The Evolution of the Sacrifice of the Mass: Part 2

April 7, 2009

In part one of “The Evolution of the Mass,” we explored the elucidation of second century apologist, Justin Martyr, concerning “sacrifice.” Justin had stated that the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God are prayers and giving of thanks offered by worthy men. So how did the church go from that understanding to the belief that Christ must be re-sacrificed in an un-bloody manner?

Justin plainly associates this only sacrifice of prayers and giving of thanks with the Eucharist of the bread and the cup saying, “which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him.1 When the context is brought to light it is easy to see that the sacrifice of the Eucharist is in the hearts of those participating in the giving of thanks (which is what eucharist means), not in offering the bread and wine.

Later in the same century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, explained, “For it behooves us to make an oblation to God, and in all things to be found grateful to God our Maker, in a pure mind, and in faith without hypocrisy, in well-grounded hope, in fervent love, offering the first-fruits of His own created things. And the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, [the things taken] from His creation.2

Irenaeus makes a clear connection to the thing being offered as the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But his very next words, which contrast Christian oblation with that of Jewish oblation, make it clear he did not mean that the bread and wine become Christ and are offered to God: “But the Jews do not offer thus: for their hands are full of blood; for they have not received the Word, through whom it is offered to God.3 That is to say, the true oblation to God is done only through Christ. It makes no sense to offer Christ to God through Christ. Nevertheless, the Eucharist, in a very short period of time, had become more focused on the elements yet remained pure in its meaning. Irenaeus undoubtedly directed his focus to the bread and wine because it was there that he found his strongest arguments against Gnosticism’s association with the Eucharist.

The great Christian philosopher, Clement of Alexandria, unmistakably understood Irenaeus’ distinction of the Eucharist sacrifice as a corporal worship of praise and thanksgiving. Clement, who in the late second century was the head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, taught that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when He said, “Eat My flesh and drink My blood,4 which is the quintessential biblical reference used to support the transubstantiationalist belief.

Moving into the early third century we find Tertullian commenting that prayer is the victim of the Christian sacrifice:

…Every institution is excellent which, for the extolling and honoring of God, aims unitedly to bring Him enriched prayer as a choice victim. For this is the spiritual victim which has abolished the pristine sacrifices… We are the true adorers and the true priests, who, praying in spirit, sacrifice, in spirit, prayer- a victim proper and acceptable to God, which assuredly He has required, which He has looked forward to for Himself! This victim, devoted from the whole heart, fed on faith, tended by truth, entire in innocence, pure in chastity, garlanded with love, we ought to escort with the pomp of good works, amid psalms and hymns, unto God’s altar, to obtain for us all things from God.5

However, touching on the subject from a Catholic apologetics standpoint, the Catholic Encyclopedia grossly misrepresents Tertullian’s exhortation to communion during fasting. The encyclopedia quotes Tertullian’s words, “participation of the sacrifice” claiming that he “speaks of a real, not a metaphorical offering up of sacrifice.6 What the encyclopedia fails to mention is that just a few sentences earlier Tertullian describes the sacrifice as, “sacrificial prayers.7

There is no doubt, apart from severely biased opinions, that Christians up through the third century understood the Eucharist to be a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving culminating in the participation of the Lord’s Supper. The next century, however, would bring about change that revolutionized the way Christians viewed the Eucharistic celebration. The conclusion of this three-part article will explore how and when the metamorphous of the Eucharistic observance took place.

1. Dialog with Trypho, 117
2. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:18:4
3. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:18:4
4. Clement, Paedagogus 1:6
5. Tertullian, On Prayer 27-28
6. Catholic Encyclopedia, Sacrifice of the Mass
7. Tertullian, On Prayer 19