Sharing the sacrifice

Lamb of God, attributed to Francisco de Zurbarán
Lamb of God, attributed to Francisco de Zurbarán

For some people, the Church sometimes seems to be a “yesterday’s controversy preservation society”. This has been notable, for example, in some of the arguments over justification by faith that have raged, particularly in American conservative evangelical circles, around Bishop Tom Wright’s work. It is also true, I think, of many Christians’ discussions of the Eucharist. Here, then, is one such controversy from the Reformation, which certainly continues to impact discussions about liturgical texts and ecumenism. The thirty-first of the Anglican articles deals with the question of eucharistic sacrifice.

XXXI. Of the Oblation of Christ of Christ finished upon the Cross
The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.

It is not apparent to me whether this article intends a distinction between a “common view” of Eucharistic sacrifice as a repeated one, and an unspecified more theological view, or if it intends to subsume all Catholic teaching under “in the which it was commonly said”. But there are potentially many ways in which sacrificial language can be used of the Eucharist which continues to maintain the uniqueness of the Cross.

If I were developing a fuller treatment of the topic than I intend to do here, I would also want to look at (at least) two other questions. They might, I think, reframe some of the issues of the past controversy. One concerns the theory of atonement adopted by the Reformers, and whether models other than propitiation and satisfaction might offer a different set of approaches to Eucharistic theology. The other is whether reading Paul entirely in the light of Hebrews’ stress on the “once and for all” sacrifice of Christ distorts some of the ways in which Paul speaks of the unique salvific role of Christ’s death.

Regarding the historical dispute, however, both Anglicans and Roman Catholics have moved on. I quote first from the Agreed Statement on the Eucharist of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.

Christ’s redeeming death and resurrection took place once and for all in history. Christ’s death on the cross, the culmination of his whole life of obedience, was the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. There can be no repetition of or addition to what was then accomplished once for all by Christ.
Any attempt to express a nexus between the sacrifice of Christ and the Eucharist must not obscure this fundamental fact of the Christian faith. … Christ instituted the Eucharist as a memorial (anamnesis) of the totality of God’s reconciling action in him. In the eucharistic prayer the church continues to make a perpetual memorial of Christ’s death, and his members, united with God and one another, give thanks for all his mercies, entreat the benefits of his passion on behalf of the whole church, participate in these benefits and enter into the movement of his self-offering.

In response to queries about the statement, ARCIC said:

There is therefore one historical, unrepeatable sacrifice, offered once for all by Christ and accepted once for all by the Father. In the celebration of the memorial, Christ in the Holy Spirit unites his people with himself in a sacramental way so that the Church enters into the movement of his self-offering. In consequence, even though the Church is active in this celebration, this adds nothing to the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross, because the action is itself the fruit of this sacrifice. The Church in celebrating the Eucharist gives thanks for the gift of Christ’s sacrifice and identifies itself with the will of Christ who has offered himself to the Father on behalf of all mankind.

Both the statement and the elucidation are worth reading in full. Personally, I find this ARCIC statement one rooted in scripture and the Church’s traditional reading of it, but I want to go on exploring agreed views, not personal ones.

I am reluctant to lend any weight to the “creeping magisterium” view of the Lambeth Conference, currently being attributed to it by the proponents of a traditional view on gay relationships. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the Lambeth Conference resolution on ARCIC. This has, I would suggest, more expectation of being authoritative than the current bug-bear of 1998’s resolution 1:10, since it followed a prior consultation with all provinces. It might thus be reasonable to think it a good representation of the mind of the Anglican Communion.

While we respect continuing anxieties of some Anglicans in the areas of “sacrifice” and “presence”, they do not appear to reflect the common mind of the provincial responses, in which it was generally felt that the Elucidation of “Eucharistic Doctrine” was a helpful clarification and reassurance. Both are areas of “mystery” which ultimately defy definition.
But the Agreed Statement on the Eucharist sufficiently expresses Anglican understanding.

The Eucharist, in short, while in no sense being a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, is a means of participation in Christ’s self-offering. Re-running the Reformation is not particularly constructive.

Seeing eucharistic sacrifice in the way that ARCIC does and the Lambeth Conference accepted allows us to move forward. In this way it allows us to express in prayer and liturgical enactment the calling “to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies as living sacrifices” (Romans 12:2) and “to make up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.” (Colossians 1:24). These actions are responses, but they are not simply responses to Christ, they are responses in Christ, as we get caught up in his work of drawing us and all people into an offering of love to the Father.

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