On the Priesthood and the Holy Sacrifice

This article is the second of a two-part series on the Eucharist. The first article is titled “On the Real Presence of the Eucharist.” You can access it here.

I have no pleasure in you [Israel], says the LORD of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations [Gentiles], and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts. 
—Malachi 1:10-11

Touto poieite eis tēn emēn anamnēsin. “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). This is the command of our Lord given to the Apostles at the Last Supper. To modern English readers, the notion of priesthood may seem foreign, but to ancient Jewish ears, the sacrificial undertones would have been clear. Hearkening back to the Old Testament, we can see this language being applied in the ministerial priesthood under the Old Covenant:

This is what you shall offer [poiesis] on the altar… 
—Exodus 29:38

The words touto poieite are better translated as “offer this.” A second note to make is on the word anamnēsin: it denotes a sacrificial context in the Old Testament (see, for example, Num. 10:10). Thus, a more accurate Jewish rendering of our Lord’s words would be “offer this as a memorial sacrifice.” The memorial, in this case, is that of Christ’s Passion. 

In the early Church, the Eucharist was regarded as a sacrifice, and the early Christians certainly made note of Malachi’s prophecy (quoted at the beginning of this article) to vindicate the priesthood of the New Covenant superseding the Old. The prophet Malachi prophesied that the Lord would reject Jewish sacrifices and instead would accept “incense” and “a pure offering” from the Gentiles instead. In Catholic churches around the world, incense and the Eucharist are offered every Sunday to this day. Justin Martyr was an early Christian apologist writing in the second century. He says the following:

“God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve [minor prophets], as I said before, 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 . . . [Mal. 1:10–11]. He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us [Christians] who in every place offer sacrifices to him, that is, the bread of the Eucharist and also the cup of the Eucharist.”

Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 41 [A.D. 155]

In addition to this, the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is illuminated by the Passover imagery in the Book of Exodus. In the Old Covenant, the quintessential memorial sacrifice was the annual Passover, in which the ancient Hebrews sacrificed lambs and then ate them in honor of the Lord bringing them out of Egypt and “passing” over them in judgment, where they were held in bondage: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord. . .” (Ex. 12:14).

At the Last Supper, we see Jesus ordain His Apostles to the priesthood of the New Covenant. He instructs them to offer His body and blood in commemoration of His salvific death (which occurred on Passover); the prerogative is clearly priestly, as the function of a priest is “to offer gifts and sacrifices” (Heb. 8:3). It is for this reason St. Paul says “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Lamb of God is offered to the Father and the faithful consume Him, fulfilling the Passover. 

Now, a common objection to this theology is that Christ died once for all (Heb. 10:10). This poses no risk, as the Mass is not a re-crucifixion but rather a re-presentation of Golgotha. The beauty of the Divine Liturgy is that it is an immersion into the focal point of the faith, the Cross, from which all graces of salvation flow. It is a reenactment of Calvary, in which the priest, acting in persona Christi (in the Person of Christ), dies to self with the Savior—along with the faithful—and rises with Him, having partaken of His divine nature through the bread of life.

I will reiterate, the Mass is not a re-crucifying of the Lord; it is a re-presentation of His eternal once for all sacrifice. Christ assumes the humble appearance of bread, and through the Eucharist we have an acceptable offering to present to the Father for our sanctification. The author of Hebrews is clear on this point:

“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” 
—Hebrews 9:22-23

Note the plurality of the word “sacrifices.” The “copies of the heavenly things” refer to the earthly sanctuary, which was purified by blood sacrifices in the Old Covenant. In the New Covenant however, we have superior sacrifices to offer through the Eucharist in an unbloody manner; we do not behold the Lord’s bloody body as it was seen on Calvary, but under the appearances of bread and wine. This points to the re-presentation of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, drawing from the once for all sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The Book of Hebrews is full of sacerdotal imagery; Hebrews 13:10 continues the motif saying that we have an altar from which those who serve the tent (Jewish priests who offer sacrifice in the temple) have no right to eat. We can also see the theology of Eucharistic sacrifice being affirmed throughout the early Church:

The Didache

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 [Matt. 5:23–24]. 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’ [Mal. 1:11, 14]

Didache 14 [A.D. 70]

Clement of Rome

Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its sacrifices. Blessed are those presbyters who have already finished their course, and who have obtained a fruitful and perfect release

Letter to the Corinthians 44:4–5 [A.D. 80]

Ignatius of Antioch

Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice—even as there is also but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow servitors, the deacons. This will ensure that all your doings are in full accord with the will of God

Letter to the Philadelphians 4 [A.D. 110]

A question then emerges for the modern Christian: how do we identify the priesthood today? Recall that a priest is defined as one who offers sacrifice to God, and we have now established that Christ has entrusted the Eucharist to His Church as a memorial sacrifice. Who conducts the priestly affairs? Is it a priesthood of all believers, or a ministerial priesthood? One verse that is commonly cited by those who advocate for a priesthood of all believers can be found in the First Epistle of St. Peter:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 
—1 Peter 2:9

This verse points at a common priesthood in which all the faithful participate. This does not negate, however, the existence of a ministerial priesthood. In fact, this verse echoes Exodus 19:6 in the Old Testament:

You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. 
—Exodus 19:6

Despite Israel being designated as a priestly nation in this verse, we must take into account that there was also a ministerial priesthood that was set apart as a distinct order (Ex. 19:22). We know from St. Paul that the Church is the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). It therefore helps to examine the New Covenant Church in light of Old Covenant Israel. Here are some key aspects to consider:

  • In ancient Israel there was the high priest Aaron, who was assisted by a ministerial priesthood (his sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar). We can observe three tiers to this priesthood: the high priest, the middle rank of ministerial priests, and the universal priesthood of the nation existing at the lowest rank. The ministerial priesthood serves to offer physical sacrifices to God in the Temple, and the universal priesthood offers spiritual sacrifices in their service to God. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ is repetitively referred to as the High Priest (Heb. 4:14); we also know that the universal priesthood of Christians exists according to St. Peter (as previously mentioned). Thus, patterning the new Israel, the Church, off the Old Covenant priesthood, lends credence to the institution of a ministerial priesthood at the middle level.
  • Shortly before the Lord institutes His Apostles as ministerial priests at the Last Supper (commanding them to offer the Eucharist as a memorial sacrifice), He washes their feet (John 13:5). There is a typological connection between this scene and the priestly ordination of Aaron and his sons in Exodus, where their feet are washed before being consecrated for priestly service (Ex. 40:12–13, 30–31). Returning back to John 13, when Peter objects to Jesus washing his feet, Jesus replies, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (v. 8). The Greek word for “part” is meros, which echoes back to Numbers 18:20, which refers to the portion (meris) Aaron and his sons have in the Lord as priests.
  • In John 20:23, Christ delegates the power to forgive and retain sins to His Apostles. This is clearly a priestly function that takes a similar form in the Torah: “when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed…the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin” (Lev. 5:5-6). Another example is in Numbers 15:28: “the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.” This privilege of facilitating the forgiveness of sins is granted only to those in the ministerial priesthood of both the Old and New Covenants.

Having weighed all these points, I think there is ample evidence to suggest that Christ did in fact create a ministerial priesthood. A commonly asked question is, “why isn’t the word ‘priest’ used to refer to ministers in the New Testament?” First, the English word “priest” is literally a contraction of the Greek word presbuteros, which is usually translated “elder” or “presbyter.” Moreover, the ancient Jewish concept of a priest was so invariably tied to the Aaronic priesthood and Levitical sacrificial system that it would have been laughable to suggest that Jesus was the new high priest hailing from the tribe of Judah; His Apostles were not all Levites either. That’s why the author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to fashion Christ’s priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, an order that is superior to the order of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-22). It therefore makes sense that the word “presbyter” was used by the early Christians to distinguish their ministerial priesthood from the Levitical form, so as not to be associated with the animal sacrifices in the temple.

Reflecting on the original question of how to identify the priesthood in modern day Christendom, it is absolutely crucial to discuss the doctrine of apostolic succession. Apostolic succession posits that a valid priesthood is that which has a legitimate line of succession stemming from the Apostles themselves. If Christ entrusted His precious body and blood to the Church as a memorial offering, it wouldn’t make sense for just anybody to have the prerogative of confecting the Eucharist; this would be akin to conducting non-Levitical priestly sacrifices in the Old Covenant, which would’ve been considered invalid. Recall that the Levitical priesthood had a line of succession through Aaron and his descendants. We see in Acts 1 that the the Apostles cast lots to find a successor (Matthias) for Judas to fulfill his apostolic duties; this method of casting lots is identical to the manner in which priestly duties are delegated by David in 1 Chronicles 24:5 and for the priest Zechariah in the New Testament:

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
—Luke 1:8-9

Matthias’s election by casting lots points to the fact that the Apostles saw their ministry as one that was distinctly sacerdotal. Moreover, just as Aaron and his sons had successors, so do the Apostles. We know that the ministerial ordination of a priest occurs through the laying on of hands:

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 
—1 Timothy 4:14

It is for this reason that St. Paul warns Timothy to be careful who he ordains in the context of discussing rules concerning the presbyterate:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching… Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses… In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 
—1 Timothy 5:17, 19, 21-22

St. Paul understands that the priesthood has been entrusted with a sacred charism and therefore must be guarded. He expresses similar sentiments in his second letter to Timothy:

What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. 
—2 Timothy 2:2

In this short verse, St. Paul references four generations of apostolic succession: his own generation, Timothy’s generation, the generation Timothy will teach, and the generation they in turn will teach. The Church Fathers participated in this chain of succession, and their writings reflect the ecclesiology of a visible church marked by an apostolic priesthood. Their attestation of apostolic succession and the ministerial priesthood is deafening and vociferously employed to combat schismatic sects that emerged in the early Church:

Clement of Rome

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate [bishop]. For this reason, therefore, since they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry

—Letter to the Corinthians 44:1–2 [A.D. 70]

Ignatius of Antioch

Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8:2-3 [A.D. 110]

Irenaeus of Lyons

[I]t is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the infallible charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth.

Against Heresies 4:26:2 [A.D. 189]

Cyprian of Carthage

If Christ Jesus, our Lord and God, is Himself the high priest of God the Father; and if he offered himself as a sacrifice to the Father; and if he commanded that this be done in commemoration of himself, then certainly the priest, who imitates that which Christ did, truly functions in place of Christ.

Letters 63:14 [A.D. 253]

[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with Novatian, she was not with Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop Fabian by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood, the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic Tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way.

—Letters 75:3 [A.D. 254]

According to theology of the early Church, a valid Eucharist, which is truly the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, can only be confected by a valid priesthood with apostolic succession. I will not comment on which churches possess a valid priesthood today, but history is evident on the matter. May the reader discern this subject carefully and prayerfully.

“[N]ot to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate.  —Augustine of Hippo, Against the Letter of Mani Called ‘The Foundation’ 4:5 [A.D. 397].

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