Sacrifice by Robert Daly, SJ

This is the article which we promised here in which Robert Daly explains his understanding of the eucharistic sacrifice and relates it to the writings of Pope Benedict XVI. – Ed.

“Sacrifice” has such a rich array of meanings that it is almost impossible to use it without ambiguity, or even serious misunderstanding. Some suggest that we not use the word. But it’s not going to go away. It is too embedded in ordinary speech, too embedded in the way Roman Catholics think, speak, and argue about the “Sacrifice of the Mass.” In ordinary, secular speech and conversation, this plurality of meanings may not be a problem. We know what a football player means when he talks about sacrificing weight for speed, or vice versa. More problematic, perhaps, is when a politician talks about sacrificing this or that in order to balance the budget. Even more problematic, for example, is talk about offering the “supreme sacrifice” in defense of one’s country when one is not in agreement with the purpose or necessity of a given war. Part of the problem is that most uses of the word and concept, including—in some cases very unfortunately—religious uses, involve a “calculation.” What are you “giving up”? What are you getting in return? We don’t easily agree on the value of what has to be given up in relation to the value of what we hope to get in return.

The whole point of this post is to point out that these general, widespread ideas about “sacrifice” which also creep into most religious uses of the word, make it difficult for Christians to understand what true Christian sacrifice really (and ultimately) is. Let’s begin with a key question with which we begin to grope toward the heart of the matter. But just as soon as we try to answer this question, we run right up against the impenetrable complexity/simplicity of Divine Mystery. The question is: “What is it that the early Christians, and Christians right up to our own day, have been groping to express when they/we speak of the Christ-event in sacrificial terms? In that question we are asking: What is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit doing? We are asking: What are we, members of the Body of Christ—we who “share in the divinity of Christ” as the priest prays at the Offertory of the Mass—what are we doing as the Christ-event takes place in and among us? (And is that “doing” something that takes place only at Mass, or does it extend to and include all the rest of our lives? Why do we call all this “sacrifice”?

Now if Christian sacrifice really is trinitarian in this sense, then, as in those ominous words so many heard before the death of some astronauts: “Houston: we have a problem.” For the general, secular meaning of sacrifice, the meaning generally so involved with self-serving calculation, that meaning is so pervasive, even in religious discourse, that it overwhelms and effectively veils from us the true, trinitarian, meaning of sacrifice. Can we pull back that veil, even a little bit?

Outrageous as may seem our claim to be saying something here that earlier ages could not, or at least did not, explicitly say, it is, when you think of it, quite humbling. We are humbly aware that what we now “understand,” and at times hold so confidently, may, in the future—and maybe even very soon in the give-and-take of theological conversation—be superseded by deeper, more authentic ways of Christian understanding. It is in that humbling awareness that we now try unveil the true understanding of Christian sacrifice, an understanding that Christians—at least instinctively, i.e., in the Holy Spirit—have always known and always tried to live out in their lives. But it is an understanding that theology has only recently begun to spell out.

Authentic Christian sacrifice “begins,” in a kind of first “moment,” with the loving, self-offering of God the Father in the sending of the Son. As the early Christians gradually came to realize, there is no division/opposition but total unity in the relationship of the Father and the Son. They are one, as any attentive reader of John’s gospel knows. The Father is neither doing something to the Son nor demanding obedience from the Son in the ways that we humans understand obedience. To illustrate: when feminists reject Christian sacrifice because of the way some have used sacrifice as a means of keeping women in positions of subservience, it is not Christian sacrifice that they are rejecting, but a patriarchal aberration of Christian sacrifice.

The second “moment” in Christian sacrifice is the loving, “obedient” self-giving “response” of the Son in his humanity and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Father and for us. Notice the scare-quotes around “begins” and “moment” and “obedient” and “response.” Words that attempt, like these, to touch upon the mystery of God, such words will both veil as well as unveil. Although God is the originator of space and time, and (most especially in the Incarnation) the One who “breaks into” space and time, there are, in any normal, space-time sense, no “moments” in the life and being of God. So too with the ideas suggested by “obedient” and “obedience,” as I noted in the previous paragraph. So too with “response,” a word that suggests a kind of over-against otherness that is not to be found in the mystery of the Trinity.

The third “moment,” and only here does Christian sacrifice begin to become real in our lives, is when we, in the power of the same Spirit that was in Jesus (no scare-quotes here; this is not metaphorical language), begin to respond to the love of God by incarnating that love in human acts and lives of self-giving love and service. Notice the words “begin to become” and “begin to respond.” This picks up on the word “ultimately” italicized above at the beginning of our second paragraph. For if Christian sacrifice in us, in our human world, is our trinitarian participation in the sacrifice of Christ, this is indeed something real, indeed something very, very real, but only in a beginning way. It will become ultimately real, i.e., complete, only when we, in our paschal-mystery participation in the trinitarian Christ-event, have, through Christ, passed over, through death, into eternal life.

Having now, in these few words, pointed toward the mystery of Christian sacrifice, and having been encouraged by many fellow theologians to think that, however imperfect, there is something correct about this “understanding” of it, all the rest is in the details. For the love of God is in the details, in the dotting of the “i”s and in the crossing of the “t”s as we test the validity and explore the implications of this “understanding.”

The first “detail” is really no detail at all but the central Christian mystery, the celebration of the Eucharist, the mystery that Christians, especially in the Catholic tradition, call the Sacrifice of the Mass. “Sacrifice of the Mass” is a controversial term, first of all in the 16th-century Protestant Catholic debate in which both sides mistakenly assumed that the essential “form” of sacrifice involved the destruction of a victim. That debate, at least qua debate, was easily won by the Protestants. All they had to do was note that, in his sacrifice, which Catholics insist is present in the Mass, Christ is both the priest and the victim. The Catholics were left standing on their heads trying to explain how, since Christ, the victim, is now in glory and beyond all suffering, the celebration of the Mass could be, as defined in Trent, a “true and proper sacrifice.” Happily, this is no longer something about which informed Protestant and Catholic theologians need to argue. One representative Protestant theologian, on becoming aware of the trinitarian understanding of sacrifice expounded here, was heard to exclaim: “If we had only known this four hundred years ago we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble.”

Unhappily, however, debate about the sacrifice of the Mass has now shifted to within Catholicism itself. In necessarily oversimplified terms, the rediscovery of the early forms of the Eucharist as meal events seems, in the minds of many proponents of post Vatican II liturgical reform, to have been identified as the essential “form” of the Mass and the logical base on which various elements of that reform have been built. On the other hand, many, including apparently Pope Benedict XVI, who are upset with this reform of the liturgy, or at least with some of its “excesses” and “abuses,” want to see the essential “form” of the Mass not in its being a meal but in its being a sacrifice.

To be blunt, as a brief post must be, both of these approaches, if they try to be exclusive approaches, are wrong. In the tradition that we Catholics accept as authentically our own, however difficult to explain and however much or for whatever reasons we may wish to emphasize one aspect over the other, we cannot, whether logically, theologically, or historically, deny that the Eucharist, the Mass, this central Mystery, is both meal and sacrifice. Historically, it was first a meal, growing out of the religious meal-gatherings with which the first Christians “remembered” their risen Lord. Gradually, as the Body of Christ, over several centuries, gave us the “shape” of the Eucharist as we now know it, the meal aspect receded somewhat and was replaced by the sacrifice aspect. But even when the sacrifice aspect was at its height in the Middle Ages, the meal aspect was not forgotten, as witnessed by widespread eucharistic mysticism and the Corpus Christi hymn O sacrum convivium. In their reaction, the emphasis the Reformers put on the meal aspect, the “Lord’s Supper” was not something new but, among other things of course, a recovery of, a re-emphasis on an essential aspect of the eucharistic mystery that had become somewhat neglected in the Catholic tradition. Theologically, as I have indicated, this is happily no longer a point of division between Catholics and mainstream Protestants.

But in addition to all this, let me suggest that attempts to identify the essential “form” of the Eucharist, and to argue narrowly from that to what correct ritual celebration and correct liturgical reform should or should not be, is simply mistaken. Such an approach smacks too much of those earlier, “classical,” but now largely rejected history-of-religions attempts to identify the “essential form” of sacrifice, and to draw conclusions from that. But even more to the point, such an approach assumes that we can somehow “capture,” or at least significantly identify the essential elements of the ultimately unapproachable Mystery of God’s trinitarian love for us, and, wonder of wonders, God’s invitation to us to enter into that Mystery.

Something similar might be said about seeing the Eucharistic Prayer as the essential form of the Eucharist. Careful analysis of the classical Eucharistic Prayers that come to us from patristic antiquity does unveil much of the trinitarian understanding of sacrifice we have been talking about. But some Eucharistic Prayers, or some aspects of them, veil rather than unveil the Mystery. Unfortunately, and this I admit is a point of great contention, the Tridentine Roman Canon is one of those that strongly veils this Mystery. Celebrating regularly in this rite can condition a priest (as I well know from personal experience) to think that he, rather than Christ/Holy Spirit, is the primary agent of what is taking place (we used to speak of the priest “confecting” the Eucharist), and can veil from the priest the fact that it is not he but the whole celebrating assembly that is the primary ritual agent.

A final question: what really, ultimately (see my comment on this word above in the second and seventh paragraphs) is taking place? In a word: transformation. Through the transformation of the Eucharistic gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ—that takes place through the medium of and in the course of the Eucharistic Prayer and the reception of Communion, the members of the participating assembly are being transformed more completely into the ecclesial Body of Christ and ultimately (that word again) into the full Communion of Saints. Without that ultimate transformation at least beginning to take place, some would say that we have Eucharist in name only, but not in reality.

Robert J. Daly, S.J.
Boston College


  1. I didn’t want to detract from this powerful post by putting in lots of editorial comment before it, so I will put just one thought down here. As I wrote to Bob, “Now this is real theology – the kind that draws me into the mystery of God and makes me want to be more Godlike.” Thanks, Bob!

  2. Thank you as well for this excellent article. Just a couple of questions, you write, ” Catholics were left standing on their heads trying to explain how, since Christ, the victim, is now in glory and beyond all suffering, the celebration of the Mass could be, as defined in Trent, a “true and proper sacrifice.” But is he beyond all suffering–since eternity is timeless and in the here and now the Church, Christ’s Body with Him as our Head does suffer? He is unaffected by that?
    As far as the EF canon, wouldn’t the priest be more aware of him acting in “persona Christi” rather than doing it himself, but also in union with Christ’s Body behind him and also of which he is a member? In the OF the priest can think he is the star of it.

  3. As someone with no theological training (but considerable Scriptural training) I have to admit to being baffled as to the underpinnings of the argument here. I would understand far better if he began his discussion of what sacrifice (thusia/sacrificium) meant in the past, why the term was chosen by early Christian writers to express their idea and then why the term is not completely adequate. Instead, one is left wondering why the early Christian writers chose the terminology that they did if the correct concept bares scant resemblance to the “gropings” in early Christian writings. The methodological difficulty is not simply “outrageous”, it is indeed fatal to the piece. One is left without any solid footing from which to proceed.

  4. One final observation about the “suffering Victim.” If Holy Mass transports us outside of time to the eternal banquet of the passion, death and resurrection (and giving of the Holy Spirit) of XT, cannot we say that at a particular Mass, all are present at the foot of the Cross (an unbloody way) and also at all subsequent salvation events? Is it not true that salvation is an “already and not yet” proposition for us? Also the destruction of the Victim by reception of Such as Food and Drink for salvation is essential for the priest and by extension the laity in both forms of the Mass, what is called the “Eucharistic Banquet”, the salvation event that is completed in eternity, but not quite yet on this side of the Second Coming of XT?

  5. There are limits to the meal vs. sacrifice debate, namely, that they often obscure or ignore the eschatological dimension: the Divine Liturgy is not merely a representation of the Last Supper or Calvary, but implicates the entire Paschal Mystery, the Incarnation, the Pentecost and is also a foretaste of the wedding banquet of the Lamb when we have all moved into the fullness of the new Creation. Verbal badminton between meal and sacrifice does not do justice to this.

    1. Very good point Karl, in fact we have much more to learn in the Latin Rite from the Orthodox Churches and less so from the Reformation Churches that diminished or did away with the Sacrament of Holy Orders and thus a fuller understanding of the Mass as Sacrament and sacrifice. Meal also connotes in my Italian mind, pasta and Chianti in a gregarious setting. The Mass as banquet has an entirely different “sacramental” feel in terms of meal, more sober and somber–and symbolic at that, not literalistic or of Protestant fundamentalism in terms of “recreating” the Last Supper.

  6. OK, I’ll confess to picking nits right up front, but I cannot let the historical mistake pass unremarked. The sentence “Houston, we have a problem” did most emphatically NOT precede the death of any astronauts. The words were spoken by Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, which mission ended with the safe return of all aboard. Missing the Moon landing was disappointing, but trivial in light of the ultimate result. The first in-flight deaths of US space travelers did not occur until more than 10 years later, in 1986, the Challenger accident.

  7. I am also mystified as to the author’s contention that the Roman Canon can give the impression that it is the priest who is the primary agent of the ritual action instead of the ‘entire assembly’. First and foremost, it is not true that the congregation is the primary agent, it is God; it is He and only He who ‘confects the Eucharist’. Anyway, all the prayers of the Canon are directed towards God and asks Him to bless and accept the gifts; I fail to see how it can ever give a priest the impression that he it is he who transforms.

    And why ‘Tridentine’? There is nothing ‘Tridentine’ about it. It is probably the oldest known anaphora in Christendom still in use. It was composed before the city of Trentino was a hamlet.

  8. I really enjoyed this article; the emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between Father and Son and between Christ and his Church, enabling Christians’ participation in that trinitarian sacrifice, is very helpful and I think could be broadly useful to eucharistic theology.

    I did want to mention one thought, which has interested me. The word sacrifice, though it used to have a “calculating” connotation for me (“most uses of the word and concept, including—in some cases very unfortunately—religious uses, involve a ‘calculation'”) no longer does, because the primary context in which I hear this word nowadays in on a parent’s sacrifice for his or her child. And I cannot associate calculation with that sacrifice.

  9. Has anyone in this discussion looked at the superb address that Cardinal Ratzinger gave during the Journees liturgiques de Fontgombault, 22-24 July 2001? His talk was called “The Theology of the Liturgy” and is available here:

    The first part of the talk is “Sacrifice called into question,” and by a beautiful use of Augustine’s doctrine in the City of God, Ratzinger comes around to defining sacrifice in a way that bridges the sometimes alarming gap that seems to separate partisans of Trent from partisans of Vatican II. It seems to me responsible theology must refrain from setting the Magisterium against itself. So I strongly recommend this talk by the former Cardinal.

  10. “Authentic Christian sacrifice ‘begins’ with the loving, self-offering of the Father in the sending of the Son…. The second ‘moment’ is the loving, ‘obedient’ self-giving ‘response’ of the Son in his humanity to the Father and for us.”

    I’ve come to understand Christ’s sacrifice in the flesh as the necessary temporal manifestation of His eternal self-offering to the Father, even prior to the Incarnation. His eternal offering is not “destructive” the way that His temporal offering on the cross was, but I see them as the same offering, much in the same way that the Church says the Eucharist is the same sacrifice, “the manner alone being different”.

    From that perspective, Christian “sacrifice” begins in eternity, not…

  11. (Completing the sentence in my last post)

    From that perspective, Christian “sacrifice” begins in eternity, not only at the Incarnation.

    (Was the suspense keeping you at the edge of your seat?)

  12. Two essays on the theme of sacrifice in Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s theology appear in Antiphon: A Journal of Liturgical Renewal, vol. 13, no. 1 (2009); see the articles by R. Bulzacchelli and R. Malone. The authors situate the essential meaning of sacrifice within the divinely initiated process of human transformation in Christ.

  13. I first met Fr. Daly when he was studying SS in Germany. He had Mass on occasion at the USAF Rhein-Main AB across from the Frankfurt Int’l. airport. He gave talks on his soon to be published ‘The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice.’ To his students and fellow SS scholars he is held in high esteem. I was an aircraft mechanic. I’m now a Benedictine pastor who’s forte is Scripture.

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