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The Eucharist


E.         The Sacramentalism of the Roman Catholic Church


McGiffert provides this helpful summary:


“The significance of the sacraments for the life of the Christians of the Middle Ages is impossible to exaggerate. They were not mere isolated rites; they were bound together by their common quality as signs and vehicles of divine grace. They constituted the very heart of Christianity. By means of them the channel of communication between God and man and man and God was kept open constantly. Where the sacraments were there was life and salvation; where they were wanting man was left helpless and alone. They accompanied the Christian from the cradle to the grave, sanctifying all life for him, equipping him for its duties and responsibilities, giving him grace to live as God would have him live, and when he failed bringing divine forgiveness and renewed assistance. They prepared him not only for life but also for death. Receiving the last rites of the church he could depart in peace assured of a blessed resurrection and the life eternal. What all this must have meant to the Christians of the Middle Ages anyone can imagine but only a Catholic can fully know” (A History of Christian Thought, 330-31).


Initially only baptism and the eucharist were acknowledged as sacraments. To these Abelard added confirmation and extreme unction. His pupils added matrimony. Robert Pullus (d. 1150) added penance and ordination. In The Sentences of Peter Lombard (book 4), these seven were given a final endorsement. They received official RC sanction at the Council of Florence in 1439 and again at Trent in 1545-63. The sacraments were efficacious ex opere operato, i.e., by the working of the thing worked. In other words, a sacrament did not depend for its efficacy on the merit or character of the priest who officiated (so long as was not in a state of mortal sin) but on the intrinsic power of the sacrament as ordained of God.


(1) Baptism – Baptism is one of the three unrepeatable sacraments (along with confirmation and ordination). It supposedly communicates an indelible mark on the soul. It has a double effect: it effects regeneration, a spiritual re-birth; and it effects the forgiveness of all pre-baptismal sin, both original and actual.


(2) Confirmation – This was initially joined to the baptismal experience but was separated and became a sacrament unto itself. Its purpose is to confer grace for the strengthening of the baptized believer. It is always accompanied with the words: “I sign thee with the sign of the cross and confirm thee with the chrism of salvation in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”


(3) Eucharist – The debate over the eucharist erupted with the publication of a treatise by Paschasius Radbertus (De corpore et sanguine domini; “concerning the body and blood of the Lord”), abbot of the monastery at Corbie (842-53), in which he asserted that a miracle of divine omnipotence occurs in the elements, a creative act, as it were. In essence, God effects or creates in the substance of the bread and wine the very flesh and blood of Jesus. Although he did not employ the term Transubstantiation, he defended the idea (the word itself first appeared in 1140 in a work by the man who would become Pope Alexander III). Through this miracle the daily sacrifice of Christ is continued and repeated. The flesh and blood present in the elements are the same in which Christ was born, crucified, buried and raised. The change is an internal mystery, hence the elements retain their natural physical properties such as taste and smell. But why, if the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ, don’t they look and smell and taste like it? Two reasons were given:


·      The first reason, originally articulated by Ambrose in the fifth century, is known as horror cruoris, i.e., “the horror of blood.” Since God knew that humans could not bear the thought, much less the taste, of blood and flesh in their mouths, he miraculously retains the natural properties of the bread and wine.


·      Second, if the bread and wine actually looked and tasted like flesh and blood, what need would there be for faith on the part of the recipient? They are, in point of fact, flesh and blood, but that is something only faith can perceive. Thus, the miracle of transubstantiation was designed by God as a test and demonstration of faith.


Radbertus also appealed to stories of alleged miraculous phenomena associated with the eucharist to gain the support of the people. For example, he argued that the bread on the altar was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child; when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let its blood run into a cup!


Objections came from Rabanus and Ratramnus of Corbie (d. 868), both of whom insisted that the elements were symbolic of the body and blood of Christ and that partaking of the Lord's Supper involved no more than an experience of spiritual union of the believer with the mystical body of Christ. The dispute persisted into the Scholastic period where the doctrine of Radbertus eventually won the day.


The Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation was officially made a dogma of the church by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.


"The body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by divine power. . . . And this sacrament no one can in any case administer except a priest who has been properly ordained."


There was a corresponding move to withdraw the cup from the laity: (1) to avoid chances of spilling the “blood” of Christ (regarded as a sacrilege); (2) because the “whole” Christ is present in both elements (and withholding the cup would teach this to the laity); (3) it enhanced the unique spiritual privilege and authority of the priesthood above the laity.


Numerous superstitions and apocryphal stories emerged relating to the eucharist. For example, if a fly or spider should be found in the wine after its consecration, the insect must be removed, carefully washed, burnt, and then the water, mingled with ashes, thown away. Another story concerned a farmer who placed a piece of the consecrated host in his beehive. The bees built a miniature church with an altar on which they placed the bread. All the neighboring bees came and sang hymns together. The miniature church eventually was taken into the village and became a sacred relic! See Schaff, 728ff.


Thomas Aquinas said of the Eucharist:


“This sacrament is not only a sacrament but also a sacrifice. For inasmuch as in it is represented the passion of Christ whereby he offered himself a victim to God, . . . it has the nature of a sacrifice. Inasmuch as in it grace is truly conferred invisibly under a visible form it has the nature of a sacrament. Thus it benefits those who receive it both as a sacrament and as a sacrifice. . . . But others that do not receive it derive benefit from it as a sacrifice inasmuch as it is offered for their salvation” (Summa Theologiae, III.79:7).


The Council of Trent (16th century) issued the following declarations concerning the sacrament of the Eucharist:


"And since in this divine sacrifice, which is performed in the Mass, the same Christ is contained, and is bloodlessly immolated, who once offered Himself bloodily upon the Cross; and the holy council teaches that this sacrifice is propitiatory [emphasis mine], and that by its means, if we approach God contrite and penitent, with a true heart, and a right faith, and with fear and reverence, we may obtain mercy, and grow in seasonable succour. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation of this sacrifice [emphasis mine], granting grace and the gift of repentance, remits even great crimes and sins. There is one and the same victim, and the same person, who now offers by the ministry of the priests, who then offered Himself upon the Cross; the mode of offering only being different. And the fruits of that bloody offering are truly most abundantly received through this offering, so far is it from derogating in any way from the former. Wherefore, it is properly offered according to the tradition of the Apostles, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other wants of the living, but also for the dead in Christ, who are not yet fully purged" (Session 22, chp. 2).


"If any one shall say that the sacrifice of the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, or a bare commemoration of the sacrifice made upon the Cross, and that it is not propitiatory, or that it profits only the receiver, and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for their sins, pains, satisfactions, and other wants -- let him be accursed" (Session 22, Canon 3).


The word “mass” is of uncertain origin, but may be a derivative of the Latin verb mitto, mittere = to send, dispatch, release, or the noun missio, -onis (f) = a sending off, letting go, discharge. The idea was simply that when the Lord’s Supper was to be observed, those of the congregation not participating were to withdraw or leave.


(4) Penance – This sacrament provides for the restoration of the baptized believer who sins. It entails four elements: contrition (sorrow for sin), confession (at least once a year), absolution (“I absolve thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”, which conveys grace, removes guilt, and remits eternal punishment), and satisfaction (works such as fasting, prayer, giving to the poor, etc., designed to satisfy the temporal punishment for sin, whether here or in purgatory).


During the late middle ages, penitential handbooks were issued listing a wide variety of sins together with the length of penance to be performed. For example:


If a monk gets drunk and vomits, he must do penance for 30 days. If a deacon or priest does it, penance is 40 days. For an ordinary Christian, it is 15 days. Bestiality requires penance of 10 years! Homosexuality also carries a 10 year penance. Lesbianism entails a 3 year penance. Incest is 15 years.


(5) Ordination – The sacraments of ordination and marriage exclude one another. The power and grace to rule the church and to perform its sacred duties are bestowed on the recipient through seven successive acts of blessing.


(6) Marriage – This also conveys its own unique grace to the conjugal relationship in order to sanctify and enable husband and wife to bear one another’s weaknesses and to procreate.


(7) Extreme Unction – As baptism marked the beginning of the Christian life, extreme unction marks its close. According to Thomas, the sacrament “removes the remains of sin and makes a man ready for final glory” (III. 65:1). Its purpose is to secure forgiveness of all sins and to assure the dying individual of escape from the pains of hell.


F.         The Sacramentalism of the Eastern Orthodox Church


Like the RCC, Orthodoxy recognizes 7 sacraments, three of which are non-repeatable (baptism, chrismation, ordination) and four of which are repeatable (Holy Eucharist, repentance, marriage, holy unction). The Eucharist is the most important of all and “stands at the heart of all Christian life and experience” (TOC, 275). These sacraments are effective only when performed inside and by the orthodox church, except in extreme emergencies or crisis. What do the sacraments accomplish? What are they effective for?


“That justifying and sanctifying divine grace which abides in the church is administered by the church to the people by means of the holy mysteries, which are divinely instituted ceremonies that deliver, by visible means, mysteriously transmitted invisible grace. Thus it is that the sacraments, when they are worthily received, become instruments, means of transmission, of divine grace” (John Karmiris, “Concerning the Sacraments,” in A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, trans. George Dimopoulos [Scranton: Christian Orthodox Edition, 1973], p. 21 in Clendenin.)




“Each sacrament transmits its own particular grace. Baptism and chrismation transmit justifying and regenerating grace; repentance and unction transmit grace which is for the healing of soul and body; ordination and marriage enable us to perform certain specific functions; and the Holy Eucharist feeds and satisfies us spiritually” (22).


“In no way is the efficacy of the sacrament contingent upon the faith or moral qualifications of either celebrant or recipient, yet every magical and mechanical action is excluded in the performance of the sacrament. We see then, first of all, that the priest, as performer of the sacrament, is simply the instrument of the invisible and actual celebrant, the Lord himself” (22-23).


Kamiris writes: “the sacraments are effectively accomplished independently of the faith of those accepting them” (23). Even infants are to be given the eucharist.


“The Orthodox Catholic Church,” says Karmiris, “accepts the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist: the elements of bread and wine are changed [although they avoid using the term “transubstantiation”] into Christ’s very body and blood in such a way that he is hypostatically and essentially present in the sacrament” (27).


Again, “the Holy Eucharist is not a mere sacrament, but a sacrifice as well. It is a bloodless, conciliatory offering to God ‘in all and for all’” (28). Yet he says, “Naturally, it is understood that, in all of these things, nothing is added to the sacrifice of the cross, the saving fruit of which is communicated to participants in the Eucharist. Neither is repeated the Redeemer’s death on the cross” (29). Timothy Ware is even more explicit:


“The Eucharist is not a bare commemoration nor an imaginary representation of Christ’s sacrifice, but the true sacrifice itself; yet on the other hand it is not a new sacrifice, nor a repetition of the sacrifice on Calvary, since the Lamb was sacrificed ‘once only, for all time.’ The events of Christ’s sacrifice – the Incarnation, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension – are not repeated in the Eucharist, but they are made present. ‘During the Liturgy, through its divine power, we are projected to the point where eternity cuts across time, and at this point we become true contemporaries with the events which we commemorate’” (TOC, 286-87).