The Evolution of the Sacrifice of the Mass: Part 1

The most ancient writing depicting what early Christian gatherings looked like come from a work called the Didache, also known as “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles.”

But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice ; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations. (Didache, 14)

Catholic apologists often use this quote from the Didache to support the “sacrifice of the mass.” But what is meant by sacrifice and how are Christians supposed to offer it? On its own the text is ambiguous, so to further garnish support for their doctrine, Catholic apologists turn to the second century apologist, Justin Martyr, who, when taken out of context, seems to bolster their point of view in his dialog with Trypho the Jew:

My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, says the Lord: but you profane it. He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify His name, and that you profane [it]. (Dialog with Trypho, 41)

The two quotes put together provide enough evidence to reasonably conclude that early Christians believed the sacrifice referred to by Malachi to be the bread and cup of the Eucharist. But does that mean they believed they were offering Christ as an un-bloody sacrifice? Catholic apologists would like for us to believe that, but that is not what the early Christians believed. In the same dialog, Justin comes around to this subject again. This time Justin explains the sacrifice much more clearly in a portion of the dialog Catholic apologist will never provide because it puts their assumptions to shame.

Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him … Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind, whose name the high priests of your nation and your teachers have caused to be profaned and blasphemed over all the earth. (ibid, 117)

“That prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God.” From Justin’s explanation we can make better sense of the former quotes. We can now see that Justin was saying that Christians offer the Eucharist i.e., thanksgiving, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. His explanation also helps us to understand what the author of the Didache quote meant by “Break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” In other words, do not offer thanksgiving (Eucharist) until you have confessed your sins so that your sacrifice (thanksgiving) may be pure.

Even without the explanation, a description of a typical Sunday gathering of Christians in Justin’s time illustrates this point.

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president [Bishop] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (First Apology, 67)

This description solidifies that the fact that the early church considered the sacrifice to be the giving of thanks over the elements that represent Christ’s atoning sacrifice at Calvary, and participation in that sacrifice by partaking of those elements. As Justin said, “That prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God.”

To be continued…


1 Mal. 1:11
2 Mal. 1:10-12

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