Oddvar Moi


An essay presented for a course in Sacramental theology at Allen Hall Seminary, London.

June 1998 - Oddvar Moi


How is the Eucharist a sacrifice? From the perspective of my background in the Lutheran church this is a very important question, since Luther himself and his church after him very strongly reacted to the idea that the Eucharist is a sacrifice offered to God. The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that many of the reformers repudiated the Mass as 'idolatry' while retaining the Sacrament of the true Body and Blood of Christ. And it uses this fact to point out that the Sacrament of the Eucharist is something essentially different from the Sacrifice. And it continues:

The Eucharist performs at once two functions: that of a sacrament and that of a sacrifice. Though the inseparableness of the two is most clearly seen in the fact that the consecrating sacrificial powers of the priest coincide, and consequently that the sacrament is produced only in and through the Mass, the real difference between them is shown in that the sacrament is intended privately for the sanctification of the soul, whereas the sacrifice serves primarily to glorify God by adoration, thanksgiving, prayer, and expiation. The recipient of the one is God, who receives the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son; of the other, man, who receives the sacrament for his own good. [1]

Thomas Aquinas describes sacrifice as something offered to God, and that it is most fitting to worship God and offer him sacrifices. But since we are not able to atone for our own sins or offer a worthy sacrifice, Christ is given to us. In him we "are given the possibility of adequate worship and religion." [2]


In his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul VI states very clearly that the teaching of the Church concerning the Mystery of the Eucharist is a "doctrine which the Catholic Church has always transmitted and unanimously teaches". [3] He goes on to prove this statement with quotes from Scripture and the early Church Fathers:

Just as Moses with the blood of calves had sanctified the Old Testament, [Exodus 24,8] so also Christ Our Lord, through the institution of the Mystery of the Eucharist, with His own Blood sanctified the New Testament, whose Mediator He is. ...

This intention of Christ was faithfully executed by the primitive Church through her adherence to the teaching of the Apostles and through her gatherings summoned to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice. As St. Luke carefully testifies, "These occupied themselves continually with the Apostles' teaching, their fellowship in the breaking of bread, and the fixed times of prayer." [Acts 2,42] ...

Moreover, the Apostle Paul, who has faithfully transmitted to us what he had received from the Lord, is clearly speaking of the Eucharistic Sacrifice when he points out that Christians, precisely because they have been made partakers at the table of the Lord, ought not take part in pagan sacrifices. ... Foreshadowed by Malachias, this new offering of the New Testament has always been offered by the Church, in accordance with the teaching of Our Lord and Apostles, "Not only to tone for the sins of the living faithful and to appeal for their other needs, but also to help these who have died in Christ but have not yet been completely purified." [Council of Trent, Sess. 22, Eucharist, Ch. 2]

Passing over other citations, we recall merely the testimony rendered by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who wrote the following memorable instruction for his neophytes: "After the Spiritual Sacrifice, the unbloody act of worship has been completed. Bending over this propitiatory offering we beg God to grant peace to all the Churches, to give harmony to the whole world ... As we do this, we are filled with the conviction that this Sacrifice will be of the greatest help to those souls for whom prayers are being offered in the very presence of our holy and awesome Victim." (St. Cyril goes on to say:) "When we offer our prayers to God for the dead, even though they be sinners .. we offer Christ slaughtered for our sins, beseeching our merciful God to take pity both on them and on ourselves."[St. Cyril's Catechesis, 23]

St. Augustine testifies that this manner of offering also for the deceased "the Sacrifice which ransomed us" was being faithfully observed in the Church at Rome, [Aug., Confession, IX] and at the same time he observes that the universal Church was following this custom in her conviction that it had been handed down by the earliest Fathers. [Aug., Sermon 172] To shed fuller light on the mystery of the Church, it helps to realise that it is nothing less than the whole Church which, in union with Christ in His role as Priest and Victim, offers the Sacrifice of the Mass and is offered in it. The Fathers of the Church taught this wondrous doctrine. [Aug., De Civit. Dei, X] [4]


The Church fathers spoke of the entire Christian life as a spiritual sacrifice, but as we have seen, they were also willing to use the word 'sacrifice' in a heightened sense for the Eucharist. "The Eucharistic action enjoys a special relationship both with the sacrifice of Calvary and with the abiding heavenly sacrifice of Jesus Christ." [5] And with Augustine a reflective theology of the "eucharistic sacrifice appears on the stage of Christian taught for the first time". [6]

Later on, Gabriel Biel makes important contributions to the understanding of the Sacrifice of the Mass when he describes it as more than a commemoration. "In the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ are not simply present as a gift to us. They are also present as an offering to the father, under the appearance of bread and wine. This being so, the sacrifice of the altar is in a true sense one reality with the sacrifice of the Cross. The difference from the sacrifice of the Calvary lies only in the manner of offering ... the Mass is a sacramental, bloodless sacrifice." [7] The "rational of the eucharistic sacrifice, for Biel, consists in the mediation or application of the efficacy of the sacrifice of Calvary to human persons." [8]

The early Christian tradition is very clear on the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, and anyone who denies it has the burden of the proof. [9] But this was exactly what the reformers did. Especially Martin Luther accused the Church of teaching that the Eucharist is "a 'new and distinct' sacrifice. (He) saw it as another 'good work' which people were urged to use to merit God's blessing and eternal salvation." [10] This is of course not correct, but neither side at that time had a strong enough theology to clarify its view on how the Eucharist is a Sacrifice.


The council of Trent, was of course an answer to the Reformation movement, and one of the most important issues it discussed was the Sacrifice of the Mass. And it may be said to have "canonised the broad middle ground of the late mediaeval theology of the eucharistic sacrifice, more or less as represented by Biel." [11] This is how the Council fathers introduce the subject of the Sacrifice of the Mass:

Since under the former Testament, according to the testimony of the Apostle Paul, there was no perfection because of the weakness of the Levitical priesthood, there was need, God the Father of mercies so ordaining, that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchisedech, our Lord Jesus Christ, who might perfect and lead to perfection as many as were to be sanctified. He, therefore, our God and Lord, though He was by His death about to offer Himself once upon the altar of the cross to God the Father that He might there accomplish an eternal redemption, nevertheless, that His priesthood might not come to an end with His death, at the last supper, on the night He was betrayed ... (He) offered up to God the Father His own body and blood under the form of bread and wine, and under the forms of those same things gave to the Apostles, whom He then made priests of the New Testament, that they might partake, commanding them and their successors in the priesthood by these words to do likewise: Do this in commemoration of me, as the Catholic Church has always understood and taught. [12]

The Council goes on to say the following in chapter II:

And inasmuch as in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner the same Christ who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross, the holy council teaches that this is truly propitiatory and has this effect, that if we, contrite and penitent, with sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence, draw nigh to God, 'we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid.' For, appeased by this sacrifice, the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence and pardons even the gravest crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. The fruits of that bloody sacrifice, it is well understood, are received most abundantly through this unbloody one, so far is the latter from derogating in any way from the former. Wherefore, according to the tradition of the Apostles, it is rightly offered not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those departed in Christ but not yet fully purified. [13]

Aidan Nichols makes this comment about the end of this chapter: "Only if the Mass is a sacrifice can it benefit anyone beyond the immediate partakers, and only if the Mass can benefit people beyond the immediate partakers will the developed eucharistic sensibility and practice of Catholicism make any sense." [14]


In the post-Tridentine period Nichols identifies four chief concerns about how the sacrifice of the Mass is to be understood. [15]

1. The Sacrifice as ritual

In what ritual respect is the Eucharist a sacrifice? Theologians specified four moments in the rite: The consecration of the elements, their oblation or offering in the Eucharistic prayer, the fraction of the host and the commingling, and finally the elements' consumption. Gradually the most important of the four elements became the consecration, specifically the separate consecration of bread and wine.

2. The Sacrifice as reality

The question here is what does the Eucharistic sacrificial character consist in ontologically speaking. Some theologians claimed that not only the offering (oblation) was important here, but also the destruction (immolation). The immolation is important because it shows a recognition of God's sovereignty, it is a propitiation of his offended righteousness and a plea for spiritual and temporal blessing. By Christ's kenosis on the altar he does something analogous to dying and this is what makes the Eucharist a sacrifice.

Other theologians found this understanding offensive to the goodness of the Father. They claimed that it wasn't strictly speaking the Son's death that makes restitution for human sins, but the loving obedience expressed in the death. The sacrifice is thus the bringing of Christ's body and blood on the altar as an act of homage and honour, directed to the father.

3. The Sacrifice as made in heaven (which I will not go into in this essay)

4. The Sacrifice as fruitful on earth

The question here is: In what sense does the celebrant of the Eucharist have power to apply the fruits of the sacrifice to particular ends within the economies of nature and grace? Gallican and Jansenist theologians challenged the view that the priest had any such power, but their opinions were refuted by pope Pius VI, in his bull Auctorem Fidei. The pope argued that the church had always acted as if there were 'special fruits' of the Mass, and in the 19th century it became normal to identify three sorts of 'fruits of the Mass'.

a) The general or universal fruit. Every Mass is offered on behalf of the whole Church, and since all men and women belong potentially to the church, then indirectly this universal fruit can benefit them all.
b) The special fruit which pertain to the individual celebrant of the Mass and those of the lay faithful who co-offer with him.
c) The intermediate fruit. The Mass can also be offered on specific behalf of definite persons so as to obtain a given. limited end. This fruit depends on the free disposition, or application, of the celebrant.

As a last example of pre-Vatican II material we look at pope Pius XII's Encyclical from 1947, Mediator Dei. Here the pope explains the meaning of the sacrifice of the Mass in great detail. First he says that it is the same as the sacrifice on the cross, and the same priest and the same victim, only the manner of offering is different.

The august sacrifice of the altar ... is no mere empty commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice, whereby the High Priest by an unbloody immolation offers Himself a most acceptable victim to the Eternal Father, as He did upon the cross. "It is one and the same victim; the same person now offers it by the ministry of His priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner of offering alone being different."[Council of Trent, Sess. 22, Eucharist, Ch. 2] ... The priest is the same, Jesus Christ, whose sacred Person His minister represents. ... Likewise the victim is the same, namely, our divine Redeemer in His human nature with His true body and blood. The manner, however, in which Christ is offered is different. On the cross He completely offered Himself and all His sufferings to God, and the immolation of the victim was brought about by the bloody death, which He underwent of His free will. ... The commemorative representation of His death, which actually took place on Calvary, is repeated in every sacrifice of the altar.

Then he speaks about the four different ends of the sacrifice:

The appointed ends are the same. The first of these is to give glory to the Heavenly Father. (All) sing immortal praise to God and give all honour and glory to the Father Almighty. The second end is duly to give thanks to God. Only the divine Redeemer, as the eternal Father's most beloved Son whose immense love He knew, could offer Him a worthy return of gratitude. This was His intention and desire at the Last Supper when He "gave thanks." ... The third end proposed is that of expiation, propitiation and reconciliation. Certainly, no one was better fitted to make satisfaction to Almighty God for all the sins of men than was Christ. Therefore, He desired to be immolated upon the cross "as a propitiation for our sins, not for ours only but also for those of the whole world" and likewise He daily offers Himself upon our altars for our redemption, that we may be rescued from eternal damnation and admitted into the company of the elect. ... The fourth end, finally, is that of impetration. Man, being the prodigal son, has made bad use of and dissipated the goods which he received from his heavenly Father. Accordingly, he has been reduced to the utmost poverty and to extreme degradation. However, Christ on the cross offering prayers and supplications with a loud cry and tears, has been heard for His reverence. Likewise upon the altar He is our mediator with God in the same efficacious manner, so that we may be filled with every blessing and grace. [17]


The Second Vatican Council spoke about the Eucharist in a variety of ways, in an effort to do full justice to what had been said about it in the past. It follows, of course, the Council of Trent, and says about the sacrifice that it is "the same one now offering, through the ministry of the priest, who formerly offered himself on the cross". [18] When discussing the continuation of the sacrifice of the cross, the concept of memorial is emphasised, as seen here:

At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us. [19]

In his Apostolic exhortation Eucharisticum Mysterium, pope John Paul II speaks about the Eucharist in the themes of foundation, sacrifice and presence. He points out the apparent paradox that while the Church 'makes the Eucharist', it is the Eucharist which 'builds up the Church'. [20]

The pope goes on to say that "while the experience of eucharistic brotherhood indeed belongs to this foundation, it is not the deepest reality. For the human koinonia of the eucharistic assembly is not its own ground. We must look further, and here the Pope comes to the other two principal themes of eucharistic doctrine, the sacrifice and the presence." [21]

The Eucharist is above all else a sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of the Redemption and also the sacrifice of the New Covenant. ... Precisely by making this single sacrifice of our salvation present, man and the world are restored to God through the paschal newness of Redemption. This restoration cannot cease to be: it is the foundation of the 'new and eternal covenant' of God with man and of man with God. If it were missing, one would have to question both the excellence of the sacrifice of the Redemption, which in fact was perfect and definitive, and also the sacrificial value of the Mass. In fact, the Eucharist, being a true sacrifice, brings about this restoration to God.

.... Thus, by virtue of the consecration, the species of bread and wine re-present in a sacramental, unbloody manner the bloody propitiatory sacrifice offered by Him on the cross to His Father for the salvation of the world. Indeed, He alone, giving Himself as a propitiatory Victim in an act of supreme surrender and immolation, has reconciled humanity with the Father, solely through His sacrifice, "having cancelled the bond which stood against us." [Col. 2,14] [22]


There has been some ecumenical progress in the understanding of the Eucharist as a Sacrifice over the last decades. The reason for this development is mainly a new and better understanding of the Jewish understanding of anamnesis - memorial. This is how Faith and Order's Paper on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry expresses this new understanding:

E5. The eucharist is the memorial of the crucified and risen Christ, i.e. the living and effective sign of his sacrifice, accomplished once and for all on the cross and still operative on behalf of all humankind. The biblical idea of memorial as applied to the eucharist refers to this present efficacy of God's work when it is celebrated by God's people in a liturgy.

E6. Christ himself with all that he has accomplished for us and for all creation ... is present in this anamnesis, granting us communion with himself. The eucharist is also the foretaste of his parousia and of the final kingdom.

E8. ... It is in the light of the significance of the eucharist as intercession that references to the eucharist in Catholic theology as "propitiatory sacrifice" may be understood. The understanding is that there is only one expiation, that of the unique sacrifice of the cross, made actual in the eucharist and presented before the Father in the intercession of Christ and of the Church for all humanity. In the light of the biblical conception of memorial, all churches might want to review the old controversies about "sacrifice" and deepen their understanding of the reasons why other traditions than their own have either used or rejected this term. [23]

There is still a long way to go, though, before the Protestant churches are able or willing to adopt the fullness of the Catholic teaching about the Eucharist as a Sacrifice. Typical for this hesitation is the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission's statement on the Eucharist, where the Eucharist is called a Sacrifice of Christ, [24] but is never called the Church's sacrifice to God.


  • The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia Press, Albany, USA, 1913, Article on the Sacrifice of the Mass
  • Doors to the Sacred. A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church, Joseph Martos, Image Books, New York, 1982
  • The Holy Eucharist. From the New Testament to pope John Paul II, Aidan Nichols, Dublin 1991.
  • The Holy and Living Sacrifice. The Eucharist in Christian Perspective, Earnest Falardeau, The Liturgical Press, 1996.
  • Sacramental Theology, Herbert Vorgrimler, The Liturgical Press, 1992

HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS (ordered chronologically)

  • 1551 Council of Trent, 13th Session. Decree Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist
  • 1562 Council of Trent, 22nd Session. Doctrine Concerning the sacrifice of the Mass
  • 1947 Mediator Dei, On the Sacred Liturgy, Encyclical of Pope Pius XII
  • 1963 Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
  • 1965 Mysterium Fidei, Mystery of Faith, Encyclical of Pope Paul VI
  • 1971 Statement on the Eucharist, Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission
  • 1980 Eucharisticum Mysterium, On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist, Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul XII
  • 1982 Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper No. 111, World Council of Churches
  • 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Geoffrey Chapman, London 1994)



1 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Article on The Sacrifice of the Mass
2 Ernest Falardeau, The Holy and Living Sacrifice, p. 3
3 Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Mysterium Fidei (document doesn't have any paragraph numbers)
4 Mysterium Fidei
5 Aidan Nichols, The Holy Eucharist, p. 87
6 Nichols, p. 87
7 Nichols, p. 89-90
8 Nichols, p. 90
9 Falardeau, p. 4
10 Faraldeau, p. 4
11 Nichols, p. 91
12 Council of Trent, 22nd Session, Decree concerning the sacrifice of the Mass, Chapter I
13 Trent, 22nd Session, Chapter II
14 Nichols, p. 93
15 Nichols, these four point are described on pp. 93-101
16 Nichols, p. 100
17 Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei, paragraphs 68-74
18 Herbert Vorgrimler, Sacramental Theology, p. 185, quoting Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7
19 Vatican II, Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 47
20 Nichols, p. 122
21 Nichols, p. 123
22 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Eucharisticum Mysterium, no. 9
23 World Council of Churches. Faith and Order's Paper on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Eucharist E5, E6, E8
24 Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Statement on the Eucharist, Title of chapter II

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