Book Review: The Eucharistic Sacrifice

The Eucharistic Sacrifice
By Sergius Bulgakov
Translated by Mark Roosien

This is but the latest translation of the writings of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) to appear and it is a most welcome one. Mark Roosien has produced a clear, beautiful translation. His discerning scholarship is evident in the fine introduction in which he deftly handles a number of things. He introduces Bulgakov, his person, life and work. Further, he shows how central the Eucharist was in Bulgakov’s vision, not only as a theologian but as a priest. One only has to read his student Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s memoir of his teacher to appreciate the pastoral and liturgical radiance of Fr. Sergius evident to those around him. Roosien also locates this particular essay from 1939-40 in the context of Bulgakov’s other writings on the Eucharist, in particular “The Eucharistic Dogma,” (1930) and “The Holy Grail,” (1932) and “The Eucharist and the Social Problems of Modern Society,” (1933) for The Journal of the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius. After arguing for the unity still present among the divided churches, Bulgakov proposed a sharing of the Eucharist by those in the Fellowship, with the blessing of their bishops and after a common confession. This was never accomplished, but remains a singular effort to put ecumenical prayer, study, conversation and fellowship into action by restoring the eucharistic communion that has been broken.

David Bentley Hart, and along with him, John Milbank, Antoine Arjakovsky, Rowan Williams and Brandon Gallaher, among others, are clear that Bulgakov is not just the greatest Eastern Church theologian of the modern era. They go further in ranking him among the most notable across the churches. The more that translations allow access to Bulgakov’s body of work, the more there is basis for such claims. This essay, the longest of Bulgakov’s writings specifically on the Eucharist, bears this out. As Roosien puts it, Bulgakov argues that the Eucharistic sacrifice is not “another” sacrifice offered in addition to or in remembrance of the cross. Rather, it is an “eschatological manifestation of the primordial sacrifice that lies behind Golgotha: the self-giving love of God in the Trinity,” a celebration of the kénōsis that goes on in eternity. (ix)

Bulgakov in this essay shares his distinctive understanding, namely that the Eucharist brings heaven and earth together. The Eucharist comprises the whole of God’s sacrifice for the life of the world: the kénōsis within the Trinity, then God’s self-limiting sacrifice in creation and finally, the sacrifice of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The Last Supper Eucharist, accomplished before the death on the cross, reveals the sacrifice is transhistorical and supratemporal, as Roosien emphasizes. It is always the enacting of the saving works of Christ, the love of God and the presence of the Spirit in the shared bread and cup. The sacrifice of God’s self-emptying love will never end.

Bulgakov tracks this by examining sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and beyond, in other ancient religions. The inspection of the Old Testament sacrifices as compared to those of other traditions is meticulous and insightful. Then his focus shifts to what remembrance or anámnēsis means, namely and not in our ordinary vision, a recalling of the past, the present as well as the future. The text of the liturgy in the Eastern Church recalls also the “second glorious coming” yet to occur. Though Christ’s sacrifice takes place in historical time, it transcends time, and is a powerful event now and in the future.

Bulgakov also analyzes the high priesthood of Christ, drawing on the letter to the Hebrews. In two chapters he further considers the change of the bread and wine, putting forward his own vision of God’s embodiment. The Eucharist thus is a way in which the Council of Chalcedon’s view of Christ’s divine and human natures finds vivid expression. In another two chapters, Bulgakov looks at how the divine and human are bridged in various aspects of the eucharistic sacrifice. The material bread and wine remain, though having become the body and blood of Christ. In eating and drinking, we humans are touched, permeated by the divine. One could almost say there is an ongoing extension of the Incarnation. The communion with Christ takes place in each of us as individuals but most importantly as members of the body of Christ, the Church. Thus the Eucharist is constantly making the Church; as the Church, God’s people make the Eucharist.

Bulgakov considers the atoning sacrifice, in which Christ’s death and resurrection for all extends to all. Here his assent to the restoration of all, apokatástasis, is the consequence of all the forms of God’s self-emptying love, which the Eucharist contains. In the liturgy, both in the preparation and in the anaphora or eucharistic prayer, there is commemoration of those who have died and the living, those name but all others as well.

Lastly he brings the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary into connection with the Eucharist. She is named in the eucharistic prayer universally, and this witnesses how Christ came to be born from her own body. When the Lord says “this is my body…my blood,” it is the body that came from Mary. She is always named in the liturgy but at the end of prayers of intercession, litanies, for with all the angels and saints she is part of God’s plan of saving all.

Roosien recalls how in St. Sergius Theological Institute there emerged a procession of theologians and priests for whom the Eucharist was central: Fr. Bulgakov, Fr. Kyprian Kern, Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev. These and others formed the vision of Fr. Schmemann, who was a student of all three and who went on to shape his own distinctive liturgical theology.  It is no coincidence that one of his last books, published posthumously, was The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom.

It is most significant that with this publication we now have all three of Bulgakov’s studies of the Eucharist available in translation. We should also look forward to more of Mark Roosien’s own work being published in the future.

Sergius Bulgakov. The Eucharistic Sacrifice. Translated by Mark Roosien. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021. 140 pages. $42.00. ISBN: 9780268201418.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Professor Emeritus, The City University of New York–Baruch College

One comment

  1. I want to read more of Sergius Bulgakov. His distinctive understanding of the Eucharist bringing heaven and earth together, besides Schmemann, has influenced Bishop Kallistos Ware and probably Pope Benedict XVI (or at least the sentiments are shared). See Sacramentum Caritatis – paragraphs 16. 30 and 47 among others.

    From the current Roman Missal, Preface of Nativity II
    For on the feast of his awe-filled mystery,
    though invisible in his own divine nature,
    he has appeared visibly in ours;
    and begotten before all ages,
    he has begun to exist in time;
    so that, raising up in himself all that was cast down,
    he might restore unity to all creation
    and call straying humanity back to the heavenly Kingdom.

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