If one reads the several liturgies of the early Church, particularly the Eastern ones, two things stick out.
-They are all named after famous people (Saint James, The Apostolic Constitutions, Saint Gregory of Nanzianus, Saint Basil of Caesarea, Saint Chrysostom, etcetera.)
-They all largely sound mostly the same and borrow from one another.
From my reading of them, I believe that there began some sort of trend in the 5th century to start contriving liturgies and ascribing them to important-sounding men. The first of these probably preceded the trend…
The Apostolic Constitutions
Due to the Apostolic Constitutions containing Apollinarianism, a movement that died by the early 5th century, we have a good indication of when to date the work. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The oldest known form that can be described as a complete liturgy is that of the Apostolic Constitutions. It is also the first member of the line of Antiochene uses.”
Now something peculiar sticks out in the Apostolic Constitutions. It makes frequent mentions to what it coins an “unbloody sacrifice.” It is mentioned once in Book II, once in Book VI, and twice in Book VIII. Now to modern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, this is not a strange term but one that describes the Eucharist. However, as far as I can tell, the Apostolic Constitutions are one of the earliest mentions of the term in history.* After all, the association between what was a bloody sacrifice with the wine being Christ’s actual blood does not seem all that unbloody. It’s not a self-intuitive idea, that’s for sure.
*In the Comments section, two earlier mentions are recorded, one by Chrysostom himself.
What does the Apostolic Constitutions says about the “unbloody sacrifice?”
In Book II: O bishops, are to your people priests and Levites, ministering to the holy tabernacle, the holy Catholic Church; who stand at the altar of the Lord your God, and offer to Him reasonable and unbloody sacrifices through Jesus the great High Priest…Those which were then the sacrifices now are prayers, and intercessions, and thanksgivings. Those which were then first-fruits, and tithes, and offerings, and gifts, now are oblations, which are presented by holy bishops to the Lord God, through Jesus Christ, who has died for them (Chapter XXV).
In Book VI: Instead of a bloody sacrifice, He has appointed that reasonable and unbloody mystical one of His body and blood, which is performed to represent the death of the Lord by symbols (Chapter XXIII).
In Book VIII: Grant to him [the priest], O Lord Almighty, through Your Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, that so he may have power to remit sins according to Your command; to give forth lots according to Your command; to loose every bond, according to the power which You gave the apostles; that he may please You in meekness and a pure heart, with a steadfast, unblameable, and unreprovable mind; to offer to You a pure and unbloody sacrifice, which by Your Christ You have appointed as the mystery of the new covenant, for a sweet savour, through Your holy child Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour, through whom glory, honour, and worship be to You in the Holy Spirit, now and always, and for all ages (Chapter V).
But after His ascension we offered, according to His constitution, the pure and unbloody sacrifice…(Chapter XLVI)
As we can see in the above, the Eucharist is referred to as an unbloody sacrifice. However, in Book II we can see that all spiritual functions such as praying and tithing are unbloody sacrifices. Further, there is no specific mention that the unbloody sacrifice forgives sin, though it does teach in Chapter V of Book VIII that the priest through his intercession forgives sins. This is taught in Saint Chrysostom’s On Priesthood, Book III as well as Saint Ambrose’s book of the same name.
It is worth noting that the New Testament makes mention of sacrifices that are of a spiritual, and thereby, unbloody nature:
- “[P]resent your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom 12:1).
- “I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).
- “[Y]ou also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
Hence, the “unbloody sacrifices” in the Apostolic Constitutions are not narrowly understood to be the Eucharist, but all spiritual acts we do in obedience to Christ. The reason it is “unbloody” is because man presents it and not God, whose blood atones for sins. As we are to soon see, in subsequent liturgies the term “unbloody sacrifice” evolves in meaning to be narrowly the Eucharist itself. It is now, as it were, a euphemism for the fact that Christ is somehow sacrificed once-and-for-all for the forgiveness of sins by the shedding of His blood, but at the same time re-presented each time the Eucharist is presented as an additional expiatory, yet now unbloody, sacrifice.
For Protestants who don’t get it, let me explain is simple terms. The “unbloody sacrifice” began just as something we did out of joyful hearts and it encompassed all sorts of spiritual works. In the 5th century and on, the term evolved to mean that it was the Eucharist and that this sacrament atoned for sins like any sacrifice, but because it wasn’t literally Christ’s sacrifice on the cross from hundreds of years ago, now it was unbloody.
Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom
The “Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom” is supposedly written in the 4th century by the aforesaid Saint. It has two different sections that are of note:
Enable us to bring before You gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the transgressions of the people. Make us worthy to find grace in Your presence so that our sacrifice [the Eucharist] may be pleasing to You and that Your good and gracious Spirit may abide with us, with the gifts here presented, and with all Your people.
Here, “spiritual sacrifices” includes specifically the Eucharist, but also “gifts,” all of which appear to have an expiatory effect on sin. These sacrifices are given “for our sins and for the transgressions of the people,” after all. As we soon shall see, the latter was copied ad verbatim in the Liturgy of Saint Basil, or vice versa.
You have served as our High Priest, and as Lord of all, and have entrusted to us the celebration of this liturgical sacrifice without the shedding of blood…Enable me by the power of Your Holy Spirit so that, vested with the grace of priesthood, I may stand before Your holy Table and celebrate the mystery of Your holy and pure Body and Your precious Blood.
Here, a reference is given to the Eucharist being an unbloody sacrifice. As we can see, the theological elements of an Eucharist that forgives sins have been set. The liturgy repeats what the Apostolic Constitutions teaches about there being different kinds of spiritual sacrifices, but has added the element of them all having an expiatory effect on sin.* However, it specifies that the Eucharist itself is a “sacrifice without the shedding of blood.” Therefore, “unbloody sacrifice” no longer is a euphemism for a spiritual sacrifice a man offers and therefore does not relate to Christ’s blood, but has now become a mystical term for the unbloody nature of Christ’s bloody sacrifice re-presented by the Priest in the sacrament.
*This is something that cannot be found in Chrysostom’s genuine writings on the topic of the Eucharist or any other spiritual sacrifices. This will be a topic for a future article.
Liturgy of Saint Basil
In the “Liturgy of Saint Basil” (supposedly late 4th century AD) it says:
Accept us as we draw near to Your holy altar, according to the multitude of Your mercy, that we may be worthy to offer You this spiritual sacrifice without the shedding of blood, for our sins and for the transgressions of Your people.
This section, probably lifted from the Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom, has had the reference to other spiritual sacrifices removed. Now, only the Eucharist is in view and “this spiritual sacrifice” is specifically “for our sins and for the transgressions of the people.”
However, it is worth noting that this section of the Liturgy is not found in the Coptic version. The Coptic version does mention an unbloody sacrifice but it is not as clear that it forgives sins:
We ask You, O our Lord, thrust us not behind You when we offer this awesome and bloodless sacrifice. For we put no trust in our righteousness but in Your mercy, whereby You have given life to our race. We pray and entreat Your goodness, O Lover of mankind One, that this mystery [(the Eucharist or the resurrection itself?)] which You have appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us or unto any of Your people, but unto the washing away of our sins and the forgiveness of our negligence…
It is likely that the Coptic version represents the original as it does not contain as an explicit a reference of the Eucharist forgiving sins. It strikes a middle ground between the Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom’s multiple spiritual sacrifices forgiving sins and the Greek Liturgy of Saint Basil where specifically the Eucharist is for the sins of the people.
It is possible that a Greek writer took the Coptic Liturgy and lifted language from the Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom, and devised the Greek Version of Basil’s Liturgy. The result is that during this modification process the idea that specifically the Eucharist forgives sins, instead of the Resurrection alone, appears to be clarified when compared to the Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom.
Liturgy of Saint James
Ironically, the Liturgy of Saint James (supposedly 60AD!) is even more explicit in the connection between the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins:
O Sovereign Lord, who hast visited us in compassion and mercies, and hast freely given to us, Your humble and sinful and unworthy servants, boldness to stand at Your holy altar, and to offer to You this dread and bloodless sacrifice for our sins, and for the errors of the people, look upon me Your unprofitable servant, and blot out my transgressions for Your compassion’s sake.
The supposedly oldest of the three liturgies appears to be the most theologically developed of the three! This, historically speaking, is unlikely and greatly increases the chance of forgery.
Liturgy of Saint Gregory the Theologian
This 4th century Church Father supposedly wrote:
And so that I might offer to You this rational and bloodless sacrifice, with a pure conscience:- As a pardon of my sins and my transgressions and as a forgiveness for the ignorances of Your people. As a repose and a respite for our fathers and our brethren who preceded us and have fallen asleep in the Orthodox faith…
The “ignorances of the people” appears to be lifted from the Liturgy of Saint Basil or Saint James. The connection between the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins is explicit. It is believed to be a 6th century work.
It appears clear that the only work that can actually be dated to the time when all of these liturgies supposedly originated is the Apostolic Constitutions. Ironically, the work was the product of what were heretics in Syria. I speculate that it contained parts of liturgies that were floating around and being continually developed and elaborated upon. However, it was the first to exaggerate its own authority by naming the Apostles as its author. Subsequently, this work served as the basis of writing even more spurious liturgies.
Obviously, the Apostles did not write the Apostolic Constitutions, and neither did Saint James write the liturgy ascribed to his name. The same goes for the other guys. Being that none of this could have occurred while they were still alive, this places all of them other than the Apostolic Constitutions some time probably after the Council of Chalcedon.
This means, the doctrines behind the Eucharist being an unbloody sacrifice that forgives sins are a post 5th century development. In fact, we can watch it develop and continually be elaborated upon between each liturgy.
By God’s grace, I hope to undergo a study, perhaps long term, of the manuscripts of these liturgies.
It’s interesting to see how the development of certain concepts are expressed in the various liturgies. I was intrigued about the question of when the phrase “unbloody sacrifice” first began to be used in reference to the Eucharist. I found a couple of instances by the supposed authors of those liturgies:
John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Statues: “…being cleansed in every possible way from the sins which we had contracted during the whole year, we may with spiritual boldness religiously partake of that unbloody Sacrifice…”
Gregory the Theologian, Oration 43: “Burnings of Presbyters at sea, impious generals, not those who conquered the Persians, or subdued the Scythians, or reduced any other barbaric nation, but those who assailed churches, and danced in triumph upon altars, and defiled the unbloody sacrifices with the blood of man and victims, and offered insult to the modesty of virgins.” (This last reference is ambiguous but seems likely to indicate the Eucharist.)
Is there any reason for focusing on Antiochene liturgies in particular? Looking around, it appears the Liturgy of Addai and Mari (often placed in the 3rd century) has a reference to “unbloody sacrifice”, but this may be a later addition. The text I am looking at is this one:
It would be great to have time set aside for studying the history of the liturgy. Keep up the good work!
I really appreciate this response, more than you know. You pointed out an error I made in my historical analysis, which I will modify in the main article so as to make it more accurate. THank you so much!
One question: Is the notion of “unbloody” important here, or just the notion of the Eucharist as a sacrifice? Your exposition of Scripture shows pretty clearly the original meaning of the spiritual sacrifices, but I was wondering what the focus or aim of this study in particular is.
The EUcharist being a sacrifice is as old as Ignatius I believe, so that’s a very old term for the Eucharist…in fact it might predate the term EUcharist as pertaining to the elements. The main issue in my analysis is the development of the doctrine that the Eucharist forgave sins. I think, throughout the liturgies, you can watch this idea develop over time. For me, it is something important simply because I believe Christ’s sacrifice forgave sins once and for all, for all time. There isn’t need to continually sacrifice to forgive sins anew.
I will be writing an article soon on Chrysostom’s commentaries on the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins. Please check back soon 🙂
I’ll be interested to see what you have to say on that, though I expect to disagree. Certainly Christ’s sacrifice was the forgiveness of all sins, but it seems that the fruits of this one sacrifice are made present by Eucharist and that indeed the Eucharist is where Christ in particular intends to dispense his graces throughout time and space, making present that one sacrifice in each Eucharistic Liturgy. I do not think the efficacy of the Eucharist prejudices the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, just as I do not think the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice prejudices the direct movement of God in the heart of each believer.
I’m glad the earlier comments were helpful! God bless.
Well, I hope you would not disagree with Chrysostom himself, but I hope to make a historically accurate presentation of his teaching on the subject.