Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.
This lovely text is a translation by G Moultie of a formula (Sigesato pasa sarx broteia) in the Liturgy of S James; which may be the oldest rite still used in Christendom except, of course, for our immemorially ancient Roman Rite. I have recently been discussing the contrast between the theology of Consecration in that Rite, and that in our own Roman rite.
It is indeed a splendid hymn, and the concept of the Lord's eucharistic epiphaneia is beautifully expressed. Generations of Anglican worshippers have been moved by the picture of the host of heaven spreading its vanguard before the Lord as he descends from the realms of endless day to stand on earth upon the altars of our churches. Long may its use continue.
But it it is instructive to look back at the Greek original. Moultrie has done a bit of a naughty in his translation, because, instead of speaking of Christ our God to earth descending, what the Greek actually says is: 'Christ our God is going forth to be slain in sacrifice' (proerchetai sphagiasthenai). And that is language which causes problems for some people - unnecessarily. Christ did die but once for all upon the cross, as the Reformers never ceased to declare, but his one sacrifice is beyond time in God's everlasting Now. God's 'Once' is not locked into one moment in one place in History ... it is not imprisoned in 33AD.
Think of it like this: God could have chosen to create nothing, but to exist in his own social, Trinal, simplicity. If He did choose to create, He could have elected to create just one moment. He could have created, for that one moment, just one place. We never think about it; but, surely, that is the most obvious, sensible, 'clean-cut', unmessy, thing to do. Yet that isn't what He did. In that tremendous eccentricity which is rooted in the very nature of the Divine Act of Creation, He created a multiplicity of times and a multiplicity of places. Within those multiplicities, He could have created just one, monic, being to exist and to be loved; but He chose instead to create a multiplicity of beings. And so it is into that complexity of times, places, beings, that His 'Once for all' is graciously communicated. The sacrifice of the Eternal Son is, in the Mass, made 'sacramentally' present on earth, in and to that plurality of the times and places which the Creator God in his fluent generosity has given to the innumerable multitudes He has created in which to worship him and to work out their salvation. And whenever it is so made present, Christ our God does "go forth to be slain in sacrifice". Furthermore, each Eucharist, bestowed from Eternity into Time, is not merely the offering of a monic being, but of Christ in his social body the Church, associating with him and in him those who are partaking in that new Mass in that new moment, so that the sacrifice of the Mass is ever one and unchanging and rooted in Eternity, and yet for ever here and for ever new.
So I've never had any problems with that offertory prayer in the Sarum Mass, in which the priest referred to hoc sacrificium novum. But, of course, the 'Reformers' did object, and the idea of a nova mactatio has come to be regarded as one of the worst corruptions of medieval Catholicism. It is good to have the Rite of S James to remind us that this way of employing language is not only sound and wholesome but is guaranteed by the witness of East as well as of West.
Throughout the Church, and throughout its history, different notions of the relation of Christ's One Sacrifice to the actual text and movement of the Liturgy have, quite harmlessly, been held. In the Greek version of the Liturgy of S James, this (Sigesato) text is used to accompany the Great Entrance; as if the Bread already is the Lord, making his way to Calvary and to Sacrifice (both Great Entrance and Sigesato are absent from the Syriac version of the rite). Theodore of Mopsuestia clearly believed that the Elements processed in by the deacons were already the dead Body of Christ, "a Body which will very shortly rise to an immortal being". As one writer has put it, "Theodore's idea is that the elements, by the mere fact that they are the offering of the church, are already the Body and Blood from the moment of the offertory". Some Oriental epicletic formulae accordingly ask that the Holy Spirit may show (not make) the Bread to be the Lord's Body. The idea that the offertory pre-consecrates can also be found among the Assyrians and the Armenians, and would appear to be implied by the custom, which I first witnessed in Oxford in the 1960s, of aged Russian Grand Duchesses, in their black dresses and weighed down with jewelry, prostrate on the ground during the Great Entrance. These Eastern instincts, in a curious sort of roundabout way, witness to the convention we have discerned in the classical Roman rite, that it is essentially the Father's acceptance of the Church's Offering which is consecratory, not the Divine Response to a Petition for the Descent of the Spirit.
This series is now complete. I will now consider any comments submitted. Please attach any such comments to this final instalment.