Category Archives: Theology – Liturgy

Abraham, Isaac, and Eucharistic Sacrifice

Matthew Levering - Sacrifice and Community - Jewish Offerings and Christian EucharistThis week, I’ve been working through Matthew Levering’s book, Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offerings and Christian Eucharist. Herein Levering highlights what he sees as an unhelpful trend within contemporary theology towards a type of Eucharistic idealism, that is “the linear-supersessionist displacement of the Jewish mode of embodied sacrificial communion by spiritualizing accounts of the Eucharistic communion with God” (p. 8). One of the key questions Levering seems to be wrestling with is:  if de Lubac is right that “the Eucharist makes the church,” how are we to understand this sacramental meal as either a reconciliatory participation in the redemptive life of God or as that which gives shape to the ecclesial life of the church when it is intentionally bifurcated from paradigms of sacrificial action? Interrogating this tendency in the theology of Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schillebeeckx, and Karl Rahner, Levering argues that such a move slides sacramental practice away from an embodied cruciform communion into patterns of interiority and (a false sense of) superiority.

Put more positively, the core of Levering’s thesis is that: 

“The Eucharist, as a communion of love in and through Christ’s sacrifice, involves learning crucifmity as members of Christ’s sacrificial Body. As such, the Eucharist fulfills Israel’s mode of sacrificial worship, in which sacrifice and communion are inextricably integrated. [This] account of cruciform communion [. . .] thus belongs to the spiritual and liturgical exercises — the limp of Jacob — by which Israel is moved from creature-centered idolatry to praise of the God who is sheer Act. God sets before Israel the task of fleeing idolatry by embodied wisdom (Torah) and sacrificial communion (Temple), and in Christ the two are one. Union with Jesus Christ in the sacramental-sacrificial liturgy of the Eucharist is both a sharing in Christ’s sacrificial fulfillment of Torah and Temple and a contemplative participation in the trinitarian life of the divine Word” (pp. 27-28).

In the first chapter of the book, Levering explores this motif of Eucharist as a “sacrificial or cruciform communion” by juxtaposing Jewish and Christian readings of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. He makes a few arguments that I found particularly intriguing.

The first reflects merely a passing interest I have in exegetical symbolism within Scripture. Levering begins the chapter by pointing out that according to the rabbinic tradition “Genesis 22.2, combined with 2 Chronicles 3.1, indicates for the rabbis both that the place where Abraham went to sacrifice his son was none other than ‘the mountain on which Solomon built his temple’ and that ‘the aqedah is the origin of the daily lamb offerings (the temidim) and, less directly but more portentously, of the Passover sacrifice as well'” (p. 29). I find the connection between Moriah and Zion here informative in that it draws strong parallels with the story of Abraham, the Exodus, the Levitical systems of ritual sacrifice and purification, the Temple, the paschal all alongside the persistent covenant faithfulness of YHWH (cf. Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son). These narrative elements of covenantal grace, creation ex nihilo in the giving of the name, the radical contingency of faith suspended from the gift of the promise, and the sacrificial obedience to the call manifested here in the story of Abraham and Isaac reverberate throughout the life of Israel and are given an unimaginable depth in Jesus, the paschal Messiah, who “sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb. 7.27).  

Second, Levering then turns his focus upon Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and the expiatory logic of the narrative itself. He argues that certain philosophical and exegetical analysis of this text has uniquely contributed to the sort of spiritualizing abstractions that have crept their way into Eucharistic theology. In particular, he cites Gerhard von Rad and Søren Kierkegaard’s (Lutheran) emphasis on Abraham’s faith as the nucleus of radical subjectivity as a particularly powerful movement away from Jewish notions of active obedience to the call of YHWH. For von Rad, Abraham’s obedience serves as purely demonstrative of his great faith; unequivocally his faith is what really counts. As Jon Levenson points out, “von Rad, like Kierkegaard a Lutheran, replicates the most basic paradigm movement in the theology of his own tradition, the Pauline paradigm that affirms faith in contradistinction to deeds as the supreme and defining element in spiritual authenticity” (cited on p. 34). In contrast to this reading of things, Levenson maintains that “[t]he aqedah’s significance is not solely that Abraham evidences the spiritual quality of trust or faith. Rather, Abraham’s actions – in this case actively obeying God’s command to sacrifice Isaac and bringing Isaac to the very point of sacrificial immolation – carry meritorious weight in the eyes of God” (p. 34).

Levering clearly summarizes this alternative reading as follows:

“What God tests in Abraham goes beyond merely a test of Abraham’s attitude of trust. The issue rather is whether Abraham will sacrifice every created thing, even the beloved son of the promise, to God at God’s command. Not mere trust, but active willingness to sacrifice the most prized creaturely reality is at stake. Sacrifice embodies and enacts radical willingness to give up everything creaturely for the sake of the Creator; sacrifice is the true enactment, and therefore the true test, of right worship of God” (p. 35).

Undoubtedly, Levering has tapped into something very important here. I heartily agree that it is a mistake to underestimate the role of praxis, of faithfulness, of discipleship in the liturgical and sacramental life of the church. That being said, I worry that in his excitement Levering has too quickly brushed aside the equally valuable contributions of Kierkegaard. It seems to me that Levering’s analysis unhelpfully sustains the faith-works dichotomy by succumbing to the (all too Catholic) temptation of once again swinging the theological pendulum away from faith/subjectivity back to the sacrifice/action side of the table. Especially when Levering quotes Levenson’s language of the “meritorious weight” of obedience (and does so without qualification), he appears to have spun the debate around in a circle of antitheses – antitheses, I might add, that do not adequately reflect the underlying message of the texts in question (either in regards to Gen. 22 or the theology of Paul – as I have talked about elsewhere).

I would suggest that there may be a middle road that would allow the full weight of both Kierkegaard’s emphasis on faith and Levenson’s emphasis on embodied sacrificial praxis, bound together in a paradoxical union precisely in they are both grounded elsewhere: the gratuitous excess of God’s gracious gifts. Hebrews 11.17-19 offers a helpful point of departure,

“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

This narrative is certainly about faith (and chucking that to the side out of a fear of an illicit “Lutheranism” undoubtedly inflicts a degree of violence to the text). Yet equally that faith is only meaningful here to the extent that he acted on it, flying in the face of all human logic, in radical obedience to the call of YHWH. Throughout his chapter, Levering presents his case under the following basic headings: 

1. “The aqedah, sacrifice, and action” (this being my own paraphrase)

2. “Sacrifice and feasting”

3. “Sacrifice and community”

However, in order to truly outflank the tendency to dichotomize this narrative, I suggest a fourth element needs to be included in Levering’s analysis: “Sacrifice and covenantal promise.” As we see in the Hebrews text, Abraham is described as “He who had received the promises.” In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to go to a new land and father a new people to bring God’s blessing to the world. The covenant that God establishes is contingent primarily upon the faithfulness of God to be true to the promise.

I will make you into a great nation
       and I will bless you;
       I will make your name great,
       and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
       and whoever curses you I will curse;
       and all peoples on earth
       will be blessed through you.”

Abraham cannot make himself into a great nation – despite his efforts to do so (Gen. 16). Nor is his agency the basis of the promise’s efficacy. Instead, both his belief (Gen. 15.6) and his obedience (Gen. 12.4; 15.10; 22.3) are only intelligible in light of the covenantal grace to which they respond and by which they are empowered. It is through this evental founding of the promise that YHWH speaks Abram into existence with the giving of a new name (Gen. 17.5), gives Isaac from the barren womb of Sarah under the shadow of persistent disbelief, and provides the ram on the Mountain of Moriah – returning to Abraham his son received “back from death.” And yet this covenant also beckons forth Abraham’s willing participation through faith and sacrifice, not as bifurcated instances of oppositional tension, but as two interpenetrating movements within a single complex act of obedience.

This final emphasis on covenantal promise deepens the impact this narrative has on the development of Eucharistic theologies of “embodied cruciform communion” by reminding us that the church is Christ’s body gifted to us through the grace of God. We act in faith precisely because our trust has an object: the faithfulness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the one true God of the promise; God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this light, we can affirm with greater clarity and weight Levering’s closing claim:

“Our communion flows from our incorporation into Christ’s sacrifice. The sacrifices of Israel, as fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice and participated in the Eucharist, remind us that God, in both creation and redemption, calls us forth as members of his historical Body, a community whose characteristic mark, despite its failures, is the imitatio Christi, self-sacrificing love” (p. 48).


The eucharistic liturgy of Hippolytus

“We give thanks to you God, through your beloved child Jesus Christ, whom, in the last times, you sent to us as savior and redeemer and angel of your will, who is your inseparable Word through whom you made all things and who was well pleasing to you. You sent him from heaven into the womb of a virgin, and he was conceived and made flesh in the womb and shown to be your Son, born of the Holy Spirit and the virgin. He fulfilled your will and won for you a holy people, opened wide his hands when he suffered that he might set free from suffering those who believed in you. When he was handed over to voluntary suffering, in order to dissolve death and break the chains of the devil and harrow hell and illuminate the just and fix a boundary and manifest the resurrection, he took bread and giving thanks to you he said: take, eat, this is my body which will be broken for you. Likewise with the cup saying: this is my blood which is poured out for you. Whenever you do this, you perform my commemoration.

“Remembering therefore his death and resurrection, we offer you bread and cup, giving thanks to you because you have held us worthy to stand before you and minister to you as priest.

“And we ask that you should send your Holy Spirit on the presbytery of the holy church. Gathering us into one, may you grant to all the saints who receive for the fullness of the Holy Spirit, for the confirmation of their faith in truth, that we may praise and glorify you through your child Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and honor to you, with the Holy Spirit in your holy church both now and to the ages of the ages. Amen.”

– Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition 4.4-13

Hippolytus, baptism, and good works

In On the Apostolic Tradition (an ancient manual exploring the daily life of the church), Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 236) writes at some length about Christian baptism. He begins his account noting the length and seriousness of the preparation necessary for entry into church membership: “Catechumens should hear the word for three years. But if a man is keen and perseveres well in the matter, the length of time should not be considered but his manner alone should be considered” (17.1-2). During this period, the candidates for baptism are expected to be instructed and trained in virtue and godliness through the ministry of Scripture, gathering together with the saints, the life of prayer, and the performance of charity through good works.

At the moment, I’m less concerned here with the theological points raised regarding baptism, prayer, or catechisms in general. However, what I do find particularly fascinating about Hippolytus’ account is the central place afforded to the works of mercy. Of those catechumens to be baptized, Hippolytus writes, “When those who are to receive baptism are chosen their lives should be examined; whether they lived uprightly as catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, whether they were thorough in performing good works; and if those who brought them bear witness that they have acted thus, so they should hear the Gospel” (20.1-2). This passage can function as a helpful commentary on where to place the question of mercy in the context of liturgy and the Christian life. Beneath the surface rests a certain interrogation: What constitutes a righteous life? What kind of habits rightly follow from a faithful willingness to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and King? What practices flow forth from a radical encounter with the living God of whom Scripture testifies and bears witness? For Hippolytus caring for widows and orphans, the homeless and the sick, the aged and the forgotten, even “the very least of these,” makes the candidate suitable for membership into Christ’s body precisely because such an ethic is literally woven into the very fabric of the church’s being. These practices are not anomalies, supplements, or garnishes to the life of faith. They define its tangibility. They are simply what one does if one is to receive the name Christian. One might even go so far as to say that, viewed in this light, Hauerwas might be right: the church is (rather than has) a social ethic.

Describing the movement (or enfolding) of persons into the church, Hippolytus turns his attention onto the baptismal rite. Having renounced evil, received the gifts of baptism by water and the Eucharist itself, the catechumens are sent Hippolytusforth from the font with the following charge: “And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety” (21.38). Herein, Hippolytus identifies the work of the faithful with the practice of mercy. These acts in preparation for baptism are now to be carried forward as manifestations of the newness of life made possible through the power of the Spirit and to the eternal glory of the Father. Likewise, the liturgical context of “good works” is made more explicit. These works are not simply random acts of kindness nor instants of a disinterested material philanthropy, but a performative extension of grace – received from God and offered back to God through our mutual participation in divine charity. By dying with Christ in the water and being raised to newness of life through the vivifying indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the catechumens able to offer their very bodies to God as “living sacrifices” and “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 12.1, 6.13). As the work of the people (i.e. liturgy), such bodily practices of grace are inseparable from the transformed life of worshipful devotion to the Triune God. An ethic of faith is nothing short of an ethic of action; both of these belong to the order of worship.

As a final comment, it is worth noting that the agency of grace alone grounds our worth and invokes from us a responsive thankfulness. We do not declare ourselves worthy of such things; we are always made worthy through the bountiful gifts of God. Hippolytus writes, “Lord God, you have made them worthy to deserve the remission of sins through the laver of regeneration: make them worthy to be filled with the Holy Spirit, send your grace upon them that they may serve you in accordance with your will; for to you is glory, to the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit in the holy church both now and to the ages of the ages. Amen” (21.21).

The Prayer of the Trinity

Andrei Rublev's Icon of The TrinityFather almight, maker of heaven and earth:

          Set up your kingdom in our midst.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God:

          Have mercy on me, a sinner.

Holy Spirit, breath of the living God:

          Renew me and all the world.


— N. T. Wright, “Epilogue: The Prayer of the Trinity”