by Mark Roosien, Ph.D.
There is no love without sacrifice. Though cliché, this statement is undoubtedly true. Love, if it is genuine, will require a gift of self unto the end. In this vale of tears, we should not expect love to be painless. Is this not the message of the Cross? The sacrificial nature of Christ’s crucifixion, it would seem, is a consequence of the clash between the perfect love of God and the dreadful reality of the world’s need for blood. But if that is the case, if the sacrifice of Christ is simply the byproduct of perfect love meeting fallen, imperfect creation, then does not sacrifice remain somehow external to God? Does the sacrificial nature of the Cross reflect at all the nature of the divine love God has and is, in and for Godself, eternally? Put more starkly, does Christ’s sacrifice qua sacrifice tell us anything essential about God?
Obviously, it is a serious theological problem to say that the Cross tells us nothing essential about who God is. Yet the idea that sacrifice lurks in the infinite depths of the Holy Trinity also raises serious problems for orthodox Christians. For it suggests a certain violence, suffering, and negation in the Godhead itself. Such a position threatens to replace Deus lux est (“For God is light and in him is no darkness at all” [1 John 1:5]) with an endless struggle between light and darkness, bliss and violence: a mythic tragedy.
If we accept that sacrifice is fundamentally a negative reality, then that could indeed be the necessary conclusion. At the heart of the Source of life would be a struggle between two opposing forces determining God’s eternal being and indeed the temporal unfolding of creation. But what if sacrifice were not a negative reality, but rather a positive one? It’s an easy thing to suggest but a difficult thing to maintain, since it cuts against the grain of the prevailing concept of sacrifice.
This short essay discusses the Orthodox priest and theologian Sergius Bulgakov’s case that God’s love in the Holy Trinity is indeed sacrificial—it is Sacrifice itself—but this sacrifice is a positive reality: peaceful, non-violent, pure gift. As I will attempt to sketch here in preliminary fashion, Bulgakov managed (with some stumbles along the way) to articulate a theology of divine sacrifice that avoided projecting a tragic mythos of light and darkness onto the Trinity. By locating the model for divine sacrifice not in the bloody slaughter of a living being but rather in the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist, Bulgakov enunciated nothing less than a transvaluation of the very concept of sacrifice itself.
Sacrifice as violence
To understand the radicality of Bulgakov’s argument, we should remind ourselves how deeply entrenched is the theory of sacrifice he was up against. For much ancient and modern thought, sacrifice is about violence.
The link between sacrifice and violence reaches perhaps its most complete expression in the thought of literary critic René Girard. For Girard, behind all human societies lies a hidden violence. Human desire, the driving force of culture and society, is mimetic, and disastrously so. Desiring the desires of another, I unleash violence upon him to obtain for myself the object we both desire but only one of us can possess. The solution to this endless, Hobbesian war of all against all is to lay violence upon a scapegoat—an innocent figure who is uninvolved with the struggle at hand. The sacrifice of the scapegoat is the founding act of an ordered society. It is a necessary death to ensure peace and social cohesion. For Girard, the sacrificial death of Christ, the preeminently innocent savior, is the only “cure” for the violence inherent in human desire. Christ’s sacrificial death unmasks the barbarity of sacrifice and invites solidarity with those who have been sacrificed to uphold the farce of social order. The sacrifice of the Cross is the end of sacrifice.
I’m not going to spend any time critiquing Girard here (as much as I might like to); for that, I will refer the reader to Terry Eagleton’s recent opus, Radical Sacrifice.1 I bring in Girard here merely to illustrate the strong association of sacrifice with violence, an association that has carried over into theology as well.
In seeking to unpack the connection between the sacrifice of the Cross and the Trinity, theologians generally take for granted the negative, violent nature of sacrifice. The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann is probably the most prominent theologian to explore deeply this line of thought. For him, God is fundamentally the “Crucified God”: “The form of the crucified Christ is the Trinity.”2 The sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross is an event that takes place both on earth and in the eternal Triune relationship: the Son carries out self-annihilation in obedience to the Father. This sacrifice constitutes a rupture such that in Godself is contained “the whole abyss of godforsakenness, absolute death and the non-God.”3 The death of Jesus on the Cross meant a “breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity.”4 If the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit simply is the life of God, then a sacrificial rupture in that relationship means that God is constituted eternally by a certain violence and loss.5
As I have sketched it (all too briefly and incompletely), Moltmann’s theology comes dangerously close to projecting a tragic mythos into the life of God analogous to the 17th-century German philosopher and mystic Jakob Boehme’s notion that good and evil are co-eternal, and that darkness and light remain forever, tragically, unresolved. Moltmann himself generally resists metaphysical pronouncements about the status of good and evil, yet the asymmetrical hierarchical structure of his relational trinitarian theology retains the same basic problem.
As theologian Alse Eikrem argues in his recent book God as Sacrificial Love (which unfortunately does not include a discussion of Bulgakov), Moltmann’s theory of the eternal sacrifice of the Son and his eternal forsakenness by the Father introduces a power relationship that is fundamentally violent. The structure of domination inherent in Moltmann’s model of trinitarian sacrifice conjures the specter of tragedy that trinitarian theology needs to avoid. According to Eikrem, any language of domination and submission when speaking of the divine sacrifice immediately ushers a violence into the Trinity that theology cannot overcome. He proposes instead a model of trinitarian sacrifice not based on domination but on relations of “mutual empowerment.”6 He summarizes his position thus: “Divine love is the mutual giving of space to the other in which the other can actualize its freedom in love.”7
I have to admit that at this point I have lost the thread. “God is love” means that God lets God be God (freely)? There is a lack of essential content in Eikrem’s model. For him, the crucifixion of Christ is indeed an expression of God’s life, but it seems to me that it is only that: an expression.8 It is one way that God freely exercises God’s freedom to be God; but could there not be others? In all its assiduous avoidance of “sacred violence” and the vocabulary of domination and submission, Eikrem’s tabula rasa model of divine sacrificial love robs that love of all essential content. Taken to an extreme, it is the apotheosis of the libertarian freedom of the individual–a liberum arbitrium without constraint or fulfillment.
And so, we are back at the beginning: does the sacrifice of Christ qua sacrifice tell us anything essential about God in God’s Triune life of love?
Sacrifice as eucharistic
As I stated at the beginning of this essay, there are two ways to think about divine love as sacrifice: either sacrifice is a negative reality that invades the peace and light of the Trinity, or it is a positive reality. I turn now to Bulgakov and his argument for the latter.
For Bulgakov, sacrifice is real in God’s Triune life eternally, even “before” its outworking in the missio Dei.9 How does this work? Bulgakov introduces the notion of divine sacrifice for the first time in a substantive way in a gripping section in The Lamb of God, published in 1933. The relationship between the three Divine Hypostases is one of sacrifice. He writes, “For the Father, begetting is self-emptying, the giving of Himself and of His own to the Other; it is the sacrificial ecstasy of all-consuming jealous love for the Other.”10 In His obedience, the Son has Himself and His own not as Himself and His own, but as the Father’s. In this way, the Son’s hypostatic life in the Trinity is eternal “dispossession.”
So far, so good. But in explicating the sacrificiality constitutive of the Father and Son’s relationship, Bulgakov, too, comes dangerously close to a Boehmenian dualism of light and darkness. This is evident in his use of the word “suffering” to characterize that relationship:
The sacrifice of love, in its reality, is pre-eternal suffering—not the suffering of limitation (which is incompatible with the absoluteness of divine life) but the suffering of the authenticity of sacrifice and of its immensity. This suffering of sacrifice not only does not contradict the Divine all-blessedness but, on the contrary, is its foundation, for this all-blessedness would be empty and unreal if it were not based on authentic sacrifice, on the reality of suffering. If God is love, He is also sacrifice, which manifests the victorious power of love and its joy only through suffering.11
Despite Bulgakov’s protestations, one worries that his account implies some meonic power, some tragic struggle, infecting God’s life of love. With this anxiety clearly in mind, Bulgakov brings in the Holy Spirit to resolve the issue:
This mutual sacrifice of generation, this self- emptying and self-depletion, would be a tragedy in God if it remained self-sufficient. But it is pre-eternally resolved in the bliss of the offered and mutually accepted sacrifice, of suffering overcome…. God is not only the dyad of Father and Son, but the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is precisely the joy of sacrificial love, the bliss and actualization of this love.12
For Bulgakov, the violence that threatens to overshadow the pure light of the pre-eternal relationship between Father and Son is overcome by the bright joy of the Spirit, resolving “in advance” any tragic struggle in God.
But I think it is fair to raise the question: does not the Holy Spirit function here as Deus ex machina? Can the Holy Spirit simply tie up sacrifice’s violent loose ends and send us on our way? Even though Bulgakov is careful to note that he uses these words analogously when speaking of the Holy Trinity, the sting remains.
The problem is that in Lamb of God Bulgakov still took for granted that sacrifice is fundamentally a negative, violent reality. This is why the Son “suffers” in His pre-eternal gift of self to the Father. If a theologian begins with that assumption, and if he or she believes that the sacrifice of Christ tells us something essential about the love of God in Godself, then it is difficult, if not impossible, to carry out a coherent theology of the Trinity without giving up on some fundamental theological axioms: God is light, God is good, God is simple, etc.
However, Bulgakov reconsidered the negative nature of sacrifice in a work he completed some years later: The Eucharistic Sacrifice, written in 1939-40 and published posthumously much later.13 (My own English translation of this book was just published.)14 In this book, Bulgakov comes to the conclusion that sacrifice is a fundamentally peaceful, positive reality that need not have turned violent but for sin, and that sacrifice remains peaceful eternally in God’s Triune life. He reaches this conclusion through sustained reflection on the Eucharist. Bulgakov begins The Eucharistic Sacrifice with an analysis of sacrifice in general, and argues that the violent sacrifices of paganism and the Old Testament are subordinate to the Christian Eucharist. Drawing from the early Christian method of typological biblical exegesis, Bulgakov says that Old Testament sacrifices are derivative shadows of the eucharistic sacrifice and pagan sacrifices are but shadows of shadows.15
It is easy to miss the radical reinterpretation of sacrifice going on here. Normally, when theologians consider what kind of sacrifice the Eucharist is—this “bloodless sacrifice” as it is called in early Christian texts—they prescind from violent, blood sacrifice, and compare the Eucharist to that paradigm, often describing it as a “spiritualization” of sacrifice. But for Bulgakov, this approach is exactly backwards. Violent sacrifice is not the paradigm for sacrifice in general. Rather, all sacrifices should be measured against the eucharistic sacrifice as their prototype and goal.16 Blood sacrifice is in fact a lower form of sacrifice when compared to the Eucharist. Bulgakov writes, almost as if in surprise. “And so, the most New Testamental of all the sacraments, Holy Communion, is professed to be a sacrifice. But it is not one of the sacrifices of the Old Testament, but the sole sacrifice, offered ‘according to the order of Melchizedek.'”17
Bulgakov’s primary claim in The Eucharistic Sacrifice is that the eucharistic sacrifice is the same sacrifice, an opening into the same sacrificial love, that God is in Godself.18 The following quotation summarizes Bulgakov’s view of the matter in the book:
The Divine Eucharist is the sacrificial, crucified Sophia, the sacrifice of God Himself, and God Himself is the Sacrifice, offered in the Son, received by the Father, and brought to completion by the Holy Spirit. In this way, the eucharistic sacrifice, although it is offered in time and on earth, is efficacious and is offered in eternity, in the Holy Trinity.19
The trinitarian structure of sacrifice, as Bulgakov tirelessly repeats, is liturgical in precisely the Christian sense: “Your own of your own we offer to you, in all things and for all things” (The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom).20 Gift of self and simultaneous return of that very same gift—such is the nature of sacrificial love in God.
It is remarkable that Bulgakov uses none of his previous language of suffering and loss when speaking of the sacrificial nature of inter-Trinitarian Love in The Eucharistic Sacrifice.21 Instead, it is all light, gift, and mutuality. In a one trenchant passage, Bulgakov states his understanding of the sacrificiality of God’s love that seemingly reprises his comments from Lamb of God discussed above:
Eternally begetting the Hypostatic Word, the Father by Himself issues forth Silence about Himself into eternity, which is overcome in the Only-Begotten Son, the Word of the Father. The Son receives this very Word not as His own, but as the Revelation of the Father, and gives Himself to the Father, and filially offers sacrifice. His very existence as the Son is already a sacrifice, and the Son, as Son, is the High Priest forever (“according to the order of Melchizedek”)…. Now, this assumes the acceptance of the Son’s sacrifice by the Father, and thus the sacrificial offering itself is a dyadic, mutual act of Divine love, which is the Holy Spirit. He is Hypostatic love itself, as the bond of love between the Father and the Son, its in-spiration, joy and exultation, the Gift of God, the Gift of the Holy Trinity within itself—the Glory of God.22
Structurally, this schema is not very different from the one proposed in Lamb of God: the Holy Spirit functions here as the Hypostatic “joy and exultation,” the Love shared between Father and Son. What is different here is that in the pre-eternal act of sacrifice, the Son is not said to “suffer” or “lose” himself—a tragedy that the Holy Spirit swoops in to resolve. Rather, the Holy Spirit is the seal, the hypostatic bond of an eternal gift-giving which is now described in eucharistic and liturgical terms: “Divine Love is trihypostatic and is threefold in its ecstatic form: proceeding from itself, giving itself, and being fulfilled in itself. In this, its three-in-one-ness, the life of God is a heavenly liturgy, a threefold sacrifice of God to Himself and of Himself, who exists in the Holy Trinity.”23
The model for sacrifice in the Holy Trinity in The Eucharistic Sacrifice is not the violent execution of man or animal, but rather the Christian liturgical sacrifice of the Eucharist, the Last Supper. But what of the Cross? Certainly, the violent death of the Beloved Son cannot be ignored when it comes to understanding God’s love. For Bulgakov, the Cross, in the final analysis, is also eucharistic. One should not forget that crucifixion had no sacrificial overtones in ancient Roman society. It was Jesus who gave it those connotations at the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist. Throughout The Eucharistic Sacrifice Bulgakov emphasizes that the Cross is not the “fulfillment” of a pledge made at the Last Supper. It is the same sacrifice, which is God’s eternal Love; though separated in time, they are one in eternity.24 The sacrifice on the Cross is violent because of sin and sinful finitude, but the eternal reality of sacrifice that the crucifixion accomplishes is, in its primordial essence, peaceful. The Cross is eucharistic.
In a sense, then, Girard was correct that the Cross is the end of sacrifice as we know it—a bloody, violent thing—but not the end of the eucharistic sacrifice, which is the true meaning and content of sacrifice according to Bulgakov. The eucharistic self-gift of Christ continues forever in anamnesis (remembrance), which is the creative power to re-present God’s eternal, sacrificial, and peaceful self-gift.25 Indeed, for Bulgakov, pace much of the Christian theological tradition, the Eucharist will continue even after the Parousia, though in different and varied forms. Why? Because the eucharistic sacrifice simply is the way in which human beings participate in the sacrificial love of God, the Divine Sacrifice that constitutes God’s life. At the eschaton, he writes, “The whole world presents itself as a single eucharistic altar, and all of life is a single Eucharist.”26
To return to the question posed at the beginning: does the sacrificial nature of the Cross tell us anything essential about God’s love in Godself? Bulgakov’s answer is emphatically yes; it could not be otherwise. Christ’s sacrifice is not external or “posterior” to God; it is not a mere byproduct of God’s kenotic descent into finitude, though the very real pain and violence suffered by Christ came about because of sin. Rather, it is an authentic expression of God’s love because God’s love is sacrificial.
In affirming this, Bulgakov asks us to reconsider what sacrifice really means. His revolutionary insight in The Eucharistic Sacrifice is that the Eucharist is the prototype against which all other forms of sacrifice must be measured. The Eucharist is not some spiritualized imitation of “real” sacrifice, which is inherently violent. True sacrifice, including the crucifixion itself, is eucharistic. So far from introducing a rupture, tragedy, or mythos into the life of God, the Cross demonstrates the utter depth of self-gift that is God’s sacrificial love, which endures even its violent, cruciform outworking in creation’s present (but not eternally) sinful state. There is no love without sacrifice because sacrifice, in the final analysis, is the true meaning of love. While one might expand 1 John’s dictum of “God is love” by saying “God is sacrificial love,” Bulgakov invites a further specification: “God is eucharistic love.”
1 Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), pp. 54-8. This quotation gets to the heart of Eagleton’s critique: “Girard’s view of violence as invariably mimetic, a matter of desiring the desire of the other, is drastically reductive. Nor is mimetic desire always as destructive as he imagines. In this bleakly Hobbesian vision, human aggression is assigned a single archaic cause, with scant attention to the role of material interests, political conflicts or social contradictions. The First World War, for example, is on this account not primarily a clash of competing national capitals but yet another effect of scapegoating, to be treated in much the same terms as the ritual cannibalism of the Tupinambá tribe of Brazil. As in most mythological schemas, history is violently elided” (ibid, 55-6).
2 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R.A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 246.
3 Moltmann, Crucified God, 246.
4 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 80.
5 Alse Eikrem writes, “If Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane is to be interpreted as self-denial and self- annihilation as Moltmann (with Popkes) argues, it would be impossible to continue confessing the one God as three persons” (God As Sacrificial Love: A Systematic Exploration of a Controversial Notion [London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018], 162).
6 Eikrem, God as Sacrificial Love, 161.
7 Eikrem, God as Sacrificial Love, 162.
8 Eikrem gives more content to this statement: “The story of Jesus is the self-explication of a God that is love, and in so doing casts out every fear that God is not eternally the fulfiller of promises. Together the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were no means to an end, but the expression of superabundant love. From his birth through his prophetic and healing ministry, the event on the cross and the emptied grave brings to expression this love as constitutive of the nature of the Trinity. Triune love is both the beginning and the end of salvation”(ibid, 163). Eikrem’s argument is that the story of Jesus is the proof that God is the keeper of his promises. But earlier he asserts, “Only where God is thought of as an eternal relationship between persons, can God’s love be trusted as a source of fellowship between the different that is truly eternal”(ibid. 162). Eikrem, it seems to me, does not make a convincing case as to why the sacrifice of Christ leads to an understanding of the eternal relationship in God that he deems necessary.
9 One of the keys to Bulgakov’s thought is his opposition to occasionalism. Importantly for him, occasionalism implies that the things we experience in the order of salvation, which include phenomena like priesthood, altar, sacrifice, etc., are willed by God but do not necessarily tell us anything about God in Godself. In other words, these phenomena can just as well be God’s “reactions” to human sin to bring about salvation, yet do not open onto God’s own life (or perhaps only do so “retroactively”). But for Bulgakov, the truth is the opposite: the economy of salvation is bound up in priesthood and sacrifice because those realities are primordial in God: “It is not eternity that is defined by time, but the other way around”(Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, trans. Mark Roosien [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021], 18).
10 Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 98.
11 Bulgakov, Lamb of God, 99.
12 Bulgakov, Lamb of God, 99. Emphasis mine.
13 It first appeared in Russian in 2005: Sergii Bulgakov, Evkharistiia [The Eucharist], ed. Nikita Struve (Moscow and Paris: Russkii Put’ and YMCA Press, 2005), 11-120.
14 See footnote 9 above.
15 Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 1-10.
16 He writes, “The character of a sacrificial offering reflects the level of religious life and the general state of religious consciousness, from the crudest paganism to the revealed religion that embraces law and set practice regulating the offering of sacrifices” (Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 3). For him, the Eucharist is sacrifice at the highest level of religious life.
17 Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 3. Emphasis original. Throughout The Eucharistic Sacrifice, Bulgakov, drawing liberally from the Epistle to the Hebrews, discusses Melchizedek’s sacrifice of bread and wine as the proof that peaceful, bloodless offering is paradigmatic for all sacrifice and is fulfilled at the Last Supper.
18 For a more comprehensive exploration of Bulgakov’s eucharistic theology, see Mark Roosien, “The Common Task: Eucharist, Social Action, and the Continuity of Bulgakov’s Thought,” Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies 3.1 (2020): 71-88.
19 Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 44.
20 Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 2, 15, 39, 57.
21 One exception here is the notion of “crucified Sophia” (see above). I do not wish to explicate the Sophiological dynamics of divine sacrifice in this essay, but suffice it to say I’m concentrating here on the notion of sacrifice as it pertains to the Hypostases (God in Himself), as opposed to their hypostasizedness in Divine Sophia (God for Himself).
22 Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 19-20.
23 Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 20.
24 “This ‘separation’ of the liturgical offering that took place at the Last Supper from its ‘accomplishment’ in time at the death on the Cross on Golgotha, in addition to the explanation of its supratemporality in St. John, precludes us from conceiving of it merely as one among many events in the earthly life of the Lord. Rather, it demands that we see in it an all-encompassing event or union-event that synthesizes all things in itself. In other words, we necessarily come to the conclusion that the whole matter of sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ itself, is not only the crucifixion but His entire cruciform life, which was, in its entirety, a path to Golgotha, beginning in the manger in Bethlehem and the persecution of Herod”(Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 14).
25 See Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, chapter 3, “What is ‘Remembrance’ (anamnesis)?”
26 Bulgakov, Eucharistic Sacrifice, 74.
* * *
Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His most recent book is a translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, released in 2021 by University of Notre Dame Press.
This is the most beautiful, poignant post I have read in a while. Thankyou.
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Beautiful, brief elucidation of an absolutely central insight of Bulgakov. Two Catholic works that I think might be fruitfully brought into the discussion are Ferdinand Ulrich’s Homo Abyssus which emphasizes the utter completeness of the Father’s gift/lack of any shadow of agonic conflict and Antonio Lopez’s Gift and the Unity of Being which sketches out the metaphysical implications of Triune difference. Of course, John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory introduced a primarily Anglo-American audience to the idea of the uniqueness of Christian difference as peace opposed to any pagan metaphysical violence a generation ago. The plenitude of Eucharist suggests untapped dimensions for notions of personhood and Creation that are among the most alluring aspects of Bulgakov’s theology. Against the isolated nominalist individual, one must posit the creative, perichoretic union of difference; the wedding feast becomes much more paradigmatic of Triune sacrifice. In this regards, the kenosis of the Cross is the breathtaking fidelity of the love of God. The apatheia of divine simplicity announces itself as the dramatic economy of salvation by which the violence of the idols is overcome by the triumph of trinitarian delight. Theosis marks the translation of sacrificial time into Taboric light.
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Thank you, Brian. Well said. A dialogue between Bulgakov and these thinkers (especially Ulrich!) would be very fruitful. I was taken with Milbank’s “ontology of peace” when I first read Theology and Social Theory (damn near 15 years ago…) but wanted a more robust Trinitarian account of what that meant. Bulgakov has helped fill in the picture for me.
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Thanks for this, Mark. This helped me understand your translation in a new way. I was just reading yesterday in De La Noval’s translation of Bulgakov on Apokatastasis where Bulgakov says something that seems to express the gist of what you are saying here. However, reading The Eucharist Sacrifice, I never picked up on this distinction between a violent and non-violent eucharist. I will have to go back through and see if I can pick up on this.
As much as I know Fr Behr would reprimand me for making what sounds like a “plan A/plan B” theology, I have to agree with Hart that “the fall” couldn’t have been a necessity, and therefore it was possible for ignorant and immature humanity to grow into God without sin and death, though we didn’t. Because of this, I see the incarnation itself as the primary manifestation of God’s love for us that would have occurred with or without the fall, but not the cross itself, since this presupposes sin and death. Nevertheless, I struggle to conceive of what it means for there to be an eternal eschatological eucharist once sin and death has been abolished. Looking forward to going back through your translation.
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Thanks, Mark. This is a presentation of ideas that are somewhat latent or “subterranean” in The Eucharistic Sacrifice–I had to dig them out a little bit. And I think that’s because the distinction between violent and non-violent sacrifice might not have been crystal clear and ready-at-hand for Bulgakov himself. So I’m doing a little interpretive work here, but I think it fits with what he’s saying.
You’ve put your finger on some haziness in Bulgakov’s work that I hope this essay helps to clarify: he says that the Incarnation would have occurred with or without the Fall, but denies (hesitatingly) that the Cross also would have. Yet clearly, he wants (as usual) to have it both ways, Cross and no Cross. The problem is, it is hard to see how Bulgakov’s system works without the cross–it seems the logical outgrowth of his theology of divine kenosis. But I think perhaps by rooting the category of God’s kenotic self-gift in non-violent eucharistic terms, the “need” for the cross (in a non-Fall situation) disappears. This relates to the question of the eschatological eucharist: for him, the eucharist does not actually depend on the cross–it is a manifestation of God’s life of self-giving; it is God making God’s life available to us in a form that is both material and spiritual, i.e. fitting to the human condition. To the extent that salvation is a continual and ever-deepening communion with God’s life, the eucharist is also eternal (even if it will expand beyond –though I think Bulgakov would say, not exclude–the meal of bread and wine).
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The notion of sacrifice as inherently violent or entailing suffering sits ill with the Jewish sacrificial laws providing for the sacrifice of grain and incense as well as animals: it’s difficult to see how perfume can be described as a “sacrificial victim”. In the wider religious milieu of the time, sacrifices could also be e.g. gold and precious thrown to the gods in rivers etc, and pretty much anything valuable.
Even sacrificial animals when killed were only being slaughtered in exactly the same way as they would have been for food anyway (and often then eaten in the usual way once God / the gods has their – sometimes only notional – share).
A sacrifice is a gift. The “suffering” is that of the giver giving up something valuable they could rather have had for themselves, not suffering of the gift being given. God’s free gift of himself to us involved suffering because of our sin, it was not inherent. Jesus had to die and descend to hell because he was following us insisting on fleeing God there. It is my understanding that it is standard theology that it was precisely because God as God cannot suffer and die that God became incarnate as Jesus to enable God to do so.
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In other words, Sacrifice is absolutely fundamental; love to its deepest heart. Pain and suffering becomes part of Sacrifice because of sin, but I would say even there, Sacrifice as such is not tragedy; Sacrifice redeems suffering and death from tragedy, and in a way Sacrifice in a sin-tainted world is so interwoven with suffering and death because those are things that must be redeemed in Love.
Sacrifice is Total Gift. And in perfection, the Giver receives himself – is himself most completely – in the Gift of Love. Sacrifice is Union.
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This is exactly my own thoughts on this very critical subject. Unfortunately, much of Christianity has largely forgotten the original meaning of sacrificial ritual – that of gift-giving, meal consumption which necessarily entailed processing of animals or grain in preparation (so the gods buzzing like flies around sacrificial smoke in Atrahasis), and creation of intimate presence and communication between gods and human beings with food and/or incense. Sacrifice has been conflated with later Christian atonement theology, with an unfortunate Girardian detour, and also other types of rituals which weren’t technically sacrifices, i.e. apotropaic rites and purification rites, such as on the Day of Atonement, though sometimes the two are combined into a single occasion, such as Passover. Technically, even hymns could achieve the same result, so the “sacrifice of praise” of the Psalmists. Granted, some of this conflation was done rather freely by the NT writers themselves – so, for example, Christ as heavenly High Priest in the Epistle of the Hebrews, closer to some purification rites, versus some apotropaic language mixed with sacrificial-communion language in some Pauline passages. F.S. Naiden’s “Smoke Signals for the Gods” (2015) and Jonathan Klawans, “Purity, Sacrifice, and Temple” (2009) are good correctives.
Mark thank you for your work on this worthy topic!
Ruminating on the subject of the Eucharist in regards to the eternal, timeless aspect of sacrifice and offering – I wonder, and suspect, that the gift of the Eucharist is somehow inseparable from and coincides with the divine act of creation and with that which is created. Sacrifice, eucharist, offering, the cross – the immediate move is to redemption, the redemptive act – but not so fast, methinks. Let’s make the move to creation (as well). So we read that “the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world” – can we deduce from this that sacrifice is prior to (at least logically, if not temporally) that which is come into being, and this pre-eternal sacrifice requires then, in some sense, the coming to be of creation? At the very least one can conclude, it would seem, that inter and intra Trinitarian gifting, offering, creation, and redemption are intricately related. I suspect the bonds are stronger, run deeper, than we suspect.
Just some thoughts, what do you think? Does Fr Sergei make the connection with sacrifice and creation?
Bulgakov definitely does connect all this with creation. Creation is one moment of the threefold eternal outpouring of kenosis (intertrinitarian kenosis, creation, incarnation). Whether creation is *required* in this schema–Bulgakov often reverts to the paradoxical notion of “free necessity.” I like to think of it as a version of bonum est diffusivum sui. If God really is the type of God that is always giving of Himself, then creation is a “natural” result (though Bulgakov doesn’t like the language of nature).
Thanks Mark for your reflection. I wonder if I could bring this discussion of sacrifice and love into a slightly different tradition and thematic emphasis. Does this Bolgakovian notion of sacrifice have connotations mainly for our understanding of God’s nature or also for what is required of us? I am thinking of the George Macdonald’s sermon “The Creation in Christ”, where he notes, speaking of Christ’s self-abnegating love that “when he died on the cross, he did that, in the wild weather of his outlying provinces in the torture of the body of his revelation, which he had done at home in glory and gladness”. Macdonald’s point in this section is also to emphasis that we must ultimately do the same as Christ. Does Macdonald come too close to a projecting a tragic mythos into the life of God or does his thought mirror Bulgakov’s reflections on God’s peaceful self-gift? I am curious, since you are reflecting mainly on the Eucharist, but the evangelical in me is more familiar with Macdonald’s focus and these issues have made me cautious about reading tragic themes into one’s concept of God. The line seems at times confusing to me and yet experientially for us, as Macdonald says, “the working out of this our salvation must be pain”. Is the anthropomorphic experience of self-abnegation being projected thus onto God?
Laurel! Long time no see. Thank you for reading and for your insightful comment. Whenever I read Bulgakov, I want to ask the question that you begin with here: if all this is true, what is required us? He doesn’t talk about this much in his major theological writings (his earlier writings are much more concerned with ethical/social/political questions, but are less explicitly informed by theology). In The Eucharistic Sacrifice book, Bulgakov does go in a similar direction as Macdonald in the quote you mention, but only briefly:
“[The eucharistic offering] is a spiritual act, something that occurs because of what was given to us by Christ in His atoning sacrifice: we cling to it, we commune with it, we are fed through it. But should we be content to remain merely passive receptacles, or should we participate actively in it? The latter, of course: we can offer the sacrifice of Christ only by co-offering ourselves and what we have. The definition, “the one who offers and is offered,” also applies to us. In order to join in the sacrifice of Christ and spread it around, we need to shed our sinful existence, be co-crucified with Christ, and be co-resurrected with Him.”
Bulgakov would say that our experience of salvation must be painful because of sinful finitude (which does not exist *in* God in the way I’m trying to discuss in this essay and so cannot completely be projected onto Him), as indeed did Christ’s atoning act. Yet our pain is ultimately (and intimately) shared with Christ not only in his crucifixion but also in his resurrection–here I would recommend his profound and moving essay about his experience of illness, “The Sophiology of Death” in a recently translated volume of his essays of the same name.
Thanks Mark for your illuminating reply and clarification about sinful finitude. It has been a long time but I am delighted to run into you again, even if in electronic form. I must admit I am only being to read Bulgakov, so I welcome the essay suggestion. I think my inclination to the practical side of things comes from the duality of the evangelical world I grew up in with its emphasis on action and justice and yet its language of near passivity in faith. Finally, something of that duality can be overcome with apokatastasis. I simply want to remain philosophically cautious to avoid attributing some fall or defect to God while also dealing honestly with the human reality of struggle and pain.
Thank you for this insightful essay. I haven’t read any of Bulgukov works, but agree with his thoughts as presented here.
As someone who is very influenced by the work of Girard, or particularly the theological articulations of his work by the particular theologians like James Alison, I don’t think there is much that bulgukov claims here regarding eucharistic sacrifice that isn’t articulation in the theological thinking of a theologian like James Alison to be honest.
I think that Girard writings are very much written from an anthropolical perspective rather than a theological perspective, and when he reads sacrifice as violence he is speaking from a human specific or in relation to human interaction, rather than a theological perspective like bulgokov about the trinity, and it takes theologians like James Alison to bring that theological perspective to the forefront.
Personally I believe that Girard writing are deeply against this tragic mythos of violence, and very much would present the Christian gospel through a divine comic mythos which subverts any concept the tragic in the trinity, because Girard would view mimetic desire as good but something that corrupted by sin and violence. If you haven’t come across the work of James Alison he is well worth the read, and just to make my last point in his book ‘The joy of being wrong’, James Alison takes John Milbank reading of Girard in theology and social theory as incorrect to illustrate how Girard promotes what Milbank calls an ontology of peace.
Thank you for the comment and the recommendation! One of the points I was trying to make is that ideas of sacrifice always begin from an anthropological perspective–or more precisely, from human experience; how else could we have a sense of it? And same is true of the eucharist for Bulgakov. Given his scriptural hermeneutic and reading of the Last Supper, eucharist becomes for him the place to then begin thinking about sacrifice theologically, rather than violent sacrifice.
I don’t want to say that Bulgakov’s ideas are totally unique here (though he may have been one of the first theologians to articulate it in such a way). Balthasar for example arrives at similar conclusions (though he got some of his ideas on this from reading Bulgakov!). Eugene Schlesinger’s recent book Sacrificing the Church is great on this.
What you and Alison (whom, alas, I haven’t read) say may be true of Girard, though I’m not equipped to adjudicate the finer points of his thought. My experience of Girard is mostly secondhand through acolytes whose understanding of his thought is very close to what Eagleton and Milbank describe and deride. I’ve never really understood the appeal, but would be willing to be convinced otherwise. The question for me, though, is: practically speaking, what would a better retrieval of Girard accomplish? Honest question.
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I do think Girard can be helpful in some respects, but I’ve never been able to quite get past his basic understanding of mimetic desire. Seems to me one loses the actual good of creation in his economy. I don’t think rivalry is fundamental, nor do I believe the perception of the good is skewed so badly by the Fall that desire is intrinsically mapped by covetous imitation of what other’s desire. And from Bulgakov’s eschatological perspective, the Eucharist implies an economy of plenitude and perichoretic participation. It’s entirely counter to the world Girard posits.
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That’s kind of how I feel about it, too.
Simone Weil may have maybe said this all even simpler in her “Love in the Void.” Any act of justice, one where true love shines forth in the giving of bread becomes a sacrament, becomes Eucharistic, precisely because the sufferer receives grace unbounded in the Other. In those moments, Christ is immediately perceived as ones are “gathered.” While it may fall outside of the traditional notions, it does make the same point, that while we look to ritual, it is in sometimes the every day interactions of justice that we actually find the act of sacrament.
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All those temporal/historical moments participate in the eschatological. The ritual articulates and dramatizes what happens kenotically everywhere in the Creation — or perhaps one could go further and suggest the metaphysical realization is enacted in the Eucharist and “from there” all those hidden moments find their source.
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Well it gets back to the crux of the gift/exchange. Pickstock is good on this in parsing through Mauss et al too. It’s interesting to me that they aren’t “hidden” in the strict sense, but merely veiled because we isolate the ritual over the experience of the ritual of being itself as communion. It is really, to borrow from Plotinus et al, as if we lay asleep only knowing we need to wake up, but won’t. At some point, the real must be accepted as always already was, and yet also acted out to remind us that it is also always already there.
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Logan – ‘justice’ however is an extremely loaded concept and must be carefully used – not sure one can really use it meaningfully in the context of grace, redemption, forgiveness, forbearance, gift, sacrifice.
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That’s actually her exact point in the opening part of “Love in the Void.” Justice is always an act of charity, forgiveness etc and vice versa. To pit them as two differentiated aspects betrays the truth of the biblical witness. At least in her mind. Everything you just said it can’t be, is exactly what she perceives justice to be in its essence.
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Logan, it might be mainly semantic here. Robert has made this point before. The distinction is valuable if one emphasizes the gap between mundane experience and eschatological fruition. Nonetheless, I think revelation is in many ways the growing recognition that grace is the deepest truth of nature. Hence, love and justice turn out to be identical.
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Could very well be. But in the end, aren’t mundane experiences (the immanent) when reified by eschatological fruition(the transcendent telos) actually just being in its actuality instead of the shadow side of a split dichotomy that pulls them apart in a weird dualistic sense? I would agree with the final outcome though for sure. 🙂
Agreed wholeheartedly. The difficulty lies in the anthropomorphic orientation which is so deeply ingrained in the notion of justice. I would argue more so than other ideals and I surmise one of the reasons that it, unlike the transcendentals, is not related to theology proper. But I do agree in its eschatological dimension justice coincides with love, forgiveness, grace.
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I can agree with that. I think, she does a good job of explaining why one can’t look to justice or as charity as split facets by both the one who gives and the one who receives and how the normative uses fail. The “exchange” is a binding act which reveals both sides, human and divine, in actu. In many ways, I’d say that any act of “justice” (at least in the sense we’re discussing as I believe she is as well) is the most fully deified act that man has, for in it, we can fully experience both sides of the “exchange” in that moment. It is an act that brings the past, the immediate, and the future into focus.
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The law of love!