Eucharist and Sacrifice – an Excerpt from Ancient Christian Worship

The following is an excerpt from Ancient Christian Worship, by Andrew McGowan.

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Cover ArtThe Eucharist was proudly depicted by its Christian participants as a peaceable act, morally and religiously superior to the violent rituals of their pagan neighbors; and yet it was increasingly for them also a sacrifice par excellence, a sharing in flesh and blood not merely animal but human, or even divine. Christians could reject sacrificial imagery and ideas in relation to gentile religion and idolatry but still see their meal as fulfillment of the offerings once made at the Jerusalem temple.

We have seen that these dilemmas or creative tensions had already been present for Paul and the Corinthian Christians. As time went on, this tension grew into an ironic equilibrium of symbols; so by the mid-third century, Cyprian could speak without hesitation of the Eucharist—by then a separate morning celebration, intended for the whole church—as a literal “sacrifice.”

Despite the obvious contrasts, the Eucharist and its ministers were for him direct successors of the cultus and priesthood of the Jerusalem temple, and also superior equivalents to the demonic gentile sacrifices still being offered in their own city (see Letter 63). This was an especially bold attitude at a time of serious persecution, given that willingness to offer Roman sacrifice was often the means by which Christians were tested; the Eucharist was now a clear competitor to the rites that members of Cyprian’s community might suffer for rejecting.

For Cyprian the bishop was thus literally a priest (Latin sacerdos), a “sacrificer,” as the normal presider of the Eucharist; but associated elders could be delegated this role, and with the growth of the church they would in fact become the normal “priests”; so the English word “priest,” while derived from the earlier and noncultic Christian term for an elder—presbyteros— has acquired a meaning that includes cultic functionaries across religious traditions.

©2014 by Andrew B. McGowan. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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