He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, January 30, 2017

Fair Questions: Does Hebrews 9 refute the Real Presence and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

The following verses from Chapter 9 of "The Book of Hebrews" in the Bible is sometimes used by Protestant thinkers to provide a Scriptural proof for the errors of the ancient churches in understanding the Eucharist as having an inherently sacrificial character while repeatedly celebrating it every week since the days of the Early Church.

"25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."

The argument is that our understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice and our offering it repeatedly is mutually exclusive with the claims in the verses above that (1) Christ does not offer Himself again and again, along with the corollary that (2) Christ's sacrifice occurred once for all time.

Let's make it interesting and point out that if we employ the way of reading Scripture being used by some Protestant thinkers here, then we must conclude that Christ Himself was in error.  Why is that, you might ask?

In Chapter 26 of the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says that, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."  In Chapter 14 of the Gospel of Mark, Christ says, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many."  In Chapter 22 of the Gospel of Luke, Christ says, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood."

These statements are pretty clear and are not a single isolated instance that can be read in a reductively metaphorical way.  Christ claimed quite specifically that the wine of the first Eucharist is the blood of the new covenant.

But wait, how can that be?  In Christian theology, Christ's blood shed on the cross at Calvary is the blood of the new covenant, the perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem.  So how can Christ claim that the wine offered at the first Eucharist is the blood of the new covenant?

Those two events (of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion) happened at different times.  How could the blood of the new covenant be present in a time prior to the blood of Christ being shed on the cross?

I'm really not sure how that's possible, myself.  But it is exactly what Jesus claimed to be the case.

So either (1) our Lord was correct, in which case His precious blood of the new covenant was present before it was even shed on the cross (and by extension could be present afterwards at Emmaus), or (2) our Lord Jesus Christ was wrong in what He said at the Last Supper, or (3) Scripture is not a reliable record of our Lord's teachings.

The only way to make sense of Christ's teaching here (and in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John) is to propose, as the ancient Church did and continues to do, that the sacrifice of the thrice-holy Lamb of God suffuses the temporal created order, unbound by our human sense of time as linear and discrete.

So when Christ died on the cross, he died once for all time, it's true. Nonetheless, His sacrifice of love exists in the fullness of all time, not just 2,000 years ago on a particular day. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we enter into that very moment of His Holy Sacrifice which He gave to us for all time when He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper.

In short, we don't sacrifice Christ again any more than He sacrificed Himself again on the cross after pouring out His blood of the new covenant at the Last Supper. We just enter into the salvific event of His sacrifice which He made for every land and every people unto ages of ages.

Related: The Poetry of Divine Love

Note:  This post was partially paraphrased from a discussion I participated in on Reddit.  The above is an image of an icon of Christ literally giving Himself to His disciples in the form of bread and wine.  I purchased it from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com for my mother.


  1. I think that most Protestants (excepting maybe a few Lutherans) would take issue with your statement "These statements are pretty clear and are not a single isolated instance that can be read in a reductively metaphorical way." Indeed, whether we read these statements literally or metaphorically largely depends on our pre-existing biases that we bring to the text (confirmation bias). The Protestant argument would be that Christ's words are metaphorical, and that He called the bread and the wine his body and blood in the same way that He called Himself the Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, etc. A Catholic interpreter would think this interpretation unlikely, of course, but appeals to Christ's brief statements are bound to be unconvincing to those who disagree--the statements are so terse that it's fairly easy to interpret them the way one wants and then move on. Catholic arguments from John 6 are a bit more convincing, as in this passage, Christ talks about His body and blood at length. In my opinion, the best Catholic/Orthodox arguments for the Real Presence are the ones that show the ancient origins of the doctrine by using quotes from the Church Fathers and from scriptures such as John 6. The best Protestant argument is the argument from sense experience...that is, to say that the Biblical miracles almost always concern events that are verifiable by the sense--for example, you could taste the water that became wine, you could see the lame man's withered hand become whole, etc. But the changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ involves a change that is not verifiable by the senses, and is not even falsifiable. Of course, this argument is likely only going to appeal to Protestants and will not convince Catholics who already believe in transubstantiation. But a Protestant who reads about transubstantiation will probably dismiss the distinction between substances and accidents as mere hand-waiving to deny sensory experience.

    Your explanation that the Mass is a participation in the timeless sacrifice of Christ is good, because it helps to counter many Protestant misunderstandings of the Mass. Many Protestants misunderstand the Catholic doctrine, thinking that the priest offers Christ again and again and again (as if the one Sacrifice of Christ were not enough).

    I must say that I am much more open to the Catholic/Orthodox doctrine of the Real Presence than I've ever been. I guess I wanna be Thomas. I want to verify it. I want to make sure. But sometimes you don't get to be Thomas.

  2. Jack, thank you for the kind words with regard to my explanation of the Mass. I tend to agree with you that most Protestants would take issue with my claim that "These statements are pretty clear and are not a single isolated instance that can be read in a reductively metaphorical way." I suspect that this is because they think that I'm claiming that their error lies in reading it metaphorically. But that's not where I think they venture into error.

    The problem isn't the metaphor, but rather the act of treating it reductively. For example, when Christ called Himself the Vine and described His followers as the branches, the ancient Church understands this as a metaphor as well. But for the ancient Church, it is a metaphor with very real mystical implications. We are indeed physically as well as spiritually united with Christ through His Resurrection at the Day of Resurrection. He is the true Vine onto which we are grafted by God's grace so that we become the adopted sons and daughters of God. Christ doesn't generally use metaphors reductively, but rather to express profound truths about the physical and spiritual worlds and their relationship to one another. John Chapter 6, as you noted, is a particularly good example of how in Christ's teachings, the metaphors are not reductively metaphorical. They are not metaphors that are poetic merely in the sense that they provide us with an image to understand the speaker's underlying logic (though that's true as far as it goes); they are also metaphors that are poetic in the sense that they create within the temporal world the fullness of God's revelation to us, a bringing of the perfectly true, perfectly beautiful, and perfectly good heavenly reality into the good but imperfect temporal reality.

    This is in contrast with how some Protestant thinkers read the metaphors He uses and interpret these teachings as metaphors or symbols that are merely valuable ways of thinking about theological truths. They rightly believe that these truths are important, but what they understand them to be are truths much reduced from what the Early Church taught to what later Christians found more believable, more acceptable, less outlandish.

    Some may want to be St. Thomas. And that's understandable to me. My faith was so weak that God granted me something even greater than His appearance to St. Thomas, and so I will not cast stones at those who want miracles that are verifiable by the senses. And if I and they can so often ignore the many documented miracles, even modern ones, still doubting in the Real Presence at times, I can hardly impute it to them as some sort of unique fault of theirs. It's one of my own as well.

  3. Thanks for this, Sam. I am now following you on Reddit as well.