The Church Fathers Explain the Mass
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
By Fr. Hugh Barbour, O.Praem.
The Church Fathers explain the biblical basis of this historic Christian teaching.
Some argue against the Catholic teaching that the Mass is a sacrifice. The early Church Fathers tell us that it is. In Genesis 14:18 Melchisedek the High Priest and King of Salem offers a sacrifice of bread and wine. In Hebrews 7 Christ is priest after the order of Melchisedek in fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 110:4: “Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedek.”
Did Christ then offer up bread and wine like Melchisedek, who prefigured His eternal priesthood?
Answer: At the Last Supper in the Gospels Christ the High Priest commands His Apostles to do as He did with the bread and wine in commemoration of Him.
Were the Apostles then meant to share in that one priesthood of Christ as His instruments offering His Body and Blood under the appearances of a sacrifice of bread and wine?
Answer: Yes. We read that the Apostles offered the Eucharist in Jerusalem and Troas (Acts 2 and 20), and in Corinth the sacrifice of Christians is contrasted with the sacrifices of the Temple and to the sacrifice of the pagans (1 Cor. 10-11). In Malachy 1:11 the last of the Old Testament prophets declares: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation” (Mal. 1:11).
Has this prophecy of Malachy come true? Is there everywhere in the world offered a sacrifice which is, according to the Hebrew word he uses (minhah) an unbloody or grain offering?
Answer: Just go to Holy Mass in any Catholic Church and you’ll find the answer is “yes.” You’ll see the fulfillment of that biblical prophecy: “so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name.” What is true of the Mass today has been true since the beginning of Christianity.
Let’s see what the early Fathers of the Church taught about the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the offering up under the appearances of bread and wine of the Body and Blood of Christ, which were offered for our salvation on the cross at Calvary. These quotations are drawn from Eastern and Western Church Fathers and span the first six centuries of Christianity. They attest to the universal teaching in the early Church that the Eucharistic Liturgy is a sacrifice.
This passage contains a direct reference to the fulfillment of Malachy’s prophecy being the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (cf. Malachy 1:11, 14). The Didache is one of the most ancient and authoritative Christian writings, reflecting the teachings and liturgical practices of the first-century Church.
“On the Lord’s own day assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure . . . your sacrifice must not be defiled. For here we have a saying of the Lord: ‘In every place and time offer Me a pure sacrifice’ (Greek: thysia) . . . for I am a mighty king says the Lord and My name spreads terror among the nations'” (A.D. 98).
St. Ignatius of Antioch
Writing just after the end of the first century, only a few years after the death of St. John the Apostle, St. Ignatius gives us a short but powerful indication of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. He refers to those who absent themselves from the Eucharist celebrated by the bishop and his priests. The Greek word he uses for the “altar” used in Christian worship is thysiasterion, which means “place where sacrifices are offered.” “Let no one deceive himself,” St. Ignatius warns, “whoever keeps away from the altar (thysiasterion) deprives himself of the divine bread” (Letter to the Ephesians 5:2; A.D. 110).
This work, only discovered in 1895, was originally composed in Greek but exists today only in Coptic, Ethiopian, and Latin translations. The Ethiopian version is the most complete and contains a beautiful dialogue between Christ and His Apostles after the Resurrection about the offering of the Christian paschal sacrifice. This passage, translated especially for Envoy magazine, is not found in any English language collections of the Fathers. It’s as though the objections of Protestants against the sacrifice of the Mass where already being anticipated and answered back then:
“The Lord said, ‘You will celebrate the memorial of My death, that is, the Passover Sacrifice . . . at the cock’s crow, at dawn, you will perform My feast of love and My memorial’ . . . . The Apostles said, ‘Lord, haven’t You drunk to the full of the Passover Sacrifice? Is it then necessary that we do it again?’ Jesus responded, ‘Yes, it is necessary, until I come again from the Father'” (Epistola Apostolorum 13; A.D. 140).
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
This great Church Father was a disciple of St. Polycarp and, as such, was the “spiritual grandson” of St. John the Apostle, since St. Polycarp knew the Apostle. This means that the teachings St. Irenaeus received from his mentor came directly from the Apostles. This fact is important to keep in mind, since it demonstrates that the purity of apostolic teaching was handed on intact to each subsequent generation of Christians. The teaching on the Eucharist and the Mass as a Sacrifice that St. Irenaeus speaks of in this passage he received from the Apostles, through St. Polycarp.
“He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks and said, ‘This is My Body.’ And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His Blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant, which the Church, receiving from the Apostles, offers to God throughout the world . . . concerning which Malachy, among the twelve prophets, thus spoke beforehand: ‘From the rising of the sun to the going down, My name is glorified among the gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name and a pure sacrifice . . . ‘ indicating in the plainest manner that in every place sacrifice shall be offered to Him, and at that a pure one” (Against Heresies 4,17,5; A.D. 170).
St. Hippolytus of Rome
St. Hippolytus composed a beautiful Eucharistic prayer at the beginning of the third century. The second Eucharistic prayer of the Missal of Pope Paul VI, which we use now, is based on it. In a commentary on Daniel 4:35 St. Hippolytus refers to the outlawing of the Church’s sacrifice by the Antichrist at the end of time. Like many other Fathers who teach on the Sacrifice of the Mass, he too uses the language of the prophecy of Malachy.
“For when the gospel is preached in every place, the times being then accomplished . . . the abomination of desolation will be manifested, and when he (the Antichrist) comes, the sacrifice and oblation will be removed, which are now offered up to God in every place by the gentiles” (Commentary on Daniel 22; A.D. 220).
St. Cyprian of Carthage
Later in the same century, this martyr bishop of Carthage, in the midst of the ferocious persecution of Christians by the Romans, clearly explains the Lord’s Eucharistic Sacrifice as being “according to the order of Melchisedek.”
“In the priest Melchisedek we see prefigured the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord, according to what Divine Scripture testifies, and says, ‘And Melchisedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine.’ Now he was a priest of the most High God, and blessed Abraham. And that Melchisedek was a type of Christ, the Holy Spirit declares in the Psalms, saying from the person of the Father to the Son: ‘Before the morning star I have begotten Thee; Thou art a priest forever, after the order of Melchisedek.’ This order is assuredly the one coming from that sacrifice: that Melchisedek was a priest of the Most High God; that he offered wine and bread; that he blessed Abraham. For who is more a priest of the most high God than Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who offered a sacrifice to God the Father, and offered the very same thing which Melchisedek had offered, that is, bread and wine, to wit, His Body and Blood? . . . For if Jesus Christ Our Lord and God is Himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded that this be done in commemoration of Himself, certainly the priest truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates what Christ did; and he offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered” (Letter 62: 4,14; A.D. 253).
St. Serapion of Thmuis
This great bishop of Lower Egypt (that means Northern Egypt Ñ the Nile is lower near the sea) was a good friend of St. Athanasius, the defender of the Divinity of Christ against the Arian heretics. He offers us the earliest text we have of a Eucharistic prayer which was actually used in the Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist.
“Heaven is full, and the earth as well is full of your magnificent glory, O Lord of Hosts. Fill too this sacrifice with Your power and communion, for we offer You this living sacrifice and unbloody offering . . . Thus we offer bread, celebrating the likeness of His death and we implore You, O God of Truth, to reconcile us to all and have mercy on us through this sacrifice . . . and we offer wine using the likeness of blood. May Your holy Word come upon this bread, O God of Truth, that it might become the Body of the Word, and upon this chalice that it might become the Blood of the Truth” (The Anaphora of Serapion 4; A.D. 339 [original translation]).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
The newly baptized converts of the Church in Jerusalem were treated to the classiest instruction on the sacraments ever given, the amazingly beautiful lectures of their bishop, St. Cyril. He describes the Holy Eucharist as an “awe-inspiring” sacrifice. Here he explains the liturgy after the consecration:
“Next, when the spiritual sacrifice, the bloodless worship has been completed, over that sacrifice of propitiation we beseech God for the public peace of the Churches . . . for all, in a word, who need help, we all pray and offer this sacrifice. Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep . . . for all those who have gone before us, believing that this [Eucharistic sacrifice] will be the greatest benefit to the souls of those on whose behalf our supplication is offered in the presence of the holy, of the most dread sacrifice” (Catechetical Lectures 5, 8-9; A.D. 350).
St. Ephraem the Syrian
This is my favorite patristic text on the sacrifice of the Mass. You won’t find it anywhere published in an English translation Ñ except for here. St. Ephraem so closely identifies the action of Christ in the Eucharist with His sacrifice on the cross that he counts the three days of Christ’s death and burial as beginning with His mystical, sacramental ‘slaying’ at the Last Supper:
“From the moment when He broke His Body for His disciples, and gave it to them, one begins to count the three days during which He was among the dead. Adam practically, after eating of the fruit of the tree, lived a long time, even though he was counted among the dead for having disobeyed the commandment of God. God had spoken to him thus ‘The day when you eat of it, you will die.’ Thus it was for Our Lord. It was because He had given them His Body to eat in view of the mystery of His death that He entered into their bodies as He entered later on into the earth” (Commentary on the Diatessaron 19, 4 [translated from the Armenian version]; A.D. 363).
The Liturgy of St. Maruthas
This liturgy of Syrian origin is attributed to St. Maruthas, the great Syrian missionary bishop in Persia and ally of St. John Chrysostom. St. Maruthas, known for his corpulence (there have been some fat saints!), was martyred around A.D. 412. He expands on the words of institution and consecration in the Mass to identity the Eucharistic Sacrifice with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. (This text is not found in any English selections, so I have translated the passage.)
“On that last night on which He was about to save His creatures, observe and fulfill the law, and begin His New Covenant, while teaching those saved by Him the true doctrine, He took the bread into His pure hands, and giving thanks to His Father, He blessed, sanctified, broke, and divided it among His disciples and said: ‘Take eat, believe, and be certain, and so teach and preach that This is My Body which is broken for the salvation of the world, and to those who eat it and believe in Me it gives the expiation of sins and eternal life’ Truly Lord we have done wickedly, evilly, and foolishly, and we have provoked Your wrath, nor have we kept even one of Your commandments. May you, O Good Lord, excuse us and be merciful for our crimes for the sake of the Sacrifice placed before You this day. Indeed it is You who have told us, ‘Whosoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood, and believes in Me, abides in Me and I in him, and I will raise him up on the last day May He (the Holy Spirit) change this simple bread and make it the very Body which was immolated for us on the cross for the remission of sins and the eternal life of those receiving it.” (Liturgy of St. Maruthas of Maiferkat; circa A.D. 390).
St. Ambrose of Milan
The Roman Canon, or “First Eucharistic Pray-er” of the Latin Church, is cited by St. Ambrose in his instructions on the sacraments given to the newly baptized during the week of Easter:
“And the priest says, ‘Therefore, mindful of His most glorious passion and resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, we offer You this immaculate victim, a reasonable sacrifice, an unbloody victim, this holy bread, and the chalice of eternal life. And we ask You and pray that You accept this offering just as You deigned to accept the sacrifice the high priest Melchisedek offered You.’ So as often as you receive, what does the Apostle say to you? As often as we receive, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If death [then], we proclaim the remission of sins. If as often as blood is shed, it is shed for the remission of sins, I ought always to accept Him, that He may always dismiss my sins. I, who always sin, should always have a remedy” (On the Sacraments 4,6; A.D. 392 [original translation]).
In his Commentary on the Psalms, not yet available in English, St. Ambrose speaks clearly of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered on Christian altars:
“We priests follow [Christ’s cross] as we are able, so that we might offer sacrifice for the people, since, even though Christ is not seen to offer, nevertheless He is offered on earth when the Body of Christ is offered. Or rather, He is shown to offer in us, by whose word is consecrated the sacrifice which is offered” (Commentary on Psalm 38, 25; circa A.D. 395 [original translation]).
St. Augustine of Hippo
There are so many texts of St. Augustine in which he speaks of the Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass, that it’s hard to choose which ones to quote! Here are two representative examples of his teaching on this subject.
“Was not Christ immolated once in Himself, and nevertheless under the sacrament He is immolated for the people not only on every Paschal Feast Day, but even every day, and is it not also the case that he does not err at all who, when asked, responds that He is so immolated?” (Letter 98, 9; A.D. 410 [original tanslation]).
“Recognize in this bread what hung on the cross, and in this chalice what flowed from His side whatever was in many and varied ways announced beforehand in the sacrifices of the Old Testament pertains to this one sacrifice which is revealed in the New Testament.” (Sermon 3, 2; circa A.D. 410 [original translation]).
(Source: Envoy Magazine)