It is my great pleasure to recommend to all my readers (especially those interested in the Lutheran Catholic dialogue) an excellent short essay by Pastor William Weedon entitled “Revisiting the Sacrifice of the Mass”. The rest of this blog will make no sense to you if you don’t take the time to read his essay, so go away now if you are that lazy.
For the rest of you excellent people who are continuing to read this blog (and I gather from that that you have done your homework) here follows my engagement with the excellent Pastor Weedon’s points.
First, let me congratulate, Pastor Weedon, on an excellent bit of work. It astounds me that the Lutheran Catholic Dialogue in Australia, which produced the excellent document “Sacrament and Sacrifice”, did not see fit to include the references to the Fathers of Lutheran Orthodoxy to which you refer. For I see a distinct shift in understanding and emphasis between the Confessional attacks on “the Sacrifice of the Mass” and the possibilities for dialogue opened up by the reflections of Johann Gerhard and David Hollaz.
(May I just name drop here and note that one of the sources from which Pastor Weedon quotes is Gerhard’s “Meditations on Divine Mercy”, translated by Pastor Matt Harrison: Matt and his wife shared a house with us at Luther Seminary in North Adelaide when he did an exchange year here in Australia about 20 years ago–I can remember photocopying huge piles of Sasse manuscripts for him in the library. He has made a significant contribution to making the Lutheran fathers available in English–but not, I fear, to the world of banjo playing).
Back to business. When I read the condemnations of the Sacrifice of the Mass from the Lutheran Confessions quoted by Pastor Weedon, I was left with the impression that the Confessions condemn the notion that the Mass as a ceremony in itself, as an action of the priest distinct from the real presence of Christ’s body and blood, is a sacrifice. I was not immediately left with the impression, as Pastor Weedon claims, that they opposed
1) the notion that we sinful human beings can participate in the salvific self-oblation of the Lamb of God;
2) that in the Mass the self-offering of the Lamb of God can be “ex opere operato” applied to those who do not even participate at the Holy Table.
Read them yourself and see:
In the third place, the sacrament was not instituted to provide a sacrifice for sin – for the sacrifice has already occurred – but to awaken our faith and comfort our consciences….the Mass is not a sacrifice for others, living or dead, to take away their sins… (AC XXIV:30-34.)
In point of fact there has been only one atoning sacrifice in the world, namely, the death of Christ, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches… (Ap XXIV:22)
There is also a sacrifice, since one and the same action can have several purposes. Once a conscience has been uplifted by faith and realizes its freedom from terror, then it fervently gives thanks for the benefits of Christ and for his suffering. It uses the ceremony itself as praise to God, as a way of demonstrating its gratitude, and as a witness of its high esteem for the gifts of God. In this way the ceremony becomes a sacrifice of praise. (Ap XXIV:74-my emphasis)
For it held that the Mass (even when performed by a rotten scoundrel) delivers people from sin both here in this life and beyond in purgatory, even though the Lamb of God alone should and must do this, as mentioned above. Nothing is to be conceded or compromised in this article. (SA II:2:1-my emphasis)
[Condemned:] The papal sacrifice of the Mass for the sins of the living and the dead. (Ep. VII:2-my emphasis)
Do you get what I mean? There is no sign of any consciousness that the essential reality and action of the Sacrifice of the Mass is the same as the once for all sacrifice of Calvary, and that the two are identified because it is one and the same sacrifice that is truly present.
All of that is completely changed in the passages from Johann Gerhard quoted by Pastor Weedon. You will immediately see what I mean in the following passage:
In the celebration of the Eucharist ‘we proclaim the Lord’s death’ (1 Cor. 11:26) and pray that God would be merciful to us on account of that holy and immaculate sacrifice completed on the cross and on account of that holy Victim which is certainly present in the Eucharist…. That he would in kindness receive and grant a place to the rational and spiritual oblation of our prayer….In the Christian sacrifice there is no victim except the real and substantial body of Christ, and in the same way there is no true priest except Christ Himself. (Confessio Catholica, vol II, par II, arti xiv, cap. I, ekthesis 6, 1200-1201, 1204. Translated by A.C. Piepkorn in The Church, p. 135.)
You see here that we are in completely different territory. Here Gerhard concedes the basic point upon which the Catholic Church insists: The Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice BECAUSE the Mass is the body and blood of Christ. The Body and Blood of Christ are the only sacrifice that can be offered for the sin of all humankind, and this sacrifice was offered once for all on the Cross. It cannot be repeated, but can only be (and here language tends to fail us) re-presented, re-actualised, applied or “commemorated” through the Divine liturgy. Note that Gerhard insists that there is only one sacrifice (Christ’s body and blood) and only one priest (Christ). For the moment we will simply note that Catholic theology does not dissent from this–it simply identifies the Eucharistic bread and wine with that body and blood and regards the celebrating priest as “in persona Christi”.
But there is something odd in Gerhard’s insistance that Christ’s “commemoration” of his sacrifice takes place only in heaven. From the same passage quoted above, we read:
It is clear that the sacrifice takes place in heaven, not on earth, inasmuch as the death and passion of God’s beloved Son is offered to God the Father by way of commemoration…
Hence, this sacrifice once offered on the cross takes place continually in an unseen fashion in heaven by way of commemoration, when Christ offers to His Father on our behalf His sufferings of the past, especially when we are applying ourselves to the sacred mysteries, and this is the ‘unbloody sacrifice’ which is carried out in heaven.
Why “in heaven” but “not on earth”? This reminds me a little of the infamous “black rubric” in the Book of Common Prayer, which declared that
the natural body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here [in the Eucharist]; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural body to be at one time in more places than one.
Now we know that Lutherans do not hold to this doctrine (in fact, Luther was notorius for his doctrine of ubiquity). Therefore, if Christ indeed offers his body and blood to the Father as a continual plea for the forgiveness and salvation of human beings everywhere and at all times, and if this very same body and blood are present upon the altars of our Churches in the celebration of the Eucharist, WHY CAN’T WE SAY that the sacrifice is offered by Christ here on earth SIMULTANEOUSLY AS IT IS OFFERED IN HEAVEN? Isn’t that what we say the Eucharist is? Heaven upon earth? When the Eucharist is celebrated, are we not lifted up into heaven by the very body of the Son of Man upon which the angels of God ascend and des
cend (John 1)?
And so, as long as these points are all finally connected up, we find nothing with which to disagree in the Lutheran Dogmatician David Hollaz’s statement that:
If we view the matter from the material standpoint, the sacrifice in the Eucharist is numerically the same as the sacrifice that took place on the cross; put otherwise, one can say that the things itself and the substance is the same in each case, the victim or oblation is the same. If we view the matter formally, from the standpoint of the act of sacrifice, then even though the victim is numerically the same, the action is not; that is, the immolation in the Eucharist is different from the immolation carried out on the cross. For on the cross an offering was made by means of the passion and death of an immolated living thing, without which there can be no sacrifice in the narrow sense, but in the Eucharist the oblation takes place through the prayers and through the commemoration of the death or sacrifice offered on the cross. (Examen theologicum acroamaticum, II, 620 Translated by A.C. Piepkorn in The Church, p. 135.)
All that remains is to take into deep consideration what it means that “the Bread which we break is a participation in the Body of Christ”. It is not simply as a result of the gift of eating and drinking the body of Christ present in the Eucharist that we “participate” with him, but the result of the grace of baptism that we are all “one body” with him, that we have been buried with him, and that we have risen with him, and that therefore we are united to his sacrifice in such a way that we, as Church, do what Christ does in heaven: namely (in Gerhard’s words):
this sacrifice once offered on the cross takes place continually in an unseen way in heaven AND ON EARTH IN THE EUCHARIST by way of commemoration, when Christ offers to His Father on our behalf His sufferings of the past, especially when we are applying ourselves to the sacred mysteries, and this is the ‘unbloody sacrifice’ which is carried out in heaven AND ON EARTH IN THE EUCHARIST.
All that is required is the squaring off of this incredibly fruitful reflection upon the grace of the Sacrament of the Altar.