Why do we call the Qurbana a “Sacrifice”?

In another entry on this internet page the question is posed, “What is the Qurbana?”, and it is answered by referring to early Christian practice and Holy Scripture: it is the Offering made by the Lord’s body, his Church and her members, in which they identify themselves with his own self-offering upon the Cross, and through which they realize his presence, both in the offered bread and wine, and in one another.

But throughout the service of Qurbana the word “sacrifice” is also employed to describe the Offering we are making. The word “offering”, or “sacrifice”, is used in more than one sense, of course, but in religious ritual it usually conjures up an image of a priest offering a victim upon an altar, and this is, in fact, its primary sense. In early Biblical times priests offered sacrifices because of a break which had taken place in the unity men were created to have with their Creator. The sacrifice renewed that unity which had been broken. In English we use the word atonement (that is “at-one-ment”) to describe what happens in religious sacrifice: a bringing together into one the people for whom the sacrifice was offered and God, from whom they had been alienated because of their sin.

To an outside observer it might seem strange, then, that we speak of the Qurbana as a sacrifice. Though there is a priest and an altar, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent victim–only the bread and wine, a somewhat peculiar sacrifice. The use of the terminology of sacrifice may strike him as somewhat inappropriate. If he is knowledgeable at all about the purpose of sacrifice, and of the need for a ritual death, he may write off our sacrifice as an exercise in futility. But he would be wrong.

Our sacrifice is very different from, but yet similar to, those ritual sacrifices of Old Testament times. It is one in which our Lord Jesus is at once the priest and the victim. Once and for all, in time and in the humanity which he took from us, the Son of God offered himself, a sinless priest and a pure and acceptable sacrifice, to repair the breach that existed between mankind and God, that we might achieve at-one-ment with our Creator. Once and for all he entered the Sanctuary in Heaven, leaving this world and entering a timeless realm, with his own pure blood as his sufficient offering, and there he eternally intercedes for us before his Father.

“A priest such as this is right for us: pure, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. There is no need for him to offer sacrifices daily like the high priests, first for his own sins and then for the people, for he did this once, offering himself. . . But now, at the end of the age, he has offered himself once by his sacrificial act, that he might abolish sin.” (Heb. 7:26-27; 9:26) Here we see both the uniqueness and finality in time of our Lord’s sacrifice. “But the Christ who came was made high priest of the good things which he brought to pass, and he entered a great and perfect tabernacle, which is not made with hands and is not of this created world, and he did not enter with the blood of kids or calves, but entered the sanctuary once with his own blood and acquired [for us] eternal salvation. . . . But the priesthood of this [Jesus], because he remains for ever, does not pass away, and he is able to save for ever those who approach God through him, for he is ever alive and offering prayer on their behalf.” (Heb. 9:11-13; 7:24,25) Here we see the permanence and ongoing character of our Lord’s priestly ministry being carried out in eternity, outside of time and without limitation.

The Qurbana is where these two realities, time and eternity–this age and the age to come–meet in the faithful prayers and expectations of the worshippers. Here Christ Jesus himself is present: in bread and wine, in the celebrant (the presbyter or bishop), in the Word which is administered, and in his Body’s members. Here the Priest and Victim, whose passion, death, resurrection, and glorification are now an integral part of who he is and what he is about, offers himself by accepting sacrificial suffering, death, burial, and resurrection, mediating on our behalf with his Father and healing the transgressions and sins which come between us and God. This meeting between the Body of Christ and the eternal High Priest of our religion occurs when we in faith join the heavenly choirs, the cherubim and seraphim and all the spiritual hosts, and escape for the moment our time-bound existence in union with our Lord and his sacrifice.

When the Apostle Paul was urging the Corinthian Christians to moral renewal he called to remembrance the passion of our Lord: “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse yourselves of the old leaven, since you are unleavened bread. For our Passover is Christ, who is slain for us.” (1 Cor. 5:6-7) As elsewhere in this epistle, the Apostle draws together teaching on moral conduct among Christians and the imagery of sacrifice (see especially chapter 11 where he draws upon the Qurbana and the Passover Supper in the Upper Room for this imagery). It is the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ which is the central fact of God’s provision for our atonement, our reconciliation with him. And it is the exercise of the Son of God’s eternal High Priesthood which is the guarantee of our ultimate salvation, for sin is a besetting reality in the human situation.

When Christ is present with his people sacramentally and in fulfillment of his promise, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them,” (Mt. 18:20) he is there not only as friend, brother, and teacher, but among the sinful and unworthy congregation he is there pre-eminently as eternal High Priest of our religion, ever alive and offering prayer on our behalf. We, in our Offering, are united with him in that once-in-time, but for ever sufficient, sacrifice.

But let us, like Paul, draw upon this image to stimulate ourselves to moral renewal. Jesus once said, “Whoever desires to follow me should deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24. Cf. Mk 8:34; 10:21; Lk. 9:23; 14:27) Our Lord lived a life of ongoing self-sacrifice. He set a pattern of self-giving and demanded we emulate it: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Mt. 10:38) In the Qurbana Christ’s supreme sacrifice is depicted before our eyes. To be joined with him in his sacrifice, and to be united with him in his life, brings to the believer the necessity of taking up his own cross, a life of self-giving, and following his Lord in sacrificial service to his family, his fellow members in the Body of Christ, his community, and ultimately his Lord (“Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to me.” [Mt. 25:40]) The imperative of sacrifice may seem demanding and beyond our feeble powers to fulfill, but its spiritual benefits to the obedient are richly rewarding. Also, the imperative carries with it words of consolation: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in my heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is mild, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:29-30)