Communion as Sacrifice

By Leyden, Stuart G. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Communion as Sacrifice


Leyden, Stuart G., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


As a Presbyterian pastor who has presided over innumerable celebrations of the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, and Eucharist, I was aware that there were associations between our communion service and sacrifice. In one sanctuary renovation in which I was involved I urged that our communion table look like a table-altar. Indeed, it is the purpose of this essay to encourage a greater appreciation among Protestants of the sacrificial nature of communion.

However, when I examine the official documents of the Presbyterian Church (USA), there has been some reluctance in tying together the cross of Christ with sacrifice. Much has to do with lingering objections raised to the Roman Mass by the sixteenth-century Reformers. The most strident criticism is found in the Heidelberg Catechism: "Therefore the Mass is fundamentally a complete denial of the once for all sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ (and as such an idolatry to be condemned.)" (1)

Historically, there have been a number of objections (perceived or real) to Communion as sacrifice by Reformed theologians of the sixteenth century: (1) The Christian comes to communion to receive God's grace, not to offer or sacrifice. I recall a lecture given by Professor Alexander Schmemann of St. Vladimir's Seminary (Orthodox) on "Communion as Sacrifice." Dr. Edward A. Dowey, Jr., of Princeton Theological Seminary promptly responded (I paraphrase), "We come to communion to receive, not offer or sacrifice." After we have received Christ by faith, then we offer ourselves in thanksgiving and service. In Scotland I recall that the monetary "offering" might take place in the narthex after the service was over, lest there be any confusion on the issue. (2) Sacrifice during communion must not be seen as a good work that might merit God's grace. (3) Any suggestion of sacrifice on the part of the worshiper implied that Christ's complete sacrifice on the cross was insufficient for salvation. (4) There should be a focus on the message of the gospel with the signs of bread and wine, not on our action. (5) The officiant at the service should not be seen as a priest making the sacrifice of the Mass, which would diminish the one perfect sacrifice of Christ.

Likewise, Lutherans are also very reluctant to refer to communion in terms of sacrifice. Out of ten settings for Holy Communion in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg, 2006) the word "sacrifice" in reference to Communion does not appear, but the biblical words, "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," appear often. The Lutheran-Reformed Dialogue contained in Marburg Revisited (1966) admits: "An adequate doctrine of the Lord's Supper requires some reference to sacrifice." (2) Yet, there has been hesitancy to incorporate a doctrine of sacrifice into their official documents.

Episcopalians in their Book of Common Prayer Communion liturgy, after first referring to Christ's "one oblation of himself once offered, a full perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world," moves to communion as "a perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice." (3) The sacrificial aspect is hinted at in the opening rubric that instructs the representatives of the congregation to bring "the people's offering of bread and wine, and money or other gifts to the Altar." (4) The people's offering of themselves is made in prayer before the participants receive the elements of bread and wine. Perhaps this approaches the Roman Catholic view that the eucharist is a "re-presentation." of the sacrifice of Christ but not a repetition.

United Methodists, to some extent, following Anglican precedent, are more explicit: In "A Service of Word and Table III" and in several musical settings to the communion service in the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) the pastor says, "And so, in remembrance of these mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ's offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith. …

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