The Sacrificial Character of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper
By Alessandro Lima
English version by Bruno Valadão
Sacrifices in the time of the Jews
The word Sacrifice comes from the Latin sacrificium which means “holy work”, an act of worship to God. Present in the oldest religions of humanity.
In the Judeo-Christian Tradition the first record of a sacrifice is in the book of Genesis where it is said that “Cain brought an offering of fruits of the land to the Lord; Abel also brought an offering – fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.”(Gn 4,3-4). Noah and Abraham build altars and offer animal sacrifices to God (cf. Gen 8,20-21; 12,7-8; 13,18; 15, 8-10; 22,13).
But, a specific altar should get our attention. God asks Abraham to take his only beloved son, Isaac, and offer him as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah in one of the mountains that He would indicate (cf. Gen 22,2). Now, this is the same place where King Solomon had the Temple of Jerusalem built, according to a vision given to his father King David (cf. 2Ch 3,1). And in the time of the Kings, this Temple became the only authorized place to offer sacrifices to the Jews.
The Scriptures tells us that “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac” (cf. Gen 22: 6), that is, Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice to the place where it should be done. In the same way, Our Lord Jesus Christ carried Himself the wood up where He would be sacrificed. Isaac accustomed to offering sacrifices to God with his father, is surprised by the lack of the lamb and asks him “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (cf. Gen 22,7). And Abraham replies that the lamb, God will provide (cf. Gen 22,8). Finally, the Angel of God prevented Abraham from sacrificing his own son and provided the lamb for the burnt offering (cf. Gen 22,9-13).
Sacrifice and Covenant with God
This event is very important because of Abraham’s Sacrifice that God establishes a covenant with him and all his descendants (cf. Gen 22, 15-18) with spectacular blessings. For Abraham demonstrated his unconditional love for God, offering to sacrifice his only son whom he loved very much. In short, Abram was willing to give to God, without question, what mattered most to him in life.
There are many parallels between Abraham’s sacrifice and Christ’s sacrifice. As we have already said in both, the victim was the one who took the wood. In both, the only son of a loving father was to be handed over for the holocaust. In both, God is the one who provided the lamb. In both, an alliance is established. Indeed, St. Paul, in writing to the Galatians, affirms “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law [of Moses]… so that the blessing of Abraham [extended only to the Jews] in Christ Jesus may be extended to the Gentiles, and so that, through faith let us receive the promised spirit ”(cf. Gal 3: 13-14).
The Sacrifice offered by Abraham on one of the mountains of Moria, where the Temple would be erected in the future city of Jerusalem, by King Solomon (therefore it was also called the Temple of Solomon) was the great mark of the relationship of God with his chosen people, the people of Israel. Note here that the sacrifice takes on a new meaning, a sense of alliance. An act of worship to God that also means His covenant with men.
This new meaning is confirmed when after the death of Abraham, God manifests himself to his son Isaac, and renews with him the promises made to his father. The Scriptures says that after that Isaac “built an altar and invoked the name of Yashweh” (cf. Gen 26,25). Thus, Isaac’s sacrifice once again inaugurated the covenant of Abraham’s offspring with God.
We can attest that the sacrificial rite had a prominent place in the worship service of the descendants of Abraham, when in the time of slavery in Egypt, they were accused of being idle because they took the time to offer sacrifices to God (cf. Ex 5, 17 ).
Later, when Moses negotiated with Pharaoh to leave the people of Israel from Egypt, his main demand was that he allow them to take the flock they had so they could in the promised land offer the sacrifices due to God (cf. Ex 10,24 -26).
The Paschal Sacrifice
The Israelites’ divine worship rite takes on a new meaning when the main religious festival of the Jews is instituted: Easter (or Passover). Passover is instituted in the time of Moses when the people were still captive in the land of Egypt.
As we said earlier, Moses negotiating with Pharaoh to leave the Israelite people from Egypt requires him to let the people go out with the flock they owned. However, Pharaoh does not comply with Moses’ request, not allowing the people to leave Egypt (cf. Ex 10.27; 11-10). And because of this, God promises to send one last plague to Egypt, so that Pharaoh will finally allow His people to leave (cf. Ex 11,1). This plague became known as the death of the firstborn (cf. Ex 11: 4-8).
The Scriptures tell us about the institution of Easter on Ex 12. It meant the liberation of the People of Israel from captivity in Egypt, once
Due to this remarkable event, the departure of the People of Israel from captivity in the land of Egypt, the Passover feast became the main event on the Jewish religious calendar. So striking that in fact there was established a milestone, a beginning, a new time for Israel, reaching the point where God himself, among the various Easter guidelines, established a calendar that should be followed:
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:‘ This month will be the beginning of the months for you; it will be the first month of the year. ” (cf. Ex 12,1-2).
It was at Easter that God instructed the entire Israelite family to take a lamb without blemish, without broken bones, behead it and pass its blood on the doorjamb of their homes. They were supposed to eat it that night (cf. Ex 12,3-11). If they did, their firstborn would be spared. Otherwise they would die during the night, with all the firstborn of their flocks (cf. Ex 12: 12-14).
Here we have the divine institution of a new sacrifice: the sacrificial Easter lamb that is offered as an atonement, instead of the firstborn of the house. The Easter Sacrifice is a sacrifice of redemption and deliverance, or in other words, of ransom. Just as Isaac was spared by God from being sacrificed by providing a lamb for Abraham’s sacrifice, here as well a lamb is sacrificed in place of Israel’s firstborn as a sign of covenant with God.
On the celebration of Easter the Lord instructed:
“This day will be a memorial to you, and you will celebrate it as a feast for the Lord, in your generations you will celebrate it; it is a perpetual decree ”(cf. Ex 12,14).
Memorial here means that the paschal sacrifice of lamb and unleavened bread should be repeated, that is, be present again. And perpetual means that this instruction could not be revoked by human decision. These two points are very important and we will come back to them at the right time.
According to the Mosaic prescriptions, the celebration of Easter was to last seven days. The beginning would take place with a supper, where unleavened bread should be eaten for seven days, culminating in the last day in a feast to glorify the Lord (cf. Ex 12,15-20; 13,3-10). Easter would start on the 14th day of the first month, called Nissan and go until the 21st, as it should also be celebrated at twilight (cf. Ex 12,6; 13,18).
Jesus, the Lamb of God
The Gospel of St. John tells us that in the time of Christ, when the Passover was approaching, the chief priests and the Pharisees were planning to arrest Jesus (cf. Jn 11: 55-56).
In Matthew we read the following:
“On the first day of unleavened bread, the disciples approached Jesus saying: ‘Where do you want us to prepare you to eat Passover?’ He replied: ‘Go into the city, to someone’s home and say to him:’ The Master says: my time is near. In your house I will celebrate Easter with my disciples’. The disciples did as Jesus commanded them and prepared Easter. ” (Mt 26,17-19. See also Mc 14,12-16).
“While they were eating, Jesus took a bread and gave it blessed, broke it and, distributing it to his disciples, said: ‘Take it and eat it, this is my body’. Then he took a cup and, giving thanks, gave it to them saying: ‘Drink from it all, for this is my blood, the blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’ ”(Mt 26, 26-28 See also Mc 14,22-25).
First off, we must note that Jesus and the disciples are gathered to celebrate the Easter Sacrifice. During this celebration Jesus takes it to a new level. Indeed, He himself said:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I did not come to abolish them, but to bring them to perfection ”(Mt 5:17).
That supper would henceforth be a sign of a new Alliance. Now, as we saw earlier, Covenant and Sacrifice have a very close relationship.
During the Jewish Easter sacrifice, Jesus establishes a new one: the sacrifice of his body and blood, present in the species of bread and wine. The sacred text is very clear in stating that the bread and wine offered thereafter are really the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ (see also Jn 6: 32-59).
Another proof of the sacrificial character of the Lord’s Supper (for it was there that He institutes a new Passover) is when He says that the cup of wine, is his blood that would be shed for the remission of sins. Now, in the Mosaic Law, sins could only be “remitted” through sacrifice. There were very specific instructions on the sacrifices that were offered for the “remission” of sins, as we can attest in Lev 6: 17-19; 7.1-7). However, it is worth mentioning this excerpt:
“On the eighth day, Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel; he said to Aaron: ‘Take a calf for sacrifice for sin and a ram for a burnt offering, both without blemish, and bring it before the Lord. Then you will say to the Israelites: ‘Take a goat for a sin sacrifice, a calf and a one year old lamb (both without defect), for a burnt offering” (Lev. 9: 1-3).
Jesus and his disciples were Jews and were very familiar with the prescriptions of the Mosaic law, especially with regard to sacrifices, as sacrificial rituals were central to the religious practice of the Jews. The requirement of a flawless animal for sacrifice was a figure of Christ’s perfection, who was to be the perfect lamb for the sacrifice of the real remission of man’s sins.
The sacrificial character of the Lord’s Supper can once again be attested when Jesus says that “the bread of God [Himself] is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (cf. Jn 6,33). Why would Jesus give His life? To redeem us from sins. And sins could only be remitted through sacrifice! Which one? Jesus’, where he is also the bread. The Johannine text establishes the intimate relationship between bread, sacrifice and the remission of sins. Jesus’ dialogue with the people who sought him out predates the institution of the Holy Supper or the Lord’s Supper, but here our Lord begins to deal with this sublime subject.
We can also attest that “The Lord’s Supper” is really a sacrifice paralleling the Melchizedek Sacrifice. He is the first subject to be identified in the Scriptures as being a Priest:
“Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought bread and wine; he was a priest of the God Most High”(Gen 14,18).
Salem was the city that would later be identified as Jerusalem. Melchizedek was King and Priest, as was Christ, who also entered Jerusalem as his King (cf. Mk 11: 1-11). The relationship between Melchizedek and Christ is in several parts of the Scriptures:
“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind:” You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. ” (Psalms 109, 4).
This same relationship is confirmed by St. Paul:
“For God proclaimed him [Christ] a priest in the order of Melchizedek”. (Heb 5, 10).
“Where Jesus entered for us as a precursor, eternal Pontiff, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 6:20).
Melchizedek who was King and Priest, was a figure of Christ, also King and Priest. Since Melchizedek was a priest, he offered sacrifices to God. Abram (not yet Abraham) goes to him, in the Valley of Save, together with the King of Sodom, after both of them emerged victorious in a war against Codorlaomor (cf. Gen 14,12-17. See also Heb 7,1-3 ). Melchizedek then offers a sacrifice in thanksgiving because God had given Abram victory over his enemies (cf. Gen 14: 19-20). And the matters of sacrifice were only bread and wine (cf. Gen 14,18)! Abram as usual then gives him a tithe of everything that was recovered in the battle (cf. Gen. 14.20). Now, if Christ was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek as we saw in the Psalm and in the Pauline letters, the paschal sacrifice offered by Christ was also a real sacrifice like that offered by Melchizedek!
Another subtlety is found in the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Gospel of St. Luke:
“And he took bread, gave thanks, left and gave it to them, saying: ‘This is my body that is given for you. Do this in my memory [or memory of me] ’. And after eating, he did the same with the cup, saying: ‘This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which is spilled for you’. ” (Lk 22,19-20).
Let us remember that the Easter sacrifice had been instituted as a memorial of the liberation of the People of Israel from the bondage of Egypt (cf. Ex 12,14). Memorial does not refer here to a simple memory, but to becoming present again. Jesus and his disciples at the Easter Supper, were participating in this memory, that is, making the Easter sacrifice (with all its matter and form) present again in the upper room. Just when God instructs the people to say that the Easter sacrifice should be a memorial, it meant that it should be repeated again, be present again among them and for future generations. Our Lord uses the term in the same sense, but the reason for the memorial would no longer be the Feast of the Jews, the commemoration of the liberation of the people from the judgment of Pharaoh, but the liberation of future believers from the judgment of sin that He would consummate in the Cross death. Just as the sacrifice of the paschal lamb only saved those Israelites who believed, sprinkling their blood on their doors according to divine guidelines (Ex 12,7-13), Christ’s sacrifice will only save the one who believes. That is why He says that His blood would be delivered by the disciples and “for many”, not all.
As in the Jewish paschal sacrifice, the immolated lamb was again present, also in the Christian paschal sacrifice, the lamb of God is again present. This can be attested because according to Christ himself, the species of bread and wine are TRULY his body and blood. Now, if the Lord is really present at the Christian Easter Supper, then the sacrifice that was consummated on the cross is also repeated on it and must be offered to God for the remission of our sins.
The real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, makes this the Sacrifice of the Lord again present. So much so that St. Paul calls the attention of those who participate unworthily in it (cf. 1Cor 11:29).
The Testimony of Early Christians
“Gathered on the Lord’s Day [Sunday], break the bread and give thanks, after confessing your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didaqué, 14.1. 1st century).
“Ensure, therefore, that a common Eucharist is observed; for there is a Body of Our Lord, and only one cup of union with his Blood and only one altar of sacrifice ”. (Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Philadelphians. 2nd century.)
“Depart from the weeds that Jesus Christ does not cultivate, as they are not the Father’s plantation. Not that I have found discord in your midst, on the contrary I have found a purified people. In fact, what is the property of God and Jesus Christ is with the Bishop, and all who are converted and return to the unity of the Church, will also belong to God, to have a life according to Jesus Christ. Do not be deceived, my brothers. If one follows a schismatic, one will not inherit the kingdom of God if one is guided by the doctrine of others, does not conform to the Passion of Christ. Be willing to take part in one Eucharist, since one is the flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ, one is the cup for union with His blood; one is the altar, as well as one is the Bishop, along with his presbytery and deacons, my colleagues in fact. And that, to do according to God what you do ”. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, paragraphs 3 and 4. 2nd century.)
“God has therefore announced that all the sacrifices offered in His Name, by Jesus Christ, who is in the Eucharist of the Bread and the Chalice, which are offered by us Christians throughout the world, are pleasing to Him.” – (Saint Justino of Rome, Dialogue with Trypho, Chap. 117. 2nd century.)
“Furthermore, as I said before, concerning the sacrifices that you [the Jews], at that time, offered, God speaks through Malachi, one of the twelve, as follows:‘ I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord; and I will not accept the sacrifices of your hands; from sunrise to sunset, my name has been glorified among the Gentiles; and incense everywhere is offered in my name, and a pure offering: Great has been my name among the Gentiles, saith the Lord; but you profane Him. ‘So are the sacrifices offered to Him, everywhere, by us Gentiles, who are the Bread of the Eucharist and also the cup of the Eucharist, which He spoke at that time; and He says that we glorify His name, while you desecrate Him. ” (Saint Justin of Rome, Dialogue with Trypho, [41, 8-10]. 2nd century.)
“Now, therefore, for all of us, He [Jesus] is before the face of God, interceding for us; and it is on the altar, offering to God a propitiation for us ”(Origen, Homily on Leviticus 7. 2nd century).
“For if the same Jesus Christ, Lord and our God, is the high priest of God the Father and offered himself as a sacrifice to the Father and ordered this to be done in his memory, surely that Catholic priest truly does the times of Christ: do what Christ did and then offer God the Father a true and full sacrifice in the Church ”(St. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 63,14,4. 3rd century).
“And since we mention his passion in all sacrifices, because the Lord’s passion is the sacrifice we offer, we must do nothing but what He did” (St. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 63,17,1. III.).
“At all, we add and aggregate, beloved brother, with the consent and authority of all, that any bishop or deacon who has been ordained in the Catholic Church and then has risen against it (…) they celebrate intend against the only divine sacrifice, offering false sacrifices on the altar (…) It is necessary that the priests and ministers who serve on the altar and the sacrifices be whole and immaculate ”(St. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 72,2. 3rd century).
“Finally, we also pray for the holy priests, bishops, the deceased and for everyone in general who lived among us, believing that this will be the greatest help for those souls for whom we pray, while lying before us [in the Lord’s Supper] holy and tremendous victim [Jesus] ”(Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Mysteries, 5,9,10. 4th century).
“The Eucharistic sacrifice will not be offered before him [the Roman emperor Theodosius] if he dares to attend” (Saint Ambrose of Milan, Epistle 51. 4th century).
“Invested with an honor, we all offer a common sacrifice, a common oblation” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 5.2. 4th century).
“You must know that you have received, that you will receive, and that you must receive daily. That Bread that you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. The cup, or rather, that is in that cup, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ. ” – (Saint Augustine, Sermons [227, 21]. IV-V century.)
It is a true sacrifice every action taken to unite with God in holy communion [Lord’s Supper] and be able to be happy ”(Saint Augustine, The City of God 10,6. IV-V century).
“It is clear that we do not offer any sacrifices other than Christ, but we do that unique and wholesome celebration” (Teodoreto de Ciro, In Hebr. 8.4. IV-V century).
“The Mass is the new presence, the new aspect of the unique sacrifice: it is new for the Church that celebrates, but not for the commitment of Christ” (Pope Leo I, Sermon 59.7. 5th century).
The Lord’s Supper is the Savior’s sacrifice again present, but in an unbloody manner, where He is a Priest and Lamb who offers Himself for the remission of our sins, also offering us as food in the kinds of wine and bread, which are TRULY your flesh and your blood so that we have the life of Grace in us.