makes offering possible; only then do we have a suitable offering, Christ’s body and blood. This has some ancestry in Catholic theology (though not, Talley stresses, in Thomas Aquinas), but remains theologically very ambiguous, and particularly uncongenial to the Reformed perspective outlined at the very beginning of this study. The body and blood made present—or evoked, or identified—in the eucharistic prayer do not represent an uncrucified (or unglorified) Jesus waiting to be offered; but if they do represent Jesus crucified and risen, the only possible form of our offering’ them is by memorial. He is already present as sacrificed: his body and blood are saving, Spirit-filled realities, not dead passive objects.

He concludes that: the assumption of this study is that, in Old and New Testament alike, the concept of sacrifice is a fluid one. Not until an exaggerated mediaeval passion-mysticism had pressed the identity of mass and Calvary to its extreme point, so that any ‘sacrificing’ in the eucharist must be the shedding of Christ’s blood for the forgiveness of sins, does it appear that there might be a conflict here. Several of the Reformers—certainly Luther and Calvin—had no problem bout the notions of memorial and thanksgiving sacrifice Luther could understand the Sanctus as praise. Cranmer however, is more cautious. The third Exhortation and the Preface of the 1552 rite say a certain amount about thanksgiving for the history of salvation, but the rite is rather muted overall; and the idea of a sacrifice of thanksgiving is carefully transferred to the post-communion. The general emphasis prior to this is on penitence and pure need, It has been rather unkindly said that the only ‘offering’ in this liturgy before communion is of money—’the Alms for the Poor’ I take it, is what Leslie Houlden meant by describing the evangelical. Anglican understanding of the eucharist in terms of recapitulation of the conversion experience’. Evangelicals rightly protested that this was a most misleading phrase; but Houlden’s point was that Cranmer’s liturgy seems almost to assume that we are not ‘in Christ’ to begin with, that we have no right to approach the Father before we have received the pledges of Christ’s sacrifice. This is not wholly fair to Cranmer, I realize, but it is clear that, although he distinguished theologically between the fruits of baptism and the fruits of communion, there is practically no liturgical expression in the communion order of our having received the Spirit in baptism and so being authorized to approach God with boldness: the congregational recitation of the Lord’s prayer becomes, in 1552, a post-communion devotion—quite understandably….. J. Van Baal has, as a professional anthropologist, some sharp words for scholars who insist on reducing the act of giving to a simple piece of bribery. For him the small size of certain kinds of traditional ritual offering, substitutes for larger objects, is not an attempt at trickery; what matters about it is that it is gift, and therefore (on his analysis) part of a structure of reciprocity or system of communication. Both giving and accepting gifts indicates—and sometimes creates—participation in a common life or common reality. Sacrifice and offering to the holy thus have to do with the maintenance of fellowship…’Manward or Godward’ is, then, a rather unhelpful dichotomy in thinking about the eucharist. In one sense, all our liturgical forms are directed to ourselves, to enable a more fundamental directing of ourselves to God; and of course all liturgical language which purports to ‘remind’ God of what he is or has done is metaphorical, even mythological. But then the problem affects equally what we can say about the death of Christ. ‘Manward’ ? Yes, because it is nothing if not a pledge and assurance of grace. ‘God-ward’ ? Yes, because it is nothing if not the climax of a life directed to the Father. ‘Manward’ in the sense of a demonstration or an example to follow, and no more ? No. ‘Godward’ in the sense of a blood-offering to change the disposition of a hostile Father ? No, in capital letters. Whether we talk of the eucharist or of Calvary, we are deeply involved in myth and metaphor. This certainly does not mean that we cannot speak of an ‘objective’ atonement; but we do need to acknowledge that ‘sacrifice’ (as in the New Testament) does not give us any more literal and straightforward a description of our redemption than any other single term. As Van Baal implies, there is even in the simplest rituals of sacrifice an acknowledged element of metaphor… In a sacrificing culture, the metaphor of I sacrifice was peculiarly fruitful, and I have tried in the last few pages to outline how it may still be so even in a non-sacrificing culture: images of gift and loss and participation have not lost their force.

So what I was taught is partly true. And my arguments against penal substitutionary atonement to avert God’s wrath are also ‘true’!

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