Mass as Sacrifice? A Voice from the 5th Century

by Markus Tymister

Theodoret of Cyrus (d. c. 460) was a monk in the environs of Apamea (Syria) and, from 423, bishop of Cyrus in present day north Syria. He was condemned at the so-called Robber Synod of 449, but then rehabilitated in 451. According to current scholarship, he is held to be of orthodox belief. In the eastern church he is venerated as a saint.

Among his works there is also a commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews.

In Hebrews 8:1-5 it states:

The main point of what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle that the Lord, not man, set up. Now every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus the necessity for this one also to have something to offer. If then he were on earth, he would not be a priest, since there are those who offer gifts according to the law. They worship in a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, as Moses was warned when he was about to erect the tabernacle. For he says, “See that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (NAB)

Theodoret comments on this:mystical-eucharist

Εἰ τοίνυν καὶ ἡ κατὰ νόμον ἱερωσύνη τὸ τέλος ἐδέξατο, καὶ ὁ κατὰ τάξιν Μελχισεδὲκ ἀρχιερεὺς τὴν θυσίαν προσήνεγκε, καὶ θυσίας ἑτέρας ἀνενδεεῖς καθέστηκε, τί δήποτε τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης οἱ ἱερεῖς τὴν μυστικὴν λειτουργίαν ἐπιτελοῦσιν; Ἀλλὰ δῆλον τοῖς τὰ θεῖα πεπαιδευμένοις, ὡς οὐκ ἄλλην τινὰ θυσίαν προσφέρομεν, ἀλλὰ τῆς μιᾶς ἐκείνης καὶ σωτηρίου τὴν μνήμην ἐπιτελοῦμεν. Τοῦτο γὰρ ἡμῖν αὐτὸς ὁ Δεσπότης προσέταξε· Τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν, ἵνα τῇ θεωρίᾳ τῶν τύπων, τῶν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν γεγενημένων ἀναμιμνησκώμεθα παθημάτων, καὶ τὴν περὶ τὸν εὐεργέτην ἀγάπην πυρσεύσωμεν.

(Theodoretus ep. Cyrensis, Interpretatio epist. ad Hebr. 8, ed. J. P. Migne (PG 82), 736B. Critically examined and reworked by S. Parenti.)

“Thus when the priesthood according to the law (of the Old Covenant) has attained to an end, and the high priest according to the order of Melchisedech [ = Christ] has brought the sacrifice and determined that no further sacrifices are necessary, then why do priests of the New Covenant celebrate the mystical liturgy?

It is clear to those who are educated in divine things that we do not offer another sacrifice, but rather, carry out the memorial of the only and salvation-bringing sacrifice. For indeed the Lord himself has commanded us: “Do this in memory of me,” so that we, in beholding the ‘image’ (τῶν τύπων), carry out the memorial of the passion undergone for us and are radiant with love for our benefactor.”

*          *          *

Thus the celebration of Mass is not a new sacrifice, but rather an act of memorial of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. We do not offer something new, nor do we sacrifice Christ again, but rather in remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ the action of the church is taken into the action of Christ. What remains for Christians of the new covenant, therefore, is praise of God and thanksgiving for what Christ has done for us. In the celebration of the eucharist this finds its expression above all in the great prayer of praise and thanksgiving, the eucharistic prayer, in which we, mindful of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, praise God and thank him for his saving deeds. In this sense, the Mass is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (sacrificium laudis).

(Hearty thanks to my Sant’ Anselmo colleague Stefano Parenti, who is planning a more comprehensive publication on the topic, for the reference to Theodoret.)

Translated and reprinted with permission from the blog Populo Congregato. Original: Die Hl. Messe als Opfer? Eine Stimme aus dem 5. Jahrhundert.” Fr. Markus Tymister is faculty member at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.


  1. Does this idea mean that transubstantiation does not occur? Or can that occur at either a memorial or a sacrifice?

    1. @Chip Stalter:
      Memorial and sacrifice are not mutually exclusive – the Mass is both, as the venerable and ancient Latin texts of the missal make clear.

      Real Presence is a separate issue and is not mentioned in this post. Nobody I know is doubting the Real Presence, in this or any other post on this blog.


  2. Right. Thus the Anamnesis in the Roman Rite:

    “Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord…”

    Both / And, yes?

  3. Certainly, there was only the one sacrifice, valid for all time, and we are remembering/memorialising it. But is it not present through all time? God reaches from beyond time through our memorial. (This could probably be expressed better) I was struck again today by “He took THIS precious chalice …”

  4. Indeed, we are present at Calvary through the Mass.

    My understanding is that not only our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is offered at the Mass, however, but also our very selves and our intentions united to Christ on the Cross. Am I mistaken or requiring nuance or clarification?

  5. Yes to all, we’re all on the same page here.

    But with the proviso that we are dealing with mysteries that exceed human comprehension, and hence all human formulations fall short. This is why church thinkers have used various images and definitions across the centuries, often enough with nuances (around such terms as “symbol,” “memory,” “type,” “figure,” “sign,” “sacrament,” etc.) that are easily misunderstood by others. A good bit of humility is always called for on all sides (including from me!).


  6. I would have thought “participation in”, rather than “memorial of”, the one and only sacrifice of Christ would be a more insightful expression of this mystery.

    There is also a point about development of doctrine here. Just because an orthodox Church Father or ecclesiastical writer said something, that does not make their terminology sufficient today after subsequent development has occurred. And it is a flawed theological argument which fails to acknowledge that issue, where it relies on such sources.

    1. @Mariko Ralph:
      “Memorial” is our friend here, if we use it in the strong sense of anamnesis. There is much helpful literature on this in the last half century.

      Regarding going to the sources and holding to later developments – I think personally the best attitude is humility and longing for ecumenical agreement where possible. I believe that the Holy Spirit has been working in all the Christian traditions.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        In what other uses of “memorial” in ordinary English usage would it share the “strong sense” (not being Eucharistically specific, of course)? I can’t think of any offhand. In the USA, even the pitiful residue of ritual around Memorial Day and Veterans Day (and, lately, 9/11, but that’s now moving into out of our immediate past onto the amberizing train given inexorable demographic turnover) include zero sense of becoming again truly and really present to and part of the thing memorialized – instead, it’s a form of distancing. Memorials are consumerized experiences, and of course this sense has crept into our rituals of death.

        I wouldn’t recommend use of the word memorial, precisely because it a common (at least not uncommon) word that simply lacks the “strong sense” in ordinary English usage, and as such cannot be readily commandeered to imply the strong sense, which I think would be an exercise in futility or at least self-delusion.

      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        I think we all, in humility, want ecumenical agreement where possible. But “same words with different meanings” is not a sound basis for any type of agreement (unlike different words with similar meanings, which has shown some ecumenical promise). In the communities where the focus is on memorial, they clearly mean mere memorial as against Real Presence (which explicitly is not your point here), and so I don’t see how this discussion would get those communities more comfortable.

        Usually the friction on this point comes from outright misunderstandings of the Catholic position – Accusations we are crucifying our Lord again and that type of stuff. And I would think discussions of “participation in” the one-time sacrifice are more helpful to dispel those misconceptions.

        On later developments, it is the very fact of the Holy Spirit’s workings which mean we can’t deny developments in preference for earlier less specific ideas.

        We can change language to be more ecumenically helpful of course, but in that case it would be better to devise our language choices directly on what would better communicate now, rather than unnecessarily referencing ancient language. The reference does not actually bolster the orthodoxy of the language choice, and likely also limits our ability to be ecumenically flexible (as per Karl Liam Saur’s remarks).

  7. The text of Theodoret is a very good basis for the ecumenical dialogue on the theme eucharist and sacrifice. – ‘Mass as a sacrifice’ originally does not mean that body and blood of Christ are offered to God anew in each Eucharist. Rather it means that the sacrifice of Jesus gets present; this is the sense of the (biblical!) term „Memoria“. The theory that Christ’s body and blood are offered in the Eucharist traces back to the middle ages, when the words of institution were conceived as the moment of consecration. This must lead to the question: What means the formula „memores … offerimus“?

  8. I’m not sure what is being argued here. The Mass has always been explained to me as a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, specifically in opposition to misunderstandings that it is a new sacrifice. I think the language can sometimes be unclear, but I don’t think that the Church has ever actually held (edit: it being heresy) that the sacrifice is distinct from that of Calvary.

  9. Regarding the nexus of ‘memorial’ and ‘sacrifice’ I recently came across these words in the magazine on my English Anglican parish from 1928 in which the curate wrote of the funeral arrangements of the vicar. Note the capital M in Memorial which I think is to indicate that this word stands for anamnesis rather than ‘mere memorial’.
    There was a
    ‘celebration of the Holy Communion at which we made our special prayers for him, presenting on his behalf our Memorial of the sacrifice of Christ’.
    This would have represented quite an ‘advanced’ position in 1928 and one which, to my mind, represents patristically rooted Anglo-Catholic liturgical theology of the time.

  10. Perhaps a wee bit off topic here, but since there has been much chat about anamnesis, I’ve been reading Fr. Bruce Morrill’s “Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: political and liturgical theology in dialogue.” Some interesting insights into Metz’s and Schmemann’s theologizing on this topic.

  11. “Sacrifice” can have an almost antithetical significance for Christians: the Sacrifice of Christ on the cross; our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We’re getting the better deal here. We might instead say ‘the privilege of praise and thanksgiving’. But then some aspects of what we’re doing would be lost as well.

    Such symbols are a door inviting us in; we may not know what they open up on.

  12. Doesn’t this issue boil down to what Jesus meant by “do this in remembrance of me”? The Church has come to believe that at that last supper, Jesus anticipated his sacrifice on the cross by giving his disciples a perpetual memorial of his saving death. A problem arises in that those disciples could not have comprehended this linkage until after he died and rose again. The disciples at Emmaus did get a glimpse of it when they recognized the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread. The Book of Acts also refers to this breaking of bread as a constituent dimension of the church at Jerusalem. St. Paul expresses it in his writings in talking about our proclaiming the power of his death when we eat this bread and drink this cup. Centuries later when disputes arose about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, the argument regrettably focused not on the real nature of the Mass as a memorial sacrifice but on the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. It is the faith of the church that we have been commanded to “take and eat, take and drink” in memory of what we have come to call the Paschal Mystery. We fulfill this command only by uniting ourselves with the Risen Lord whose true presence suffuses our offering of worship in spirit and truth from beginning to end. That act of uniting–made possible by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit–brings the full meaning of that supper and sacrifice into the present where we can benefit from its saving grace. This understanding might help shift the focus away from institution narrative as “magical moment” to the entire eucharistic prayer that expresses God’s will to make of all who partake of the one bread and one cup into one body, one spirit in Christ. We will not become a church of missionary disciples until we further develop what it means to offer God an acceptable sacrifice for our good and the good of all his holy church.

  13. This is perhaps a prime example of the Church’s both/and. The institution narrative is the moment of transubstantiation, but it is also situated with in the Eucharistic Prayer that “expresses God’s will” for us. The idea is that we cannot offer a worthy sacrifice apart from Christ, as His is the only worthy sacrifice, and so He literally/mystically enters our sacrifice (“magical moment”) in order to join ours to His, which we offer through the (Priest in the) Eucharistic Prayer.

    Basically, this is the kind of stuff which, over time, must be taught to the faithful in the homily and in talks/classes. One Mass is not the only Mass any will celebrate (generally speaking), so while the Mass offers all each time, we gradually come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of what happens at each Mass.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *