The Sacrificial Imperative – Introduction

I am not a particular fan of Sigmund Freud’s theory of man which devolves around his so-called ‘Oedipus Complex’ and purports to explain some of man’s deepest primal drives. Nevertheless, the agnostic Freud clearly recognized a seemingly hard-wired cultural trait that repeatedly emerged among virtually every tribe, ethnic group, and civilization, namely the impulse to offer sacrifice. But what was one to make of this mysterious activity which made little sense to an enlightened ‘man of science?’ Hoping to distance this stubbornly recurrent phenomenon from its more natural psycho-spiritual moorings, the good doctor constructed an elaborate thesis to explain man’s predilection for sacrifice in psycho-sexual terms, Freud’s favorite home turf. He treats the subject extensively in his classic work Totem and Taboo which, despite its erroneous conclusions, does provide us with a compelling explanation of the causes and meaning of sacrifice.

One of the experts Freud relied heavily upon in his examination of ancient cultic rites and myths was a 19th century philologist, historian, and Biblical scholar named W. Robertson Smith (1846-1894). Sacrifice ─ the holy action ─ actually meant something quite different from what our own age understands it to be in its more recent, secondary sense of self-denial. Primitive sacrifice was the offering to a deity either in order to be reconciled or to incline him to be favorable. According to Professor Smith the first sacrifice, “was nothing else but an act of social fellowship between the deity and his worshipers.”  Furthermore, he points out that sacrifice and festival go hand in hand, and no holiday can be celebrated without a sacrifice. According to Smith, the oldest form of sacrifice was animal sacrifice, and it was essential that both the god and the worshipers ate together, each participating in their proper share of the meal.

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There is another important condition that Professor Smith expounds upon in his classic opus The Religion of the Semites which is that of kinship. Eating together signifies kinship because the parties participate in the same substance which enters into their bodies, establishing a holy bond between communicants.  The sacrificial repast was therefore originally a feast of the kin, and only those of kin could eat it together. But what of the sacrificial animal? Just as there was no meeting of the kin without animal sacrifice, so too no animal was slaughtered except on such solemn occasions, we are told. Every sacrifice was originally a clan sacrifice, and the killing of a sacrificial animal was forbidden to the individual. Such a slaughter was only justified if the whole kin assumed the responsibility and for this reason every guest was obliged to partake of the flesh of the sacrificial animal which itself was regarded as one of the kin. “The sacrificing community, its god, and the sacrifice animal were of the same blood, and members of the clan.”

The implications were clear to Smith. The blood bond was formed among various members of clan (who were not necessarily blood relations) through participation in the life of the sacrificial animal and by means of the sacrificial feast. “The holy mystery of the sacrificial death was justified in that only in this way could the holy bond be established which united the participants with each other and with their god.” Sacrifice then was a form of ritualized festival intended to forge bonds of communion among members of a tribe and also with the tribal deity. It is on the altar that the idol receives some material gift offered by the worshipers. This action binds the various participants who confirm their assent by mutually consuming the victim.

Professor Smith further notes that, “sacrifice is equally important among all early peoples in all parts of the world whose religious ritual has reached any considerable development.” If that is so, then sacrifice as a fundamental human requirement for worshiping God must still be with us today. In fact that is the actual case every time a Mass is celebrated. The Catholic Mass has many dimensions of course. It is truly a memorial of the Last Supper as the Protestants understand it but it is also something more. It projects a vision of that future heavenly banquet which St. John resplendently describes in the Book of Revelation, chapters 4; 7; 19; 21-22.  In another sense every Mass is a great pageant of salvation history where the Incarnate Word of God again visits the earth, physically manifested in the Eucharist. But at a deeper level, every Eucharistic celebration is the enactment of something sacred that our skeptical technological world seems unable to comprehend ─ Sacrifice.

Until we realize that the Mass is a re-presenting of that one particular and perfect sacrifice offered by Christ on Calvary, one will never fully grasp its meaning. Moreover, it is a sacrifice with very Jewish roots and so we must consider it in that light. In the Semitic tradition only domestic animals were fit for sacrifice. Nor was the meat of such animals a part of everyday diet. It was eaten only as a luxury or in times of famine. The idea that sacrifice is food offered to God meant that it ought to be only the best and most luxurious of foods. But the sacrificial meal consisted of more than meat. When a Hebrew ate flesh it was accompanied by bread and wine, and so when he offered flesh on the altar of his God it was only natural that he should add to it the same concomitants as were needed to make a comfortable and generous meal.

In this cultic sacrifice, wine was added to the whole-burnt offerings and oblations. Wine was in fact referred to as “the blood of the grape” signifying the offering of blood which, to the ancients, was the source of life itself. In Semitic societies the sacrificial use of wine, without which no feast was complete, was virtually universal. Likewise, the Hebrew cereal oblation commonly accompanied any animal sacrifice. So sacrifice in the Jewish sense was more than mere payment of tribute or sin offering but an act of ‘communion’ uniting God with his worshipers, all through the mediums of bread and wine and flesh.

Christianity is really the old Jewish religion taken to the next higher level. Both systems find expression and fulfillment primarily in the offering of sacrifice, an activity which is old as mankind itself. Freud’s anthropology was essentially correct but psychologically he reversed the whole process and thus perverted the meaning and end of what had been a long sacrificial tradition. His interpretation had the son killing the father out of subconscious jealousy and the guilt of this parricide was then shared by the whole tribe. The father, seen as an obstacle to progress, must be sacrificed for the good of all, permitting mother and son to assure the continuation of the tribe, albeit incestuously. Such an interpretation does not square with history or even common experience, however.

The reality is that it was the eternal Son who was killed, offering himself as an oblation to the Father and in obedience to the Father. (Recall the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22.) Thus, it is the Son who is sacrificed so that the underlying guilt of the tribe can be expiated and reconciled to the Father. The Son then becomes food for the tribe so that, by eating this one substance, the members can become sons and daughters of the eternal Father, who is God. For Freud the end is replacement of the father in an orgy of incest. For Christians the end is to become like the Father imitatively, not incestuously. In both cases the son acts as the key protagonist but in completely opposite directions. That is where Freud’s narrative is false because it does not resonate with human experience as does the Judaeo-Christian narrative.

The reason that sacrifice is so necessary, even in our contemporary world, is that it is consonant with our human nature. Sacrifice has been occurring for as long as collective human memory. It fulfills a basic psycho-spiritual need which is to be connected to divinity in some way. All the elements of the old Jewish sacrifice are to be found in the Eucharistic liturgy. Bread, the staff of life, and wine, the blood of the grape, accompany the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who is the real victim. That is why the slaughter of animals is no longer necessary for true sacrifice to occur. The one perfect sacrifice has already been offered for all time, but it is perpetuated through the un-bloody elements of bread and wine which have historically been attached to living sacrifices. We are thus able to achieve that full communion with God through the mystical eating of his eternal and only-begotten Son, fully present in the Eucharistic species.

Francis J. Pierson  +a.m.d.g.

This is the first installment of several successive posts focusing on the history, meaning, and nature of sacrifice. The next part will appear in approx. one week.

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