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Pascha nostrum

May 6, 2014

ALLELUIA. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia. The use of this verse from Saint Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians as a fraction anthem is a feature of Anglican worship without parallel in other Eucharistic rites. It is familiar, of course, from its place in 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but it appears first in the English Prayer Book of 1549 where, after the Lord’s Prayer and the Peace, the priest said:

Christ our Pascall lambe is offred up for us, once for al, when he bare our sinnes on hys body upon the crosse, for he is the very lambe of God, that taketh away the sines of the worlde: wherfore let us kepe a joyfull and holy feast with the Lorde.

The inclusion of this text was not without controversy in 1549. The conservative Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, took it as proof of the Church of England’s continuity with Catholic teaching on the matter of Eucharistic sacrifice, something that Protestants vigorously objected to. Significantly, the text was removed from the second Prayer Book of Edward VI in 1552, and continued to be omitted in all subsequent editions until the American Prayer Book of 1979. Apparently the use of the Pascha nostrum and all that it implies is not without controversy in some quarters even today.

I was a little surprised to learn recently from a new parishioner of his experience in another parish, a large and decidedly evangelical congregation north of Dallas, where the rector decided to change to words at the fraction to “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us.” It is always discouraging, of course, to hear such a story. One is left to wonder if Anglo-Catholics are wasting time attempting to dress up a tradition that is in fact thoroughly Protestant. But I was delighted to learn that the rector at this parish heard enough objections from the people in the pews that he went back to reading the text as printed. Clearly it was the sensus fildelium that the Eucharist is “no nude commemoration of the Sacrifice of the Cross” (as the Council of Trent put it), but that somehow the sacrifice of Christ is made present at every celebration. It seems that to deny the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist takes some effort, and that if Protestant-minded Anglicans are not sufficiently vigilant, the idea will keep popping up!

And no wonder. Long before any explicit teaching on the subject, it was, quite naturally, the sense of Christians that their Eucharist was not simply a commemorative meal, but was, in fact, a sacrifice. The very words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me,” point to the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, for wherever the word remembrance (anamnesis) is used in the Scriptures, it is in a sacrificial context. Just to give a couple early examples of this mind of the Church, in the late first century we find the Didache speaks of the Eucharist as offering and sacrifice, based on the gospel of Matthew and the prophet Malachi:

Assemble on the Lord’s Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, “Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations.”1

So, too, in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr, in the second century, draws on Malachi when he writes about the Christian Eucharist as the sacrifice acceptable to God:

God speaks by the mouth of Malachi . . . about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: “I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord, and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands; for from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, my name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering, for my name is great among the Gentiles”.2, 3

He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us who in every place offer sacrifices to him, that is, the bread of the Eucharist and also the cup of the Eucharist.

The sacrifice of the Eucharist presses itself upon us, for it is an essential part of the Catholic faith that has never been wholly absent from our Anglican tradition. In the Eucharist, the Paschal Victim is re-presented before the Father so that we “obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion”, and he feeds our souls as we feast upon the sacrifice and are “partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.” Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia!

By the Revd Martin Yost, SSC, rector of St. Stephen’s Church, Sherman, Tex. Reposted with edits from Forward in Christ magazine.

1. Didache 14:1-3
2. Malachi 1:10-11
3. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter XXVIII

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