By Cole DeSantis
The earliest witness we have of Christians celebrating the Eucharist is in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11. In that chapter, St. Paul speaks of and attempts to correct various abuses that were taking place during the celebration of the Eucharist. To underline the sacredness of the liturgy, St. Paul points out how it is that which "I received from the Lord" which "I also passed on to you" (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23). He then goes on to repeat the story of the Last Supper.
This text goes back to the A.D. 50s, within only 15 to 20 years after Christ. Of course, three out of the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) speak of Christ instituting the liturgy during the Last Supper, and Acts of the Apostles speaks of the early members of the Church "breaking bread," which many biblical scholars see as a reference to the celebration of the Eucharist. All of these texts date back to between the late A.D. 60s and the early A.D. 90s. There is also the extended "Bread of Life" discourse of Jesus in John 6, which contains the richest eucharistic language. John's Gospel, the last of the four gospels to be written, dates back to the tail end of the first century, still only a few decades after Christ.
The biblical view on the Eucharist also witnesses to the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. For example, in the Gospels themselves, both Christ's death and the celebration of the Last Supper take place during the celebration of the Passover. Just as Christ's death and resurrection fulfilled the event memorialized by the Passover, so too does the celebration of the Eucharist fulfill the Passover as a celebration or ritual, thus making Jesus and the Eucharist, and by extension the Mass, the New Passover or the Christian Passover.
The sacrificial nature of the Mass is more explicitly articulated by the Church Fathers. Saint Clement of Rome wrote in his letter to the Church of Corinth (composed in the A.D. 90s) that the bishops are "those who have offered the sacrifices with innocence and holiness." Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church of Philadelphia in western Turkey around the year A.D. 110, states, "For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in union of His blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery ... ." In his letter to the Church of Smyrna, also in Turkey, he also warns against the Gnostics, saying that they should not partake in the eucharistic celebrations owing to their many theological errors, one of which was that, in Ignatius' words, "they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again."
Thus, the Eucharist is identifiable with the One Who died and was raised for our sins. Of course, there is also the famous testimony of St. Justin Martyr, who, in chapter 66 of his First Apology, written in the middle of the second century, speaks of how the bread and wine, "by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished," becomes "both the flesh and blood of the Incarnated Jesus." In chapter 41 of his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin further makes the claim that, because of the miracle of transubstantiation, the Mass has a sacrificial nature, thus leading it to fulfill the prophesy mentioned in Malachi 1:10–12. All of these quotes were written within a century after Christ.
Later generations of Christians also speak of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. Tertullian, writing in the early third century in his work On Prayer, described the eucharistic prayers as "sacrificial prayers," and describes participating in the Mass as "participation in the sacrifice." Origen, writing around the same time, wrote in one of his homilies on Leviticus that if we explore the meaning of the words of Jesus that He is the "bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (John 6:33), and the words of Christ at the Last Supper — "Do this in memory of me" (1 Corinthians 11:24, Luke 22:19) — we come to realize that the Eucharist, as a commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection, "has an effect of great propitiatory value."
In the middle of the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his 23rd catechetical lecture, describes the Mass as a "spiritual sacrifice" and "bloodless worship," that is, as the unbloody renewal or perpetuation of God's Sacrifice on the Cross, and that Jesus, present in the bread and wine, is a "propitiatory victim," that is, one offered to God for the forgiveness of sins. Further, St. Cyril notes that "we all pray and offer this sacrifice for all who are in need."
The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, describes with philosophical precision the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. As he wrote in the Summa Theologicæ, Part III, Question 83, Article 1, Christ is sacrificed in the Mass in two senses. Firstly, because the sacraments are signs or symbols of larger spiritual realities. Yet there is another sense in which Aquinas can say that "it is proper to this sacrament for Christ to be sacrificed in its celebration," namely, in the sense that it is through the celebration of this sacrament that the fruits of Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross are made manifest. This is because the death and resurrection of Christ, and the celebration of the Mass, and further, He Who was offered on the Cross, and He Who was offered under the appearance of bread and wine, are inseparable.
Thus, to the objection that Christ died once and for all for the sanctification and salvation of the human race, per Hebrews 10:14, Aquinas quotes St. Ambrose's commentary on the letter to the Hebrews, wherein the great Father states that what is meant here is that only one sacrificial Victim, namely Christ, was needed for the forgiveness of sins; thus, it is this same one sacrificial Victim Who is offered in every Church during the celebration of the Eucharist.
Christ's death and resurrection was the perfect act of worship, whereby God offered Himself to Himself through the person of Jesus dying on behalf of all humanity, through which forgiveness of sins is obtained. The Eucharist, and by extension the Mass as a whole, is a participation in this perfect Sacrifice. The prayers and rituals employed during the Mass thus attest to and shed light on the nature of Christ's death and resurrection. Let us now look to the Mass to see its witness, and meditate upon these words as we celebrate Christ's death and resurrection this Easter.
Latin Rite (Tridentine Missal)
Sequentia prayers, Easter Sunday:
Victimæ pascháli laudes immotent Christiani. Agnus redémit oves: Christus innocens Patri reconcilliávit peccatóres. Mors et vita duéllo confilxére mirándo: dux vitæ mórtuus, regnat vivus.
Let Christians offer sacrificial praises to the Passover Victim. The Lamb has redeemed the sheep: the Innocent Christ has reconciled the sinners to the Father. Life and death contended in a spectacular battle: the Prince of Life, who died, reigns alive.
Canon of the Mass according to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
Having in remembrance, therefore, the saving Command and all those things which have come to pass for us – the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into Heaven, the Seating at the Right Hand, and the Second Glorious Coming — Thine Own of Thine Own we offer on behalf of all and for all.
Canon of the Mass according to the Liturgy of St. James:
While we remember, O Lord, Your Death and Your Resurrection on the third day, Your Ascension into heaven, Your Sitting on the Right Hand, and Your Second Coming whereby You will judge the world in righteousness and reward everyone according to his deeds, on account of this, we offer You this bloodless sacrifice so that you may not deal with us according to our debts, nor reward us according to our sins, but according to Your abundant mercies blot out the sins of Your servants, for Your people and Your inheritance make supplication unto You and through You to Your Father ... .
The Sanctus according to the Liturgy of St. Basil:
Holy, Holy, Holy, truly O Lord, our God, Who formed us, created us and placed us in the paradise of joy. When we disobeyed Your commandment by the guile of the serpent, we fell from eternal life, and were exiled from the paradise of joy. You have not abandoned us to the end, but have always visited us through Your holy prophets, and in the last days you did manifest Yourself to us, who were sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, through Your Only-Begotten Son, our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Virgin Mary was made incarnate and became man, and taught us the ways of salvation. He granted us birth from on high through the water and Spirit. He made us unto Himself a congregation, and sanctified us by Your Holy Spirit; He loved His own who are in the world, and gave Himself up for our salvation unto death which reigned over us, whereby we were bound and sold on account of our sins, and He descended into hades through the Cross. He rose from the dead on the third day; He ascended into the heavens and sat at Your right hand, O Father; He has appointed a day for recompense, on which He will appear to judge the world in righteousness and give each according to his deeds.