Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Sacrifice? Could You Unpack That Please?

(Continued from here)

Well, where were we? Oh yes, I'm in the middle of a series examining the theological underpinings of Dom Gregory Dix's Shape of the Liturgy. To review:

I first noted that Dix sees the fundamental meaning of the Eucharist as something we do, as a sacrifice. Without that sacrificial underpinning, any acknowledgement of the Real Presence is ultimately meaningless.

I then took a brief tour around the world and concluded with a spiritual law: To receive the benefits of a blood sacrifice and membership in the community formed by the blood sacrifice, one ordinarily consumes the flesh of the sacrificial victim. Bloody offerings, unbloody offerings, and prayer and proper attitude are part of the human sacrificial system from the beginning with Cain and Abel, and to be part of it, the offerings have to be consumed. So yes, the Eucharist should have some link to sacrifice in it, since by we receive the benefits of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

But before we go any further, we need to sort out what exactly kind of sacrifice we are talking about. And fortunately, this is an issue along which fairly clear lines have been drawn. The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent presentation (if really long) of the Catholic position, emphasizing the following points: the Eucharist has two separate functions: sacrament and sacrifice, which must be kept separate. The sacrament is received by the communicant with the intention of the sanctification of his soul, while the sacrifice is recieved by God (especially in His person as Father) with the intention of glorifying Him by adoration, thanksgiving, prayer, and expiation/propitiation. Note that last item. The sacrifice involved is propitiatory, that is expiates our sins and turns aside God's wrath from us as sinners.

The article then goes on to point a number of ways of understanding sacrifice that are inadequate, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint. Two points stand out. The sacrificial aspect must not be understood as

1) a "figurative or unreal" sacrifice, on the level with "prayers of praise and thanksgiving, alms, mortification, obedience, and works of penance."
2) or as taken place in the Offertory, that as the created gifts of bread and wine are offered to God by the church.

No, the sacrifice to be a truly expiatory sacrifice must be the bodily offering of Christ Himself. (The reason is fairly obvious, as on even the lowest view of sin, the mere offering of prayers of praise and thanksgiving, or of bread and wine to God could hardly be enough to expiate sins.)

From the Evangelical side, Philip Melanchthon's distinctions in his chapter on the Mass in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession used these same distinctions. (In fact, of course, most of the extremely subtle language in the Catholic Encyclopedia is Tridentine and post-Reformation.) The Mass as a sacrament (received by man for the good of his soul) is accepted, as a sacrifice (received by God for the expiation of sins) it is rejected. (Note that eventually Evangelicals began to use "Mass" for the Eucharist understood as an expiatory sacrifice; that is why the Smalcald articles denounce the "mass" while the Augsburg Confession accepts it--the understanding of the term is different.)

Melanchthon likewise distinguishes sacrament and sacrifice:
1) Sacrament: a ceremony or work in which God presents to us that which the promise annexed to the ceremony offers
2) Sacrifice: a ceremony or work which we render God in order to afford Him honor.

He then distinguishes between two types of sacrifice:
1) Propitiatory: one 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.
2) Eucharistic (i.e. thanksgiving): one 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. It does not merit the remission of sins or reconciliation, but is the thanksgiving for the fruit thereof.

Melanchthon then defines the Evangelical position as follows:

1) The only true propitiatory sacrifice in the whole world has been that of Christ on the cross.
2) The Mass/Eucharist is rightly understood as a sacrifice only in the eucharistic sense, on the same level as "praise, . . . preaching of the Gospel, faith, prayer, thanksgiving, confession, [bearing] afflictions," etc.
3) This sense of the Eucharist as a thanksgiving is in addition to its efficacy as a sacrament, i.e. as God's promise forgiveness, the reception of which needs only faith.

While the idea of the offertory as a sacrifice is not mentioned by Melanchthon (the historic link of the offertory with the Eucharist had been heavily obscured by centuries of liturgical evolution by then), there is no reason why it could not be accepted as long as it is understood as a eucharistic sacrifice, not a propitiatory one. [UPDATE: Actually the idea of the offertory as the Eucharistic sacrifice is explicitly found in Martin Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church, as cited here. Undoubtedly Melanchthon was aware of this passage, even if he chose not to refer explicitly to it.]

Finally it is worth reemphasizing that Melanchthon and Luther both agree wholeheartedly with Dix that justification by faith alone and the evangelical understanding of the Gospel are flatly contradictory to any understanding of the eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice whose merit can be applied to the living or the dead. They are, however, compatible with the understanding of the Eucharist as a eucharistic sacrifice, i.e. as an act of worship offered in thanksgiving. This eucharistic aspect is not so explicitly emphasized as the sacramental aspect, but it is well ensconced in the Augsburg Evangelical confessions, as well as in the current offertory hymns of our churches.

So one question is now, what the New Testament and early patristic evidence on this is: is the eucharist a propitiatory or eucharistic sacrifice? And can the understanding of the eucharist as a sacrament be coordinated in any sense with the sacrificial eating that seems demanded by the typology of the Old Testament, not to mention the expectations of humanity?

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