The USCCB’s recent document “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” set off a wave of commentary among liturgists here at Pray Tell and elsewhere. The document’s focus on the eucharist as sacrifice brings up once again a perennial debate in eucharistic theology: table vs. altar, meal vs. sacrifice.
For their part, the document’s authors seem very keen to hold the two together—at least, that is what is stated in paragraph 15: “[The eucharist’s] fundamental pattern is found in the Jewish celebration of the Passover, which involves both a meal and a sacrifice”(italics original).
In practice, however, the document places much more emphasis on the sacrificial character of the eucharist than on its meal character. This, coupled with its stress upon the individual’s personal worthiness to receive communion, has struck some readers as misplaced.
Teresa Berger confesses to a feeling of “Eucharistic non-coherence,” especially while reading this text alongside Mary McGann’s recent book, The Meal that Reconnects: Eucharistic Eating and the Global Food Crisis (Liturgical Press, 2020). McGann focuses almost exclusively on the eucharist’s meal character. She has very little to say about the eucharist as sacrifice, which suggests she doesn’t find much applicability in “altar theology” for today.
Meanwhile, Timothy Brunk criticizes the document’s narrow focus on the liturgical sacrifice. He offers instead an ecclesial reading of eucharistic sacrifice through Augustine that offers a more expansive vision than the document itself provides.
The recent book by Eugene Schlesinger, Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), draws from the Augustinian sources mentioned by Brunk and takes the notion of sacrifice even further, with intriguing results. Bringing this book into conversation with McGann’s can provide a framework for a renewed and productive conversation between table and altar.
Mary McGann on Meal
McGann’s book, The Meal That Reconnects–which, as Berger mentioned, is a must-read–asks the question: what does the eucharist have to do with the global food crisis? For McGann, at the heart of the food crisis is a deeper one: a crisis of broken relationships. The food crisis is a symptom of the broken relationships between humans and the earth, humans and each other, and humans and God. What the eucharist can offer in this dire situation is a context for healing those broken relationships.
McGann turns to early Christian eucharistic meals, and Jesus’s own use of meals in his ministry, as inspirations. Meals, in these settings, were contexts for healing, forgiveness, and empowerment of the disadvantaged, especially when contrasted with meal practices of the surrounding Greco-Roman society.
By emphasizing the meal character of the eucharist, Christian communities today can be sites of healing and restoration, and contribute meaningfully (even if in small ways) to rethinking values surrounding food consumption and production. The eucharist can enable us to see food as gift rather than as commodity, and act accordingly.
What is striking about McGann’s book is just how far she leans into the “meal” side of the meal vs. sacrifice impasse. It an exciting testament to just how much promise there is in stretching “meal theology” as far as it will go, and seeing what it can do.
But what about the eucharist as sacrifice? Does this metaphor have anything left to say? Or is it merely a nostalgic and anti-ecumenical throwback to an old-fashioned theology, as Fr Kevin Irwin suggests? Can table and altar still speak to each other?
Eugene Schlesinger on Sacrifice
If Mary McGann takes “meal” to its limit, then Eugene Schlesinger takes “sacrifice” to its limit, when it comes to the eucharist. He writes, drawing from Augustine and others, that “sacrifice” denotes the entire process by which humanity unites with God: in its liturgical life, its moral life, and its ecclesial life. All of these aspects are united and participate in Christ’s sacrifice, which is itself eucharistic.
According to Schlesinger, the sacrifice of Christ is an instantiation in time of the eternal, sacrificial love that is God. But if God is sacrifice in God’s own triune life, then it means that “sacrifice” does not ultimately denote abnegation, but is fundamentally a positive reality. Sacrifice means gift, not loss.
Sacrifice is also non-violent. It is only when the eternal reality of sacrifice enters the finite realm, damaged by sin and evil, that it is experienced as painful and limiting. All the things the church does in its liturgy and its mission (works of mercy and solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the earth) must be informed by and unite with Christ’s non-violent, creative gift of self. A eucharistic theology of sacrifice is indispensable because it frames the eucharist as that which symbolically binds all Christian action together under the rubric of gift of self for the life of the world.
Schlesinger rarely discusses the eucharist as meal. Yet his sophisticated presentation of eucharist as sacrifice provides a pathway for bringing table and altar into conversation, especially in the context of the global food crisis. For example, Schlesinger’s notion of sacrifice as non-violent gift could complement and deepen McGann’s stress on eucharist as a way of seeing food as gift rather than commodity.
Wary of the ecumenical risk of using sacrificial language in this context, Schlesinger, a lay Episcopalian who teaches at a Catholic institution, also argues that the notion of sacrifice can inform ecumenical dialogue. Sacrifice, which “names a fullness, rather than a deprivation”(150) should inspire all parties at the ecumenical table. Even as each one may be called to give something up for the sake of unity, their gift need not be understood as a loss but as a discovery of fullness in sharing in Christ’s sacrifice and sacrificial way of life.
The tension between table and altar in eucharistic theology need not be a divisive one, but can be a creative one. To bring them into fresh and fruitful dialogue with one another, we can take a cue from these two recent books, which take one and the other theology and run as far as possible with it, ending up in surprisingly complementary places.
 Schlesinger notes that crucifixion itself had no cultic connotations; it was Jesus who gave it those connotations at the Last Supper.
Image: Last Supper, Mosaic, Cathedral of Santa Maria Nuova, Palermo
Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His most recent book is a translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, released this year by University of Notre Dame Press.