First published: Donald William Bradley Robinson, ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.’ The Reformed Theological Review 23, no. 3 ( 1964), 65–74.

My title is carefully chosen. Where, in the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, is there a place for what may be called ‘eucharistic sacrifice’? There are many who cannot think of the sacrament apart from eucharistic sacrifice, and for whom, indeed, eucharistic sacrifice— liturgically embodied in the ‘canon’ or ‘prayer of consecration’—is the essence of the rite. I should say at once that I do not think the latter attitude derives any support from the Articles and Liturgy of the Church of England. But the attitude is there, and perhaps is even the dominant attitude (with whatever justification or none) among the clergy today; and this poses a problem for the church which should be met, if possible, on constructive lines. Is there common ground between Anglo-Catholics and those who hold the Reformed theology of our formularies, in the matter of euharistic sacrifice? If there is, is it ground wide and firm enough for the erection of a mutually acceptable liturgy? If it is neither wide nor firm enough for this, can we from this ground see our way forward to other ground? It is the aim of this paper to suggest that there is a sense in which ‘eucharistic sacrifice’ may properly be located at the very heart of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, in a manner which is fully consistent with the Reformed doctrine both of the death of Christ and of the Lord’s Supper. I shall first try to define the sacrament itself, pruning it, for this purpose, of all those ancillary and related actions, which may be entirely appropriate to its context, but which are not themselves part of the sacrament. I shall then look at the biblical idea of ‘eucharistic sacrifice,’ and ask whether it is related to this sacrament, and if so, at what point and in what manner.

1. The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ

 ‘Sacrament’ is an explanatory word, belonging to post-biblical times. It can be used in a very wide and general manner for a variety of meaningful actions. Even in more precise discussions, ‘sacrament’ has a number of well-attested uses, as Archbishop Cranmer warned his readers in his Answer to A Crafty and Sophistical Cavillation Devised by Stephen Gardiner. It is used sometimes of the entire service in which a certain rite occurs; sometimes of the material elements which are used in the rite; sometimes of the due performance of the action itself. I do not wish to make an argument about the word or its uses. By ‘the sacrament’ I mean that special and distinctive act which took place during the course of the last supper, the act referred to in the words of the Lord: ‘Take ye: this is my body…This is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many’ (Mark 14:2, 24). The further words in St. Paul’s account and in the longer text of Luke: ‘this do in remembrance of me’ : follow the words given above from Mark and must refer to the act already there defined. Let us examine more closely this special and distinctive act which I am referring to as the sacrament.

We will do well to rid our minds of a notion which may lurk in them but which will only distract us from proper attention to the meaning of the sacrament. It is the idea that Jesus was, at the last supper, instructing his disciples in the technique of celebrating a communion service, as if they were ordinands. At the last supper the apostles were all communicants and participants only; they were not ‘clergy,’ nor potential clergy. The action of the sacrament was for them an act of ‘taking’ only. They were not told to do what Jesus did; they were told to take and eat what he gave them, regarding the bread as his body, and the cup as his blood of the covenant. In the narratives of Mark and Matthew there is no command to continue or repeat anything. The sacrament was all a matter of taking and partaking. Yet there was the command to ‘do this’— present imperative, i.e., ‘keep on doing this’— as recorded in 1 Cor.11:24. What was it they were to keep on doing? Surely, exactly what they did at the last supper, that is, to take and eat, regarding the bread as Christ’s body and the cup as his blood of the covenant. The command to ‘do this’ was not intended to turn them from recipients into celebrants.1The communion here differs from baptism. The apostles were commanded by Jesus to baptize, i.e. to administer baptism to others. Jesus did not command them to receive baptism themselves. On the other hand, he commanded them to receive bread and wine themselves, and to receive it repeatedly. But he did not command them to administer it to others. This distinction is overlooked, probably because we are dominated by the systematized sacramental theology of the Middle Ages which tried to reduce everything to a consistent theory of what a ‘sacrament’ is, and to subsume every action under the one theory. But the theory of ‘sacrament’ is too often imposed on the evidence. This is made clear by the words of 1 Cor. 11: ‘Do this, as often as you drink, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.’2Cf. C. P. D. Moule, Worship in the New Testament, p.33, and the references to Dix and Jeremias there cited. But it is still necessary to point out that, though the operative words are ‘in remembrance of me’ rather than ‘do this ‘, they are related to the acts of eating and drinking, rather than to the acts of breaking and distributing incidental to eating and drinking.

He commanded them to receive bread and wine themselves, and to receive it repeatedly.

The authority for continuing the sacrament is given explicitly in the words ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ as in the Pauline account and the longer text of Luke. These words, so far as the action they prescribe is concerned, refer to nothing other than the action described in the original narrative:

Take, eat;        this is my body
Drink;              this is my blood of the covenant
Do this            in remembrance of me.

The command of Christ, regarding both what they were to do at the last supper and what they were to do thereafter, was not a command to repeat Jesus’ actions, but to eat and drink together of one cup and one loaf with a view to the remembrance of Christ’s death. This last sequence is important. The anamnesis or remembrance (however it is to be understood) is the result, or intention, or end in view, of the eating and drinking (touto poieite eis ten emen anamnesin). We are not to have the anamnesis (by some means) and then eat and drink; rather we are to eat and drink with a view to the anamnesis, which means with a view to knowing the bread to be his body for us and the cup to be his blood of the covenant. It is by the very means of eating and drinking that the anamnesis takes place. We have said that the meaning of the anamnesis is intimately related to the words of Christ by which he gave significance to the loaf and cup he was communicating to his disciples: ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood of the covenant.’ We must therefore observe that these very words were, at the last supper, uttered, and impressed on the disciples’ understanding, in the closest possible proximity to the act of their eating and drinking:

‘He… gave it to them, and said. Take ye : this is my body.’

There is no room here for any ceremonial identification of the bread as the body of Christ prior to the disciples’ communion. The realisation of its meaning is in the taking and eating, by the word of Christ. There is even less room for any ‘consecration’ as the blood of Christ prior to partaking, in the case of the cup:

‘and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the covenant.’

*     *     *

Of course, no sacrament takes place in a vacuum. There is a proper context, and incidental actions (of greater and less significance) for every sacrament. But neither context nor incidental actions constitute the sacrament. The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ— the sharing in the loaf and the cup—presupposes that men are already gathered together in Christ’s name and in the fellowship of the Spirit. It presupposes, therefore, that men may have engaged in prayer and in the reading of God’s word. Indeed, it presupposes that their fellowship has been finding expression in a common meal, for why else should there be a loaf and a cup on the table? And it will be proper for someone of standing among the disciples to take the loaf and the cup, giving thanks for them, so that they may be distributed. But none of these actions, however meet and right, is that particular sacramental action which we, as recipients and as disciples, are to ‘do in remembrance’ of Christ.3It is even possible that we have partly misconstrued the intention of Jesus and that what he meant was that, as often as the disciples were together in the fellowship of the Spirit, the thing which united them, and which they are partook, was in reality the body of Christ and the blood of the covenant—whether they explicitly recalled it or not—and that they should therefore always, in their common life, do all ‘in remembrance’ of him. There are some strange silences in our evidence concerning the Lord’s supper and the breaking of bread in the early church which would be explicable along some such lines as these. Paul’s words to the Corinthians may well be intended to recall them to the implicit, rather than to the explicit, meaning of the gathering together to eat the Lord’s supper.

This sacrament assures us that the life and unity of the church proceeds only from the death of the Saviour. In it we all partake of a loaf and of a cup, designated— in the partaking—‘the body and blood of the Lord.’ In partaking we know ourselves to be one body through his death, recipients of the benefits of his passion, and partakers of the fellowship of his sufferings. In this eating and this drinking, we ‘remember’ Christ and him crucified.

Some will think that I have confined the sacrament too narrowly to the act of taking and participating. Yet I believe this is the essence of it, just as the sacrament of baptism is essentially confined to the action of submission to water in the Name of God. Much else may be appropriate for the safeguarding of the proper performance and true meaning of both sacraments, but for our present purpose it is desirable to take the simplest possible view of their character. The New Testament is completely silent on what we should call the ‘administration’ of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ in the early church. We do not know who administered it, or in what manner; whether Christ’s recorded actions were exactly imitated or not. The whole emphasis in 1 Cor. 11 is on eating the bread and drinking the cup:

‘As often as yet eat this bread and drink this cup…’
‘whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord unworthily…’
‘so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup…’
‘he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself.’

Moreover, all of us are under the influence of ideas and symbolisms that have long been part of the written or unwritten tradition of various parts of the church, and of which we only divest ourselves with difficulty. But there is, as Anston Baumstark has reminded us,4Comparative Liturgy (Mowbray, 1958) p.130. a tendency to invest even simple and utilitarian actions, incidental to a rite, with symbolic significance a posteriori.5I have heard an Anglican clergyman expound the symbolism of the black cassock and the white surplice in connection with sin and righteousness! In response to such a tendency there has come into common acceptance, sometimes from early centuries, symbolic actions which for some are indistinguishable from the sacrament. Thus, the necessary furnishing of bread and wine became, for many, an ‘offertory’ to God of the elements shortly to be used;6Cf. Eucharist and Offertory in the Anglican Tradition, D.W.B. Robinson in The Churchman for March, 1961, p.37. the customary grace for the food became a ‘consecration,’ a means whereby the bread and wine could properly be designated ‘the body and blood of Christ,’ and whereby also (in some cases) they could be offered to the Father; the fraction became an acted symbol of the body of Christ being broken for us on the cross. Widespread as these conceptions are, even among Anglicans, none of them finds any justification, either explicitly or implicitly, in our New Testament sources concerning the Lord’s supper, and none of them finds expression in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England beyond the fact that the prayer before communion is called— but only since 1662— ‘the Prayer of Consecration.’ Moreover, the origin of each can be fairly easily traced in the history of liturgical development.7It may well be that at first the liturgical eucharistia (as pictured, for example, in the worship of the apocalypse, and as expressed characteristically in the Sanctus) was more fundamental than, and hence distinct from, the rite of bread and cup; at some point the latter was grafted on to the former, the grace for the food becoming associated with the larger thanksgiving for creation and redemption, and the elements themselves becoming (e.g.) Irenaues’ oblation as a material expression of that eucharistia. Professor E. C. Ratcliffe of Cambridge give some countenance to this view. If it be so, much of the confusion in our eucharist theology would be accounted for, as well as the big gap between the New Testament in the Father’s, even Justin. See The Sanctus and the Pattern of the Early Anaphora by E. C. Ratcliffe in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1, 1950.

The bread is broken merely so that it can be distributed.

What is important for our purpose is to observe that each, in its own way, tends to obscure the particularity of the sacrament itself. Take for example, the breaking of the bread as a symbol of Christ’s body being broken on the cross. This is a piece of evangelical piety found in many (unwritten) traditions, having some late manuscript support in the text of 1 Cor. 11:24. But there is no biblical symbolism in the breaking of the bread. The bread is broken merely so that it can be distributed. It corresponds do the instruction to ‘take the cup and divide it among yourselves’ (Luke 22:17). Our Saviour’s body was not broken on the cross. It was pierced, in hands and feet and side, but not broken in any sense in which a body would have been said to have been broken. Indeed, it is asserted with special emphasis by St. John that, when Christ’s side was pierced, the scripture was fulfilled which said, ‘A bone of him shall not be broken’ (John 19:36). It remains, in considering the character of the sacrament, to observe that our Anglican formularies, in conformity with scripture, define the sacrament as something to be received. This is true of baptism no less than of communion. Apart from right receiving there is no sacrament, either of regeneration in baptism, or of receiving the body and blood of the Lord in communion, but only a token of condemnation. Article XXV defines sacraments ordained by Christ as ‘not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him…And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation…’ The former part of the Article is not supplying a wider definition than the latter. A sacrament is neither a badge nor a token nor a sure witness nor an effectual sign, unless or until it be received. It is all these things in the receiving. Article xxviii says: ‘to such as rightly, worthily and with faith receive the same (sc. the sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death) the bread which we break is partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.’ And again, ‘The Body of Christ (sc. the inward, spiritual part of the outward action of the sacrament) is given, taken and eaten, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.’ And so in all the relevant Articles. The Catechism speaks likewise of the sacraments as acts of receiving.

‘What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?’
‘I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, and as a means whereby we receive the same (sc. the grace), and a pledge to assure us thereof.’

The punctuation should be observed here; the sacraments, the outward signs, are given unto us. We receive the water of baptism; we receive bread and cup.

‘What is the outward part or sign of the Lord’s supper?’
‘Bread and wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.’

It is superfluous to illustrate this theme from our communion service itself, where it abounds, but I draw your attention to three significant places where the sacrament as something to be received is emphasised. (a) In the exhortation giving notice of communion: ‘…I purpose to administer…the most comfortable sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, to be by them received…’ (b) The central petition of the prayer of consecration, on which all else in the prayer is contingent, is: ‘grant that we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine…may be partakers of his most blessed body and blood.’8The contrast, incidentally, with the central petition of the Roman Canon (and of all liturgies which follow the Hippolytan pattern) is striking: ‘Wherefore also, we thy servants…offer to thy most excellent majesty…a pure, a holy, a spotless Sacrifice, the holy bread of eternal life, and the cup of everlasting salvation’.) The centrality of receiving is also enhanced by the position of the prayer of humble access in the 1662 Book, as well as by its content. (c) After the reception, thanks are given ‘that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.’

2. Eucharistic Sacrifice

It is now time to go to the other end of our subject and ask what is meant by eucharistic sacrifice, and what place may be found for it in connection with the sacrament we have just been describing. I want to start with the widest possible meaning of the term, and to narrow it down to such application as it may have to our special subject.

1. Eucharistic sacrifice is only another name for the ‘sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’ which it is the constant obligation of all men to render to God. Such sacrifice is co-extensive with glorifying God as God (Rom. 1:21).

‘Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.’
‘It is meet and right so to do.’
‘It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, O Lord, Holy Father, etc.’ (Sursum corda.)

2. Particular blessings, however, call for particular expressions of thanks, and we owe a particular and unique sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the blessings of redemption which have been secured for us through Christ’s death on the cross. Among these blessings are the forgiveness of our sins, the gift of sonship and the hope of glory, and as often as we thank God for these, we offer a eucharistice sacrifice acceptable to Him.

‘And above all things ye must give most humble and hearty thanks to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, for the redemption of the world by the death and passion of our Saviour Christ, both God and man; who did humble himself, even to the death upon the Cross, for us miserable sinners, who lay in darkness and the shadow of death, that he might make us the children of God, and exalt us to everlasting life. (Exhortation to communicants.)

3. Neither the general eucharistic sacrifice which we all owe to God, nor the particular eucharistic sacrifice for the death of Christ and all its benefits, is confined to a relationship with a special rite or sacrament. Our eucharistic sacrifice, both in general and in particular, is, while rightly expressed by the lips, truly offered in the continual exercise, of faith and obedience towards God in our daily life.

‘We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving ourselves up to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life.’ (General Thanksgiving.)

4. Even at a service which has been convened for the special purpose of administering the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, eucharistic sacrifice may be offered, both in general and in particular, which is not directly or essentially related to that sacrament. Daniel Waterland, for instance, writes:9A Review of the Doctrine of the Eucharist (Oxford Edition 189), p.344f. ‘The service of the Eucharist, on the foot of ancient church language, is both a true and a proper sacrifice, and the noblest that we are capable of offering, when considered as comprehending under it many true and evangelical sacrifices,’ and he goes on to enumerate eight such evangelical sacrifices. They are:

  1. The sacrifice of alms to the poor, and oblations to the Church; which when religiously intended, and offered through Christ, is a Gospel sacrifice. Not that the material offering is a sacrifice to God, for it goes entirely to the use of man, but the service is what God accepts.
  2. The sacrifice of prayer, from a pure heart, is evangelical incense.
  3. The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God the Father, through Christ Jesus our Lord, is another Gospel sacrifice.
  4. The sacrifice of a penitent and contrite heart, even under the law (and now much more under the Gospel, when explicitly offered through Christ), was a sacrifice of the new covenant.
  5. The sacrifice of ourselves, our souls and bodies, is another Gospel sacrifice.
  6. The offering up the mystical body of Christ, is another Gospel sacrifice: or rather, it is coincident with the former; except that there persons are considered in their single capacity, and here collectively in a body…
  7. The offering up of true converts, or sincere penitents, to God, by their pastors, who have laboured successfully in the blessed work, is another very acceptable Gospel sacrifice.
  8. The sacrifice of faith and hope, and self-humiliation, in commemorating the grand sacrifice, and resting finally upon it, is another Gospel sacrifice, and eminently proper to the Eucharist.

One cannot dispute that these eight are all ‘Gospel sacrifices,’ and that they are all ‘eminently proper’ to a service in which the sacrament is to be engaged in. Yet one could have all these sacrifices in a service, and no sacrament. Or one could—indeed, one should—offer them all to God quite apart from services of any kind.

Only by and in receiving, by faith with thanksgiving, do we become partakers of the body and blood of Christ

Waterland’s enumeration of sacrifices prompts another reflection, however. Surely there are no sacrifices we can offer to God at any time or in any place except those which he mentions here. It is recognised by Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical alike that we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto God any sacrifice, but that our bounden duty and service is to offer, first, the sacrifice of a penitent and a contrite heart, and the sacrifice of faith and hope and self-humiliation. It is also recognised by Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical alike that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our redemption is a sacrifice to which we can contribute nothing of our own, and that the taking and consuming the bread and wine is a sign of our utter dependence on Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sins and all spiritual grace. Now we glorify God most chiefly by our trust in His Son Jesus Christ, and by our acknowledgement of His goodness in receiving the atonement He has provided. It is, therefore, at the point of receiving that which the bread and the cup signify that we offer our sacrifice, the only sacrifice we can offer. Paradoxically, we offer by receiving. And what is the nature of this sacrifice? We hear the words of exhortation: ‘Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ It is thus a sacrifice of penitence, faith and thanksgiving, an act of trust in Christ alone for salvation. This is that eucharistic sacrifice which is peculiarly related to the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.

We may, if we wish, anticipate this response of faith, penitence and thanksgiving by prayer before we partake of the bread and the cup. We may, if we wish, express our response more largely in the prayer which follows the sacrament. But the true point of the sacrifice is neither in the former nor the latter. Indeed, there is real danger in the former if it should be made to appear that the essence of the sacrament is not in the receiving but in a thanksgiving for the bread and wine, or in an oblation of elements, or in a liturgical anamnesis (which is not the true anamnesis proper to the sacrament but a mere rehearsal of what is yet to take place). It is no doubt better, as our English rite has it, to let the prayer before the sacrament be simply a petition for a true receiving of it, and to offer a formal and collective eucharistia after all have received. But more significant than any of this is the knowledge that only by and in receiving, by faith with thanksgiving, do we become partakers of the body and blood of Christ, and only thus do we offer that eucharistic sacrifice peculiarly required by the sacrament which our Saviour instituted when he said ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’