Sacrifice in a Post-Calvinist World

This is the final part of a four part series on Sacrifice. See previous posts for parts 1,2, & 3.

History is curiously cyclical. Approximately 1,500 years after Moses instituted the Jewish ritual sacrifice, it was ruthlessly cut off by the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Approximately 1,500 years after Christ instituted his Eucharistic Covenant, a group of Christian would-be reformers ‘discovered’ that cultic sacrifice was no longer something useful. In fact, many went so far as to brand it idolatrous. In doing so they disconnected the Mass from its ancient Jewish ancestry of Temple sacrifice ─ and 15 centuries of unbroken Christian Tradition. Sacrifice, the very heart of religion, was thereby dismissed as either mistaken or irrelevant.

The most influential of these erstwhile reformers, Jean Calvin, redefined the nature of sacraments, which from Apostolic times had been understood as outwards signs which channeled divine grace to a recipient. Calvin diluted the definition to, “an outward sign by which the Lord assures us inwardly of his loving promises.” (Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Bk. 4) Calvin justified this subjective turn by arguing, “Some ancient Christian writers have exalted the sacraments too highly. There is no special virtue in the sacraments themselves. They cannot confer the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon us:” (ibid.)

Calvin’s primary target was the Eucharist. He stringently avoids using the Greek term “Eucharist” with its strongly sacrificial overtones. Instead the sacrament is referred to as “the Lord’s Supper” or “Breaking of Bread.” He predicated any true presence of Christ in the sacrament upon the subjective faith of the believer. “I believe that we eat Christ’s flesh by believing.” He continues, “It is received only by true believers who accept it with genuine faith and heartfelt gratitude.” (ibid.) Notice how Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is shifted from the sacrament itself to the recipient. For if one has any doubt or scruples that uncertainty might just nullify the Sacrament, leaving the believer on very shaky ground. Rather than the Sacrament strengthening a tepid faith, Calvin interprets that tepidity as an obstacle to the Sacrament.

A sacrament functions ex opere operato, meaning “from the work worked.” Its efficacy stems from the action of the sacrament itself, a truth which the Church has explicitly taught from the time of St. Augustine. It is not dependent upon one’s belief or the minister’s personal moral state or worthiness, so long as that minister intends what the Church intends. But Calvin relapses into Donatism, a 4th century heresy that subjected a sacrament’s validity to the minister’s personal worthiness. St. Augustine himself had vigorously opposed this error, maintaining that the sacrament depended solely upon the power of Christ who is the true minister.

While a recipient’s subjective faith or disposition can influence a sacrament’s effect on that person, it cannot invalidate the sacrament itself. The Eucharist embodies the physical body and blood of Christ regardless of who may receive it. St. Paul acknowledged this fact and warned the Corinthians not to eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord unworthily. (1Cor. 11:26-29) What the reformers failed to grasp is that sacrifice is more than the act of immolating a victim. In the Christian understanding it necessarily includes the sacrificial banquet (and one cannot have a banquet without guests) and the resurrection of the victim to new life in the Father. Christ’s is a living, eternal sacrifice which means it continues on and perseveres into and throughout eternity. At Mass we are simply ‘tuning in’ to the divine frequency for a few short moments through the sacramental agency of the priest and elements of bread and wine.

Calvin breaks with Pauline tradition arguing, “Those who believe that Christ’s flesh is not present unless it is in the bread are greatly mistaken… they place Christ in the bread while we consider it wrong to bring him down from heaven.” Such tortured logic might just as easily be used to undermine the Incarnation as well. The salient point is that Christ wants to be physically and intimately united to his people, sharing himself in this great feast.

Sacrifice in the Catholic Sense

There is one essential difference between Protestant and Catholic worship. One is a prayer service and the latter is a sacrifice. At every Mass something real happens. Sacrifice is something that we truly participate in, God physically and mystically engaging his people through the Eucharist. And while communal prayer and singing may provide a welcome release for the soul, without actual sacrifice God remains remote and inaccessible. But Christ also changed the whole meaning of sacrifice. In the old sense sacrifice involved the termination of life, but in the new sense it means the regeneration of life.

St. Paul is boldly confident about freely joining oneself to the sacrifice of Christ on the altar. He exhorts the Romans, “I urge you therefore… to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, for your spiritual worship. (Rom. 12:1) To what else might Paul be referring, for if sacrifice, according to the Reformers, effectively ended with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, did all those martyrs shed their blood vainly? But in fact, sacrifice did not end with the crucifixion. Rather it achieved its intended apotheosis. Paul boasts of sharing personally in this sacrifice, “With Christ I am nailed to the cross: yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2: 19-20)

Today the Mass serves, as it has for 2,000 years, as the vehicle through which sinful people are empowered to offer pleasing sacrifice to God. This is so precisely because our sacrifices are joined to the one sacrifice of Christ, and thereby made acceptable to the Father. St. Paul even quotes the Psalmist to remind his readers of this unique sacrificial vocation, “As is written, “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Rom. 8:36)

Sacrifice is not just some historical milestone, like the Revolutionary War. The sacrifice of the cross is dynamic and ongoing, here and now; not some faded event from the distant past. It transcends linear time because, for God, time is eternal. For him everything happens in the present moment while we must enter into the great sacrifice of Christ within the limitations of time. That is why the Mass is indispensable to every new generation, bringing his sacrifice into the present to be experienced anew. One modern pope explained, “It is necessary that men should individually come into vital contact with the Sacrifice of the Cross, so that the merits which flow from it should be imparted to them.” (P.Pius XII, Mediator Dei)

At every Mass the Church takes our earthly and temporal sacrifices and grafts them onto the eternal sacrifice of Christ. Through the mediating action of God’s Divine Son our sinful yet contrite hearts are made acceptable to God the Father. The profane is therefore cleansed and offered as pure sacrifice, pleasing in every way, because Christ himself has restored that which had been sullied by sin. St Paul articulates this reality, “For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor. 4:11) In other words, our own small sacrifices reciprocate and approve Christ’s supreme act of sacrifice, which in turn validates these.

The Third Eucharistic Prayer in the new Roman Rite iterates this principle perfectly where it says, “May he (Christ) make of us an everlasting gift to you.” This phrase appears just after the consecration of the bread and wine and its meaning is clear. We ask Christ to incorporate us bodily into the one sacrifice he has offered to his heavenly Father as a perfect, atoning oblation.  The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer expands on this same idea, “Look upon this sacrifice… and by your Holy Spirit gather all who share this one bread and cup into the one body of Christ as a living sacrifice of praise.”

Clearly the offering of Christ’s body and blood at every Mass is intended to be a sacrifice, and we are made part of that sacrifice. This is where our Baptismal priesthood enters into the equation, by allowing us to offer ourselves as victims alongside the eternal and true victim, Jesus Christ. That is why lambs and goats are no longer necessary in offering sacrifice to God. We are able to offer our very selves, sinful as we are, and yet be acceptable to the Father because, and only because, our offering is joined to the one perfect offering of his Son. The priestly minister who offers that oblation is officiating in persona Christi, not as his sinful self but rather in the person of Christ as his personal representative.

At every Roman Rite Mass the priest says, “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours, may be acceptable to God, the Father almighty.” This fusion of gifts, offered to God, is beautifully symbolized by the co-mingling of wine and water. To the pure wine, which represents Christ’s divinity, the minister adds a drop of water as a sign of our own fallen humanity. But once co-mingled these liquid substances are inseparable so that when the blood of Christ is offered to the Father at the consecration, our human participation in the sacrifice is assured. We are thus incorporated into that one, perfectly pleasing sacrifice of Christ to the Father.

Our temporal sacrifices are thus ‘bundled’ with Christ’s single, perfect, and eternal sacrifice in order to present them all as one before the Father. The Mass is explicitly a sacrifice and intentionally so. This is the key point upon which the Reformers faltered. In their disenchantment with the ordained priesthood, itself founded upon sinful apostles, they denied the sacrificial edifice upon which their own salvation rested, the perpetual Sacrifice of the Mass. Archbishop Charles Chaput beautifully sums up the great mystery, while fully taking every human weakness into account, by pointing us to its divine source. “From the heart of Christ comes the priesthood, the Eucharist, and the Church.”

Mary’s Priesthood Initiates the New Israel

If the Mass were not a recurrent re-presentation of that first sacrifice 2,000 years ago, then only those disciples who were present at the Last Supper could have shared in it. But ask yourself, were they any more or less sinful than you or me? Consider that within hours of that sacred Paschal meal they had all deserted their Master out of fear. In fact we read that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a few other women were the only ones standing at the foot of the cross. John would join them presently but for the most part all of the men Jesus had chosen to be his first bishops had either run off or betrayed him. For that reason we can say that Mary was the first person to truly share in the sacrifice of the New Covenant, alongside of her Son at the very foot of his cross. Mary, in fact, was baptized in Christ’s own blood as it flowed from his wounded body, bathing her sorrowful brow even as he expired to redeem us.

Today we celebrate that memorial of our salvation and Christ’s victory over sin and death in an un-bloody manner, but it is the same sacrifice nonetheless. It is a true memorial of the New Passover from death to life which makes this event a living sacrifice for it is death itself which is slain. This memorial is more than simply recalling the past. The Jewish memorial was a re-living of some important event and, as the New Israel, we too are re-living the most consequential event in mankind’s history. We are given the singular opportunity to partake in Christ’s own sacrifice of redemption in the Eucharist.

St. Paul continually emphasizes this aspect of personal participation in Christ’s sacrifice because for Paul the sacrifice, or minha, is not complete until we ourselves freely partake of it. The highest and fullest expression of redemptive sacrifice that mortal beings can make is martyrdom, which is why the Church shows such exalted honor to her martyrs. But even our small ordinary sacrifices are able to ratify and perpetuate the high priestly sacrifice of Christ. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” (Col. 1:24)  Joseph Pieper summed it up beautifully for our own age. “The Christian conception of sacrifice is not concerned with the suffering involved qua (as) suffering. It is not primarily concerned with the toil and the worry and with the difficulty, but with salvation, with the fullness of being, and thus, ultimately, with the fullness of happiness.” (Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture) To the Romans Paul writes, “If then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” (Rom. 6:8) Again, to the Galatians, “But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal. 6:14)

We share in that ongoing mission inextricably bound up with Christ’s own mission: to offer a pleasing sacrifice to the Father. Without the Sacrifice of the Mass we are powerless to do so. But through its power our lives become vehicles for offering sacrifice, echoing St. Paul, “For to you has been granted, for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him.” (Phil. 1:29) And that is why it is only sacrifice in its fullest sense that can round out and fulfill our humanity.

Francis J. Pierson     + a.m.d.g.

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