Sacrifice, IV (In Christian Theology)

views updated


While Old Testament revelation transformed the meaning of sacrificial ritual by means of a series of salvation events and gradually laid stress on the role of interior dispositions, in more profound fashion, the Incarnation provided a new dimension to sacrifice.

The New Testament. Even apart from the Epistle to the Hebrews, whose central theme is the superiority of Christ's sacrifice over that of the Old Law, the literature of the New Testament gives rich evidence of the insight of the early Church's faith into Christ's act of Sacrifice and into Christian participation in that Sacrifice. Understandably, primitive Christian reflection on sacrifice focused on the unique event of Christ's Passover. However, the entire earthly career of Jesus was viewed as the expression of his inner self-offering to the Father. This can be seen from the baptism scene at the Jordan, which introduces and interprets Christ's public life. In accepting baptism from John, Jesus publicly dedicated himself to human redemption and thereby glorified his Father. All the actions of the public life translate Christ's continuing attitude of self-oblation; these come to climax in the Supper-Calvary-Easter event. That a similar extension of the idea of sacrifice applied to the Christian community itself is clear from the baptismal catechesis contained in the Petrine Epistles (1 Pt 2.5).

Probably the most important Synoptic teaching on sacrifice is contained in the description of the Last Supper. Reflecting an already established liturgy, the account of the institution of the Eucharist clearly shows Christ's act to parallel the sacrificial establishment of the covenant at Sinai. His blood poured out for men is the New Covenant; it is the reconciliation of men to God. Sacred covenant meal, fulfillment of the Old Testament Passover, the supper as described in the Gospels is Christ's ritual offering of Himself to His Father.

In this context, introduced by the scene of the Supper, the death of Christ as narrated in the Gospels is clearly sacrificial. Particularly in Luke, the Passion and death of Christ are closely linked with the rejection and ultimate destruction of the Old Testament place of sacrifice, Jerusalem. As a symbol of this, the Temple veil is rent at the moment of Christ's death (Lk 23.45). John's Gospel complements the Synoptics on this point by connecting Christ's death on Calvary with the slaying of the paschal victims in the Temple (Jn 19.14, 36).

Essentially the same point of view is found in the letters of Paul, although he speaks more explicitly about the reconciling effect of Christ's shedding of blood (Eph 2.13). Like the Synoptics, he relates the Supper to Sinai (1 Cor 11.25) and describes communing in the body of Christ as participating in a sacrificial repast (ibid. 10.1418). Divine acceptance of Jesus' willing victim-hood comes in His glorification, the transforming act of the Father in raising Him from the dead.

From the first decades of the Church's existence, the early Christian communities connected the celebration of the Eucharistic meal with Christ's death as well as with the Last Supper. Gathered together for the "breaking of the bread," they were aware that they fulfilled Christ's command, "Do this in remembrance of me" (ibid. 11.24). They were aware that these community gatherings, although simple in their ritual structure, proclaimed "the death of the Lord until he come" (ibid. 11.36). They seemed aware, too, of the presence of the risen Christ with them as they assembled to commune in His body and blood (Mt 18.20).

How soon the early Christians, especially the Jerusalem community, saw the continuing Eucharistic act as replacing and rendering unnecessary the Temple sacrifices of Israel is difficult to say. Certainly the point is established by the time of the compositions of the Gospels, although the Judaizing tendencies of some within the Christian community may have tended to obscure the matter in the early years. It may well be, too, that the primitive Christian Church did not immediately recognize the sacrificial import of Christ's death and Resurrection; but this was a consciously grasped element of faith by the time Paul wrote his early Epistles.

So, too, the understanding that Christian life is sacrificial emerged very early. Prepared by Old Testament prophetic teaching that stressed the "sacrifice of the heart" (Hos 6.6), and especially by Malachi's reference to a "pure offering" (Mal 1.1011), Christian faith immediately grasped the wider meaning of sacrifice. Paul's exhortation to the Romans that they offer themselves "a living victim" (Rom 12.1) characterizes his moral catechesis to the early communities. All the various responsibilities and activities of life are linked to this Christian dedication, which should be characterized by constant thanksgiving (Eph 5.1920).

Patristic Period. One can scarcely say that the early Christians had a theology of sacrifice; yet the primitive catechesis as reflected in New Testament literature was clearer and more explicit about the sacrificial character of Christianity than was the writing of the early decades of the second century. With the apologetic writings of Justin, however, we find clear and purposeful explanation of the Christian Eucharist as sacrifice. In fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi, the Eucharist replaced Old Testament sacrifices as effective worship. Being communion in the real body and blood of Christ, it commemorates the Supper, Calvary, and the Resurrection; and it gives the Father worthy thanks for these events of redemption (Dialogus cum Tryphone 41; Patrologia Graeca, ed. J.P. Migne [Paris 185766] 6:564). Irenaeus, too, describes the Eucharist as the true, spiritual offering of which Malachia spoke, the body and blood of the risen Christ that feed men unto risen life (Adv. haer. 4.17.5; Patrologia Graeca 7:102324); but he applies the notion of sacrifice to Christian life as well, stressing the importance of the community's sincere self-offering to the Father and its profession of faith in the final resurrection (ibid. 4.18.5; Patrologia Graeca 7:102829).

Throughout the patristic period, among both Latin and Greek Fathers, the statements are clear and explicit that the Eucharistic action is the sacrifice of both Christ and the Church and that it is linked both with the Last Supper and with Calvary. However, for the most part there is no lengthy development of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist or, consequently, of Christian life as sacrifice. A notable exception is the tenth book of St. Augustine's De civitate dei. Contrasting Christian sacrifice with pagan cult, Augustine insists on the personal self-giving to God. "It is only by shedding our blood in fighting for His truth that we offer Him bloody victims. We burn the sweetest incense in His sight when we are aflame with holy piety and love" (10.3; Corpus Christtianorum. Series Latinum 47:275). Sacrifice, whether it be this internal homage or its expression in external rite, can be directed toward God alone (10.4; ibid. 276). God wants external sacrifice only as the sign of the inner disposition, for "mercy is the true sacrifice" (10.5; ibid. 277278). All divine precepts of sacrifice refer really to love of God and neighbor (10.5; ibid. 278).

Augustine states, then, his famous definition of sacrifice: "every work that unites us in holy communion with God, every work that is directed to that final good in which alone we find true beatitude" (10.6; ibid. 278). Every work of mercy toward others or ourselves, if it be directed to God, is truly sacrifice. Every person consecrated to God is a sacrifice. Christians, sharing this dedication, bound together in one body in Christ, are the sacrifice that the Church celebrates in the Sacrament of the altar. "The Church herself is offered in the very offering she makes to God" (10.6; ibid. 279).

Thomas Aquinas. When one comes to the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, one finds little development of the idea of sacrifice. Although the elements for a developed treatise on sacrifice exist in scattered form in the writings of men such as Thomas Aquinas, discussion of the structure and efficacy of the Eucharist as Sacrament and the controversies concerning the Real Presence of Christ occupied theologians' attention. St. Augustine's treatment of sacrifice continues to have wide influence, particularly his emphasis on the inner human act of conscious conformity to the divine will (cf., e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3a, 48.3).

Actually, Thomas Aquinas's fullest treatment of sacrifice occurs (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 8586) as part of the discussion of the virtue of religion. This location of the topic as part of Aquinas's moral theology results in a concentration upon the obligation of offering sacrifice rather than upon an analysis of the nature of sacrifice. However, several elements regarding the nature of sacrifice are mentioned.

First among these is the primacy of interior sacrifice, the offering of self to God (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 85.4). Such interior recognition of the sovereignty of God is an obligation flowing from the law of nature (85.1) and can be given only to God (85.2). The form of external sacrifice will, however, depend upon the historical situation in which one finds oneself (85.4).

Second, the element of offering is frequently mentioned as basic to the action of sacrifice; it is applied both to the interior and to the exterior aspects. Yet external sacrifice in the most proper sense requires that something be done to make the offering sacred: animals must be burned, bread must be broken and eaten and blessed (85.3 ad 3).

Third, referring to St. Augustine's definition of sacrifice, "every work done in order to achieve unity with God in holy communion," Aquinas accepts this wider range of meaning for sacrifice. The very desire to reach such unity is itself an act of reverence of God, and so any act of virtue shares in the notion of sacrifice (85.3 ad 1). Later in the Summa theologiae, when treating of the manner in which Christ's passion is sacrificial, St. Thomas again draws from the Augustinian definition. The suffering of Christ is a sacrifice precisely because it is the expression of his love for men and his Father (3a, 48.3).

Modern Period. With the Protestant Reformation's questioning of the validity of the Mass as truly efficacious sacrifice, and the Council of Trent's lengthy defense of the Catholic position (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 17381743), an era of more developed discussion about the nature of sacrifice began. At stake was the relationship between the Mass and the death of Christ on Calvary, the Protestants insisting that Calvary was the allsufficient and unique sacrifice that rendered further sacrificial acts useless, the Catholics insisting that the Mass was the same sacrifice of Calvary. Directed in their thinking by this Counter-Reformation atmosphere, Catholic theologians until well into the 20th century discussed the Mass as sacrifice almost totally in terms of its link with Christ's Passion and death. As a result, in their theorizings about the nature of sacrifice, the death of a victim received an emphasis it had not previously had. A shift in understanding of the broader notion of sacrifice is observable in the centuries after Thomas Aquinas's analysis of sacrifice as a virtue. While the earlier centuries had stressed the element of "making sacred," later developments gradually underscored the aspect of "giving up something."

Contemporary Period. In the years that followed World War I, a reaction set in that led to a number of new approaches to the theology of sacrifice, and more specifically to theological explanation of the Eucharist as sacrifice. A number of pioneering theological studies (those of De la Taille, Casel, Masure) began to reorientate thinking by insisting on the aspects of offering, mystery, and transformation. Less direct but not less radical was the impact of Biblical studies. Reflection upon the texts that deal with Old Testament sacrificial ritual did much to force a reconsideration of the role of immolation in sacrifice. Rediscovery of the profound continuity between the two covenants brought the action of the Cenacle into clearer light, and a closer scrutiny of New Testament literature drew attention to the early Church's emphasis on the link between Eucharist and Last Supper, as well as to the link between Eucharist and Resurrection.

Perhaps contemporary Catholic theology of sacrifice is seen best as part of the wider development of soteriology. One of the things that characterizes this present-day reflection upon Christ's saving act is the growing tendency to see all the various acts of Christ as a integrated whole. This is particularly true of the event that stretches from the Last Supper to Pentecost; Cenacle, Calvary, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost are seen more as stages in the redeeming act than as discrete events; the whole is the mystery of Christ's passage to the Father, the mystery of His conquest of evil, the mystery of His self-gift to mankind.

Considerable attention has been paid to the role of Christ's risen state in the positive redemptive reconstitution of man; but there has been an important deepening also in the study of human death, and specifically of the death of Christ, in the work of salvation. In this context, Christ's act of sacrifice is seen as an acceptance of the death that may free Him from limited life and set Him aside for the fuller risen life in which He can exercise full life-giving power in human history. Death and risen life form one inseparable mystery of redeeming love, two moments in Christ's Passover, and therefore the sacrificing presence of Christ in the Christian Eucharist involves somehow both aspects of this mystery.

Central to the integration of these facets of the redemptive act is the human decision of Christ: it is this inner act of choice that governs all the elements of the unfolding external action; that imparts redeeming power to the rest; that is the heart of the Eucharist as sacrifice, for the risen Christ who acts in Eucharist does so by retaining this attitude of self-oblation. Christian Eucharist deserves the name sacrifice only because it is Christ in the midst of the Christian community who continues His human decision to give Himself for the sake of His brethren, thus rendering glory to the Father. There are not two sacrificial actions, the one taking place at the Last Supper and Calvary and the other taking place in the Mass. There is one continuing act on Christ's part, and it is this that is the heart of the Eucharistic action.

Contemporary theology also lays stress on the fact that Christ is present in the Eucharistic action as the life-giving Word of God. Communication of the Word is not incidental to the Mass; it forms an integral element of the Christian sacrifice, as ch. 6 of John's Gospel indicates. Christ gives Himself as the object of faith but also as life, for he is creative Word; faith and life are effected sacramentally in the Eucharist; faith and life both enter into the Church's sacrificial response. On Christ's part, this vivifying gift of Himself is the implementing of the inner decision of sacrifice; for this is precisely the task that His Father sends Him to accomplish.

Although the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ, it is also truly the sacrifice of the Church; Christ continues to offer sacrifice in and through the sacrificial act of the Christian community, for it is this act that gives expression in space and time to His enduring sacrificial attitude. Nor is it simply a matter of the Church's acting as medium to express Christ; the gestures and words of the Mass speak the Church's own sacrificial mentality. With Christ in its midstand this is what gives its own act unique significance and effectivenessthe community of the faithful offers itself and Christ to the Father. This it is able to do only because it shares in Christ's own priestly role and power. There are not, then, two sacrifices occurring simultaneously and in intimate relationship; there is one single act of sacrifice, that of Christ in which the Church shares.

In the Eucharistic act the Church expresses supremely her faith and life; but this act is not divorced from the rest of her being and activity. Rather, it serves as the ritual symbolic expression of her willingness to enter into the redemption of human history. The Mass is the solemn dedication of the entire social function of changing the patterns of human life to conform to the principles of Christ. Genuine acceptance in the action of the Mass of Christ's word of wisdom implies the implementation of this wisdom in the manifold circumstances of man's daily life. Living in the midst of men, Christians are dedicated to transforming human society into the new man in Christ; that is what they say solemnly in offering sacrifice.

Bibliography: o. casel, The Mystery of Christian Worship, ed. b. neunheuser, tr. i. t. hale (Westminster, Md. 1962). f. clark, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation (Westminster, Md. 1960). b. cooke, "Synoptic Presentation of the Eucharist as Covenant Sacrifice," Theological Studies 21 (1960) 144. f. x. durrwell, The Resurrection: A Biblical Study, tr. r. sheed (New York 1960) 5977, 319329. e. masure, The Sacrifice of the Mystical Body, tr. a. thorold (London 1954). j. h. miller, Signs of Transformation in Christ (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1963); "Until He Comes: The Eucharist and the Resurrection," Proceedings of the North American Liturgical Week 23 (1962) 3944 r. j. daly, The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice (Philadelphia 1978)

[b. j. cooke]