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Church Fathers on the Eucharistic Sacrifice

Question: Did the early Christians recognize the Eucharist as a sacrifice?

Answer: Yes they did. Even in apostolic times, the author of Hebrews writes: “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Hebrews 13:15). This verse is not a direct reference to the Eucharist, but the principle certainly applies, for during the Lord’s Supper, Christians praise and thank God for the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Indeed our English term “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek word “eucharistia” which means “gratitude, thanks giving.” Jesus gave thanks (eucharisteo) when he took the bread and the wine (Matthew 26:27, Luke 22:19).

In this sense the Eucharist is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. This, however, is altogether different from the “sacrifice of the mass” of the Roman church. Whereas the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges the Eucharist as “a sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving” (paragraphs 1359-3361), the Roman position goes well beyond that. It teaches that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice, that is, a sacrifice that atones for sin. The Council of Trent defines the issue:

“If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema” (Session 22, Canon 3).

The mass is said to be something more than a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It is properly a “propitiatory sacrifice” - that is, a sacrifice offered “for sins.” “The Sacrifice of the Mass is offered to God…to appease Him, make Him due satisfaction for our sins, and to help the souls in Purgatory, and hence it is called Propitiatory” (Catechism of St Pius X).

This goes beyond Scripture which describes the Eucharist as a “memorial” and a “proclamation” of the Lord’s death, but never as a sin offering. Moreover the Scripture refutes the idea that Christ’s sacrifice is daily re-presented and renewed. On the contrary the Bible asserts that His sacrifice is complete and finished. “This man after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12).

Catholic apologists claim that the early church fathers support the doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass. They list quotations from early church writings that include the word “sacrifice” in connection with the Eucharist. Unaware of the distinction between a propitiatory sacrifice and a sacrifice of praise, many unsuspecting readers fall into the trap. Take this quotation from an early church document as an example:

“But on the Lord's day, after that ye have assembled together, break bread and give thanks, having in addition confessed your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let not any one who hath a quarrel with his companion join with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be polluted, for it is that which is spoken of by the Lord. In every place and time offer unto me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great King, saith the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the Gentiles” (Didache, chapter 14).

Is there anything in the text that compels us to understand “sacrifice” in a propitiatory sense? The reference to the Book of Malachi suggests that the sacrifice is not propitiatory for Malachi uses the word “minchah” which according to Strong’s definition, it is usually a bloodless and voluntary offering. Moreover, the context in the Didache is highly suggestive of a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving: ‘break bread and give thanks…that your sacrifice may be pure.’

Referring to Malachi’s prophecy and the Eucharist, Justin Martyr writes: “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…” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho).

Evangelicals concur: the Eucharist is a sacrifice insofar as we offer our thanksgiving for what Christ has done for us. The Eucharist is a sacrifice of praise, and a remembrance of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Augustine writes: “Before the coming of Christ, the flesh and blood of this sacrifice were foreshadowed in the animals slain; in the passion of Christ the types were fulfilled by the true sacrifice; after the ascension of Christ, this sacrifice is commemorated in the sacrament (Augustine, Contra Faustus, XX)

The claim that the Eucharist is also a propitiatory sacrifice is not supported by the Scripture. Like Evangelicals today, the early Christians considered the Eucharist as a sacrifice of praise.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi