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If you want to drive a committed Darwinian crazy simply mention sacrifice because sacrifice is one of those quirky human traits that seemingly undermine every law of natural selection, primacy, or utility. Still, it keeps reappearing in many guises. Worse, nobody particularly likes making sacrifices and yet some innate moral sense seems to compel us to do it at times. (And to refuse would only mean losing one’s self respect.) So why would selfish creatures like ourselves ever make sacrifices?
Sacrifice has been a fundamental component of religion for thousands of years, from ancient pagan cults even up to our own day. But what exactly is sacrifice? Unfortunately, the word itself has been greatly stretched from its original Latin root which literally means, “to make sacred or holy.” While we speak of making sacrifices for one’s children, spouse, or country, taken in that context the word refers to selfless acts, sometimes heroic, made for the good of others. And while such acts as defending one’s country, manifest admirable courage and fidelity, to be properly sacrificial the overriding intention must be love and duty towards God. Webster defines it as, “an act of offering something precious to deity.”
Modern language has blurred that crucial distinction between service and sacrifice. Both are freely given to be sure, but not every act of service is sacrificial. The thing that determines true sacrifice is its object. The proper object of sacrifice is always divine, not earthly. We make sacrifices to God; we render service to our community, family, country, etc. That is why Rotary Club is not a religion ─ but a service organization. Religion entails something more than service to our neighbor or community. It combines those obligations with and incorporates them into the oblation we make to the Most High. True religion encompasses not only duty to neighbor but also one’s duty to God, expressed as sacrifice. Sacrifice is more than philanthropy: it must become something holy because its final end, God, is holy.
Journalists routinely employ hyperbolic rhetoric in praise some athlete who made “extreme personal sacrifices” to win a medal or championship ring? Sacrifice in their lexicon is something completely self-directed resulting in fame and seven figure contracts. And while hard work and self-denial may have been involved along the way, such efforts can hardly be deemed sacrificial. Remember the Latin root of the word sacrifice and then ask yourself how splashing around a Super Bowl ring “makes one holy?”
One problem, as you may have already observed, is that by redirecting sacrifice from a supernatural end to something purely natural, true religious expression loses its vital force. For without sacrifice religion succumbs to squishy feelings, uncertainties, and moral relativism. Sacrifice is a cultic action whose object must be divine, not earthly. Twentieth century German philosopher Joseph Pieper wrote: “Divine Worship, of its very nature, creates a sphere of real wealth and superfluity, even in the midst of want ─ because sacrifice is the living heart of worship. And what does sacrifice mean? It means a voluntary offering freely given. It definitely does not involve utility, is in fact antithetic to utility. Thus the act of worship creates a store of real wealth which cannot be consumed by the workaday world.” (Pieper, Leisure: the Basis of Culture)
He thereby affirms the inextricable link between sacrifice and Divine worship. “Sacrifice is essentially a consecration of the offered gift which is withdrawn entirely from profane use to be assimilated to the Holy,” says the Catholic Encyclopedia. Historically, sacrifice has been the meat and marrow of religion which itself presupposes the active involvement of the deity in guiding mankind’s affairs.
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If Christianity has lost its relevance to the modern world, a large part of that loss may be attributed to Christians who have no true sense of sacrifice. Ordinary prayer and the study of sacred texts are not enough to close the gap with God caused by sin. Why? Because our voices are heard, not merely through words, but through the cultic action of sacrifice. It is a truism that actions speak louder than words. Love has to be shown, not merely professed as any successful married couple will attest. What is true for one’s spouse must be even truer when applied to God, mankind’s eternal spouse. And the way we show God that we truly love and honor him is by offering him heartfelt sacrifice.
Many Protestants will object that the one effective atoning act of sacrifice was made 2,000 years ago by Christ so that any attempt on our part to add to it only detracts from his saving work. St. Paul apparently disagrees with that attitude, for he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1) Again he says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church.” (Col. 1:24) The obligation to offer sacrifice is not dispensed by the New Covenant, on the contrary it assumes a wider and fuller meaning. St. Augustine defines sacrifice as, “every work that unites us in holy communion with God,” adding that, “the Church herself is offered in the very offering she makes to God.”
Take away sacrifice and religion will be shortly reduced either to an ethical system or a philosophy. But it will no longer be true religion because religion requires something more than ethics or speculation about truth. It presupposes the active worship of some superior power or being. Beyond dogmatic abstractions or the just treatment of one’s neighbor, religion demands a material offering representing ourselves. This oblation is then ritually sacrificed in honor of a divine entity, presumably God himself.
Think of it as a token one party gives to another to seal an agreement, or covenant, just as ambassadors exchange gifts with rulers as a sign of a treaty agreement. In our case the parties are of vastly different statures, however. The party who offers the sacrifice is sinful and mortal. The party who receives it is transcendent and eternal. But what token of value can such small finite creatures possibly offer to the Infinite? The disparity between them is, well…, infinite. What trinket from a pauper would be fitting for an emperor? The answer that question takes one back to the beginnings of the human race.
Abraham and the Origins of Sacrifice
In the beginning God made man in his own image, male and female, and bestowed on them the gifts which sealed his original covenant. He imparted to Adam and Eve an astounding gift called integrity which bound together all his other gifts: freedom, beauty, intelligence, wisdom, and understanding. Our first parents were fully justified and pleasing in God’s sight; completely happy in their own right. Adam and Eve represented the supreme pinnacle of the material creation, higher than all the animals and only slightly beneath the angels. They enjoyed direct access to God, much as the angels did, and we read that God walked through the garden in the coolness of the evening and spoke with them. (Gen. 2:8)
God placed Adam and Eve in a specially prepared garden. Within its perimeter there was no danger, no wild animals, no sorrow or injury, no death. There they enjoyed God’s company and complete protection until a forbidden ambition planted itself deep in their hearts: full equality with God. The serpent seized upon this golden opportunity to seduce them with a false promise, “…the moment you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods,” (Gen. 3:5) By thus declaring independence from their Creator, man destroyed that original covenant with God.
The disobedience of Adam and Eve forever affected mankind’s relationship with God. The creature had broken trust, not unlike an unfaithful lover who deceives his spouse. From an exalted position in the garden they were driven into the wilderness to survive by toil and the sweat of their brows. Worse, deprived of original justice they could no longer communicate directly with their Creator. They had bargained for their independence ─ and so they gained it. But they were now alienated from God.
Once the full magnitude of their loss became apparent buyer’s remorse set in, but it was too late. Later, Eve bore Adam children and taught them about God, for Genesis tells us that Abel and Cain both offered sacrifice to the Lord. Yet even this token sacrifice led to depravity as Cain, jealous that his brother’s sacrifice was more pleasing to the Lord, killed Abel. He thus unwittingly anticipated and foreshadowed the bloody means of that future, perfect sacrifice which would finally reconcile man to God.
The sin of Cain ushered in a long period of barbarous and idolatrous superstition which debased the cult of sacrifice. But in Abraham hope was rekindled when God proposed a new covenant promising that Abraham’s descendants would grow as numerous as the stars in the sky and inherit a land that God would give him. Abraham was thus clearly established as a new type of Adam, planted by God in this new garden called Canaan.
Later on, in order to seal this sacred covenant, Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, the son of his old age, in a startling prefiguring of the redemptive sacrifice that God would one day require of his own begotten Son on the cross. (Gen. 22: 1-14) Acting in blind faith, Abraham consented to God’s shocking request and thereby passed this terrible test. Because of his willing obedience and unwavering faith Abraham somewhat mitigated the lingering effects of Adam’s disobedience. He not only blazed a new path that would culminate in mankind’s long awaited redemption but he purified ritual sacrifice to make it once more holy and pleasing to God. Though still many centuries removed, Abraham nonetheless witnessed from afar a future perfect sacrifice wherein Christ would restore the children of Adam to grace.
But many chapters must transpire before that redemptive sacrifice could be offered on Calvary. The sons of Jacob (Israel) would be drawn into Egypt, and slavery. Many generations later Moses led them out of their bondage and, in the process, instituted a new Paschal sacrifice as an everlasting memorial of their deliverance from Pharaoh. This Paschal event would come to represent the apotheosis of Hebrew religion. Throughout subsequent history, Israel’s concept of sacrifice was gradually refined, through the prophets, a fateful exile, and then restoration ─ but all in preparation for the extraordinary events to come.
The Jewish sense of sacrifice evolved as a material expression of submission to, and total dependence on, God. Even today, sacrifice fulfills those four essential modes of dialogue with the Creator: Petition, Adoration, Thanksgiving, and Contriteness of heart. These sentiments are exquisitely expressed in the Book of Psalms, whose humble supplications have served as mainstays of liturgy since the time of King David. Humility is the fragrant incense that makes any sacrifice pleasing to God. Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David were all humble before the Lord who found their sacrifices pleasing in his sight.
The Paschal sacrifice remains the archetype for ritual sacrifice even to this day. For one thing, ritual Mosaic sacrifice developed into a true ‘liturgical’ expression; a work of the whole people. Unlike the old pagan rites, this sacrifice is not an attempt to appease, mollify, or even to bribe some angry deity. Nor is it any longer practical or efficacious to spill the blood of rams and goats. So in what sense does the New Israel, which is the Church, offer sacrifice to God? Sacrifice is, after all, the life blood of Christianity just as it was for the Jewish religion. If the Church today is the New Israel then where is sacrifice to be found? For, absent an active rite of sacrifice, Christianity is little more than another ethical philosophy. Any religion without sacrifice is only pseudo-religious. If so, many of today’s Christians with their “singing” worship services are being sadly misled.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.