A friend recently presented to me a theological objection about the Eucharist. It is actually a very common objection in Protestant polemics against the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist.
The substance of the objection is this: Why would Jesus, who came to abolish the rites of the Old Testament, establish another rite which is essentially like the rites of the Old Testament?
This objection receives its teeth primarily from the Epistle to the Hebrews. Here is a sampling of those verses:
He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself (Heb 7:27).
This is a symbol of the present time, in which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the worshiper in conscience but only in matters of food and drink and various ritual washings: regulations concerning the flesh, imposed until the time of the new order (Heb 9:9-10).
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary with blood that is not his own; if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world. But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice (Heb 9:25-26).
But in those sacrifices there is only a yearly remembrance of sins, for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins (Heb 10:3-4).
I will take these as representative of the verses which are urged, in their interpretations, as being objections to the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist, specifically the Eucharist as Sacrifice.
The interpretation of these verses, against the Catholic doctrine, amounts to this: the Catholic doctrine introduces a multiplicity of sacrifices which is antithetical to Christ’s sacrifice which is once for all. Also, these sacrifices are like the Old Testament sacrifices not only in their constant repetition but also in their inability to take away sins. Only the sacrifice of Jesus has the power to forgive sins truly, which the great multiplications of the Old Testament sacrifices never had the power to do. The Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist is alleged to be like the Old Testament sacrifices in all these ways.
The subtext is that when Catholics participate in the Eucharist they are selling themselves back into the slavery of the law and are professing belief in works-salvation.
First, the defense. A careful attention to the Scriptures as well as Catholic doctrine will vindicate the Catholic position. It does not fall into any of the condemnations which the Epistle to the Hebrews levels against Old Testament sacrifices.
This is the teaching of the Catholic Church as represented in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1364 In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present.183 “As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.”184
1365 Because it is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution: “This is my body which is given for you” and “This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood.”185 In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”186
1366 The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:
[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.187
1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.”188
The Catholic doctrine avoids these criticisms because it professes one sacrifice, not many, which is re-presented many times. Hebrews 9:25-26 is not applicable to the Catholic doctrine because the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ re-presented in an unbloody mode. The Epistle to the Hebrews says that Jesus “would have had to suffer repeatedly.” But in the Catholic doctrine Jesus does not have to suffer repeatedly. This explains the insistence of the Council of Trent that “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross.” Jesus never suffers again when the Mass re-presents His sacrifice to the Father in the Eucharist.
This immediately turns around the other objections. If the sacrifice of the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Calvary, then we are not professing that a sacrifice other than the one sacrifice Jesus made is forgiving sins. For this reason the Catechism and Trent both proclaim that the Eucharist truly forgives sins without falling into the error of saying that we find forgiveness apart from the one sacrifice of Jesus. The multiplicity of the Eucharistic sacrifices is a trivial objection which has no teeth– if it is the application and re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Calvary, then anyone who opposed it for this reason would have a handful of other problems. For instance, he might need also to oppose the doctrine of justification. For there is a multiplicity of applications of the one sacrifice of Christ which is at least equal to the number of justified believers.
What is most interesting about this defense is that it opens on a reversal. Let us recall the original objection. Why would Jesus, who came to abolish the rites of the Old Testament, establish another rite which is essentially like the rites of the Old Testament?
But let us take a look at a purely symbolic doctrine on the Eucharist, which denies Real Presence and the Eucharist as sacrifice.
Our most important piece of evidence will be Jesus’ injunction to repeat the Eucharist. He commands the apostles to “do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19).
Let us recall why the Old Testament sacrifices are inadequate. First, they must be repeated constantly. Second, they have no real power to forgive sins.
The plain evidence of Scripture is that the Eucharist must be repeatedly constantly. The symbolic view of the Eucharist must add, in addition to this, that the Eucharist has no power to forgive sins. Because the Eucharist is not the sacrifice of Christ, it cannot have the power to forgive sins. And so these two things have come together: the Eucharist both must be repeated and it has no power to forgive sins.
In many ways, it is exactly like the Old Testament sacrifices which Protestant polemics try to allege that the Catholic doctrine is like. To abandon the practice of the Eucharist would be to directly contravene the command of God– and as Jesus noted, only those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt 7:21). But this means that on the purely symbolic view of the Eucharist, some Protestants are by self-admission chained to an empty work for their salvation. They are chained to an empty work, which cannot cleanse the conscience, and yet must be endlessly repeated.
So perhaps the next time someone tells you that the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist is unworthy of Christianity because it makes Christians participate in an Old Testament rite, do some apologetics jujitsu. Throw their objection back on them. Look them straight in the eye and ask, “Why are you adding to the finished work of Christ with your man-made tradition?” (Note: I do not recommend actually saying this.)