Dr. McGowan is the Dean and President of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Mass concluding the conference, “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” held at the Church of the Advent, November 15 – 16, 2017.
The Eucharist is a sacrifice. See, I said it. I was never really expecting to get a job in the Diocese of Sydney anyway!
This confession, that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, may be as succinct a summary as any of the gift and challenge of the Catholic movement to the Anglican Communion. There are still some places where the defenders of reform will rise to take up theological arms against such a confession; elsewhere however we might fear that it is as much shrugged at, as bristled at. This may be the challenge for Anglican Catholicism as for Christianity now, that we are less the cause of outrage as an object of curiosity. It is time, perhaps, to be a bit more outrageous.
Why is or was sacrifice such a problem? This jubilee year of the Reformation offers or requires some account of the issue. The reformers began pastorally with the abuse of indulgences and the endowing Masses as bargaining-chips for souls in purgatory. Abuse never reveals or exhausts the true meaning of any practice or doctrine, however. As often, the Reformers accurately pointed to weeds growing in the ecclesial garden, but tugged out the wheat instead or as well; for in this regard as in others, what the reformed Church was left with often was not a restored image of its primitive self but a more stilted version of the Medieval one. The results were long and many; Bishop Manton Eastburn of this diocese doggedly refused pastoral engagement with this parish through the 1840s and 50s because the disposition of the holy table and its accouterments, including the cross still to be seen in All Saint’s Chapel here, smacked of it being an altar.
As recently as 1966 the Church of England abandoned the phrase “we offer this bread and this cup” in a proposed eucharistic prayer for what would become the Series 2 alternative services, after a flurry of debate. The issue here was not, or supposedly not, any Romish doctrine of repeated Calvaries, or the offering of transubstantiated elements, but simply the offering of the material things of bread and wine. To this protestant worthies objected, like their predecessors of the 16th century, because they believed in effect that eucharistic sacrifice could only be what the medieval Church had taught at its worst – a repetition of the Cross and a mitigation of the completeness of Christ’s work – and hence was theologically impertinent, or impossible.
Theologically or exegetically however all the protestant objections to any actual sacrifice, whether from the 16th or the 20th Century, have started with a position like that of the Letter to the Hebrews, with its remarkable evocation of the work of Christ as a heavenly and supersessionist Day of Atonement ritual, that revealed the historical sacrifices for sin of the Israelite cultus to be at best partial, and at worst redundant.
For the author of Hebrews however, sacrifice itself was not merely an intellectual trope, the expression of one idea like atonement, but a familiar if multivalent set of rituals with different forms and functions. Scripture itself witnesses to same effect, of various sacrifices, some bloody and others bloodless, some redundant and others vital. The sacrifices of the Mosaic Law were sometimes destroyed and sometimes shared, sometimes for sin and sometimes for thanksgiving, sometimes for the individual and sometimes for the nation.
The ancient readers of all these texts remembered the sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple, and saw them or smelled their smoke around the ubiquitous pagan shrines of the ancient Mediterranean. Thus while Hebrews states that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (9:22), and that Christ had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins (10:12), the author – known only to God – and their first readers also knew both that not all sacrifice involved shedding of blood, and that not all sacrifice was for the forgiveness of sins.
So in the Letter to the Romans, Paul does, like Hebrews, read Jesus and the cross through the Day of Atonement ritual, likening Christ to the hilasterion, the mercy seat on the ark sprinkled with the blood of the victim; but Paul also, and more emphatically, likens Christ to the Passover Lamb in 1 Corinthians, offered not for expiation but as an anamnesis of God’s liberation of Israel from slavery to be celebrated again and again. Paul clearly countenances further sacrifices of at least some kind, calling the charitable gifts of the Philippians “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (4:18), and urging the Romans to offer themselves as a “living sacrifice” (12:1).
All these sacrifices! It is tempting to imagine John Calvin grumbling, among the Church triumphant, that Paul clearly did not read Hebrews closely enough. Paul however understood sacrifice better than Calvin did.
So if the authors and readers of scripture, and the ancient Christian theologians on whose work catholic faith and order depend, knew that sacrifice was not one thing, but many things, our confession that the Eucharist is a sacrifice may also be the affirmation not merely of one idea from the array of sacrificial types and shadows, that of expiation or atonement by blood, but the invocation of many ideas. What they have in common was not expiation or violence, but gift.
Each of the sacrifices of the Hebrew Bible, and not just the Day of Atonement, is reflected for Christians in the work of Jesus Christ. And so too each takes renewed form in our Eucharist. Atonement involved sacrifice, not as sharing but as destruction and separation; in the Eucharist we commemorate our scapegoat offered and expelled and our sins forgiven. Passover involved the solidarity of the oppressed being liberated from bondage; in the Eucharist, with and by Christ our Passover we are brought from death to life. Peace or communion offerings were brought by Israel, in which the participants gave thanks to God with feasting for blessings received; in our Eucharist we too share in thanksgiving to God in Christ. What these sacrifices have in common is not violence but gift.
The most ancient Christian teaching about the Eucharist does see it as sacrifice not, or not only, because of the real presence of Christ which ensues, but because it was gift, a ritual sharing with God and one another of bread and wine themselves, with thanksgiving – as that often spoken but rarely explored word “Eucharist” itself suggests – the “pure offering” of which Malachi had spoken.
The Eucharist is a “spiritual” sacrifice of course; not however in the sense that it works merely in the intangible realm of the spirit, but insofar as it is an action that takes place in the realm of the Church driven by the power of the Spirit. The Eucharist is actually a material sacrifice, and a literal sacrifice of bread and wine. So we do not offer Christ in the Eucharist, we receive him in it. Our eagerness to affirm the real presence or to connect the Eucharist with Calvary may lead us to skip over this apparently prosaic but foundational affirmation.
But why offer bread and wine at all, or why share them, let alone carry them around in procession, or engage in heated controversy with other good people who do not yet share the faith of the ancient Church? These elements may seem too prosaic to be more than signs quickly to be by-passed on their way to other signifieds. I suggest however that this is far from being the case. First, the fact of sacrifice as the heart of our common life makes the claim that the heart of human sociability and of relationship with God is gift. More specifically these gifts connect us with that ancient Passover sacrifice, including that of Jesus’ Last Supper. They are signs of human life and labor, as well as of human need and liberation. Offering to God bread and wine, we bring things that earth has given and human hands have made, signs of our life itself and of our thanks for life; we offer humanity itself, labor itself, and creation itself. It has always been a mark of the catholic movement to take the world into which the Word became incarnate as fundamentally serious, not as something to flee from but to embrace; and the audacity of this unlikely and very material sacrifice is thus the audacity of the incarnation.
So Christ in the Eucharist, as otherwise, is for us all things and not only one: he is all priests and victims, he is Adam and Abel, he is Isaac and Moses, he is Jepthah’s daughter fatefully dancing, he is Ruth and Naomi gleaning in the barley fields of Passover. Christ in the Eucharist is the fulfillment of all types, and not merely the reduction to one. In this simplest of offerings we commune with all these, and with ancient saints and pilgrims who found in bread and wine not merely the creatures themselves offered, but the Word by whom bread and wine were made, by and through whom we were made, given back to us in the body and blood of Christ. In this material offering we proclaim and commune with a God who cares about hunger and labor and climate and us, and whose character is gift, even to the point that God may seek gratuitous gifts from us.
This confession, of eucharistic sacrifice, may still be the most audacious thing the Church can do, other than actually celebrating the Eucharist. We know that catholicism does not subsist in ritual but in the sacraments to which ritual is servant; our future relies I think not on ritual but in the fact of faithful celebration, and in the authenticity of our confession of a catholic faith. In our action and in our confession let us continue to make the extraordinary claim that not one thing but many things, not one story but all stories, not one group but a countless throng, are caught up together in the praise of the angels, as our sacrifice, our gift, is taken by the Angel to the altar and throne of God.