Personally, I view this as the strongest Scriptural argument against the Eucharist. After all, Catholic priests do daily offer up the Sacrifice of the Mass. But it turns out that the Old Testament, New Testament (including Hebrews!), and Church Fathers provide a clear answer to how the Eucharist can be a Sacrifice without violating the once-for-all nature of Calvary. Let’s examine each in turn.When he said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "Lo, I have come to do thy will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
I. Does the Old Testament Prefigure the Eucharist as a Sacrifice?
It does. The Passover Lamb prefigured Christ, as St. Paul (1 Cor. 5:7) and John the Baptist (John 1:36) tell us. This role of Christ as the Sacrificial Lamb is prefigured as far back as Abraham (Genesis 22:8). Now, the Passover consists of two distinct but interrelated sacrificial actions. On Preparation Day, a spotless lamb was slaughtered (Exodus 12:6). That evening (the next day, by the Jewish reckoning) marks the beginning of Passover. On Passover, the lamb is eaten (Ex. 12:8-11), applying the merits of the lamb’s atoning death. The blood is described as a “sign,” but it’s actually efficacious: it saves the lives of the first-born of the houses with the blood marking the doors (Ex. 12:13). If Preparation Day is the shedding of sacrificial blood, Passover is, as Hebrews 11:28 describes it, “the application of blood.”
Now, the parallels to Christ are obvious. Christ’s Death on the Cross occurs on, and is the fulfillment of, Preparation Day (John 19:31). As for the Last Supper, in which Jesus institutes the Eucharist, Jesus specifically describes it as the Passover (Matthew 26:18). Christ is establishing the institution by which the Blood He is about to shed on Calvary will be perpetually applied to the faithful.
II. Does the New Testament Describe the Eucharist as a Sacrifice?
It does. Let me provide a few examples, from the words of Christ, St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and the letter to the Hebrews.
Here is what Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.That is, Jesus depicts the Christians as making offerings at an altar, and it would be quite a stretch to suggest that He’s not referring to a literal altar (since we’re told to leave our gifts there to go make peace with our brothers). But what is an altar, other than a place to offer sacrifice? And what is this Sacrifice, if not the Sacrifice of the Mass? Protestants have “altar calls,” but no altars.
1 Corinthians 10:16-21
Perhaps the clearest instance in the New Testament in which the Eucharist is treated as a sacrifice is in 1 Corinthians 10:16-21,
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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Catacombs art depicting the Eucharist,
San Callisto, Rome (3rd c.)
Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.
To prove that the Eucharist is a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, St. Paul equates it to the Jews eating the animals sacrificed at the altar, and the pagans eating the food sacrificed to idols. He then says that we have to choose whether we want to drink the cup of the Lord or of demons, and whether we want to “partake of the table of” the Lord or of demons. We already know that partaking of the table of demons means eating the food sacrificed to them, and Paul is clearly treating the Eucharist as the Christian equivalent: a sacrificial meal.You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
But if Protestants are right, and the Eucharist isn’t a Sacrifice, then there’s no equivalence between the Lord’s Supper and the sacrificial meals of Judaism and paganism. In other words, if the Eucharist isn’t a Sacrifice, St. Paul’s argument from analogy doesn’t work.
The Book of Hebrews likewise supports a Sacrificial view of the Eucharist. In Hebrews 9:15-24, right before discussing the once-for-all nature of Christ‘s death, there’s a discussion on the application of the atoning blood, and an important parallel drawn:
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.
Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship.
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.Like Exodus 12, this passage distinguishes between two distinct sacrificial aspects: the shedding of blood, and the application of (and purification with) blood. The first paragraph (Heb. 9:15-17) deals with the atoning death of animals under the Old Covenant. A parallel is drawn to Christ’s Death on the Cross on Calvary (Heb. 9:15), in which “a death has occurred which redeems” believers.
|Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)|
The New Testament parallel here isn’t to Calvary, but to the Last Supper. We see this from Hebrews 9:20, in which Moses is depicted as saying “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” This passage is vital, because instead of quoting Moses directly, the author of Hebrews blends the words of Moses in Exodus 24:8, with the words of institution at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25).
Calvary is a once-for-all action, just as the slaying of the animals was. But just as Moses is able to apply the blood first to the altar, and then to the Book, and then to the people, without re-sacrificing the animals, the Eucharist can be offered repeatedly without re-crucifying Christ.
One final point about this passage, while we’re on the subject: we are promised that the New Covenant consists of “better sacrifices,” plural, than the Old (Heb. 9:23), yet the Protestant view turns this upside down. That is, Protestants would have to say that Jesus Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper were merely symbolic, while Moses’ words of institution (Heb. 9:20; Ex. 24:8) were efficacious, since they actually sealed the Covenant, and Moses and the elders proceeded to behold God and eat and drink in His Presence (Ex. 24:11). This is contrary to solid exegesis and typology, and runs counter to Heb. 9:23.
III. Did the Early Christians View the Eucharist as a Sacrifice?
|Dieric Bouts the Elder, |
Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (1464–67)
Right around this same time, St. Clement of Alexandria explains that Melchizedek’s sacrifice of bread and wine in Genesis 14:18-20 is a consecrated food for a type of the Eucharist (Hebrews 5-7 draws this same parallel between Melchizedek and Jesus, by the way).
In the middle part of the third century, St. Cyprian explained that the Sacrifice of the Eucharist required wine to be a valid oblation:
Whence it appears that the blood of Christ is not offered if there be no wine in the cup, nor the Lord’s sacrifice celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our oblation and sacrifice respond to His passion. But how shall we drink the new wine of the fruit of the vine with Christ in the kingdom of His Father, if in the sacrifice of God the Father and of Christ we do not offer wine, nor mix the cup of the Lord by the Lord’s own tradition?And Eusebius said that, in the Eucharistic celebration, we are daily “admitted to a greater sacrifice than that of the ancient law.” And later, he describes the two forms of sacrifice Christians partake of:
So, then, we sacrifice and offer incense: On the one hand when we celebrate the Memorial of His great Sacrifice according to the Mysteries He delivered to us, and bring to God the Eucharist for our salvation with holy hymns and prayers; while on the other we consecrate ourselves to Him alone and to the Word His High Priest, devoted to Him in body and soul.
Because the unbloody Sacrifice of the Mass is related-but-distinct from the bloody Sacrifice on Calvary (in the same manner that the Passover is from the Preparation Day), there’s no contradiction between the fact that the Mass is a repeated Sacrifice, while Calvary is once for all.
This distinction, and the reality of the Eucharist as a Sacrifice, is found prefigured in the Old Testament, present in the New, and explained in the Church Fathers.